The last few years I’ve come to really enjoy the writings and talks of Stephen Johnson. His concepts on “Where Ideas Come From” are a refreshing new take on what I suspect is an old idea – ideas don’t just pop up, they are, indeed for me at least, the accumulation of a lifetime. The best ideas, the most innovative? They are an accumulation of collaborative interactions and a broad variation in experiences themselves among groups of people, knowingly or not. Steven’s comments on the 50 year GPS development journey illustrate the concept beautifully.
My epiphany – Its not simply all those lives and their experiences. It’s the ability, over time, to create in one’s mind a set of world specifications on the biggest needs in our lives. Those who can do that best, subconsciously or not, are far better able to create those “memories of the future” (DeGuess) built around those specifications. That’s that feeling of deja-vous. I’ve fought of this before, I’ve seen this before when you know you haven’t.
The key to Johnson’s ideas in my mind are not simply in the group interactions, the environments, the variation in backgrounds. It’s the ability to purposefully create context for your group, your institution, your company that translates effective ideation followed by innovation. The creation of idealized or envisioned specifications for imaginary products is at the very heart of how the best ideas become reality – we see deja-vous not because we did to before but because we saw the result, the effect before in our minds.
Such an approach transforms how people can see data and not simply analyze information but instead almost “instantly” see it’s context. Steven Johnson talks about how simply using the doppler effect and the simple Sputnik signal transformed over a few decades into finding the nearest coffee house. That was not simply the result of a single, purposeful effort but in fact a disjointed, yet open collaboration, however unwittingly, that as each lifetime of experience touched the process, allowed a new branch of possibilities to break away and self develop.
A recent story in my world involved the “discovery” of powerful new material potential in a very old chemistry. We were exploring the chemistry for applications but had not yet really found a lever, a key feature that was transformational. After a few weeks, we had found nothing really unique, or so we thought. I’ve spent my life in materials looking for a few basic things in combination – generally very fast, energy free chemistries, chiefly polymerization (super glue type stuff) but with fantastic properties as materials. It’s one of my specifications and, yes, there is more to it, like environmentally resistant polymers that are also biodegradable or even metabolically compatible.
In this case, the chemists kept ordering more and more glassware, a ridiculous amount. Startup budgets can’t angle that! Why was the ordering getting crazy? The chemical that polymerized, the plastic, was simply not coming off the glassware in the pH 14 caustic cleansing bath. In fact, the polymer looked the same as it had when it went in, crystal clear. It was easier to just order new glassware and throw away the dirty stuff. Well, that’s a data point to me. To those chemists it was just an annoyance not worth noting. To my lifetime of experience in his very specific area, I saw one of the most chemically resistant plastics ever seen that was rapidly polymerizable with no energy that could be ten times less costly, even a commodity polymer.
I did not notice this great “discovery” because I was smart – I’m not that smart – but because I had in my mind these major world needs from a lifetime of observation and so when I saw the plastic stuck, I had seen the need before – in the abstract – and immediately recognized bad plastic in context for what it was. The difference between a hunk of garbage and wasted spending and a billion dollar opportunity. A material to transform consumer products, medicine, building products and on and on.
It’s my hope that such a methodology, approach and lifestyle of observation can be taught widely at universities and to organizations of all kinds, but especially to the newest, youngest staff. Innovation is not about being innovative at peak performance all the time. It’s about having that general attitude that ideas are cumulative and come from anywhere and that the slightest new observation or experience might allow everything to finally click in place, as Steven Johnson says about Darwin and his early notes showing his theories before he even knew he had them!
The bottom line? It’s over our and our colleagues, friends and family’s working and personal lifetimes that we can develop the ability to look at everything through contested lenses. Do this and you can transform your personal and professional lives. It’s exciting.
For organizations, it’s about knowing what your business really is and can be and communicating this pervasively and simply. Organizations that do not provide context, a set of global limitations or purpose, simply cannot be as effective at disruptive innovation because their employees have no persistent, clearly defined global direction or purpose. Provide the context, define and constantly revisits the big needs and purpose, communicate it religiously and now your staff can innovate at light speed – by relying on their lifetime of experience within that context. Throw in having those staff work in many different roles, be from widely varied backgrounds and encouraging them to interact with widely varied, but complementary fields. Now you’ve got transformational innovation engrained in your culture for as long as you have purpose.