Author Steven Johnson spoke at WorkTech 2012 in the Bay Area this year and passed on some important knowledge to all of us. His book Where Good Ideas Come From talks about space, innovation, workspaces, and all the things we think about when discussing smarter working. It was ranked one of the year’s best books by The Economist, and was a finalist for best business book of 2010 in the 800CEORead awards. Steven completed his undergraduate degree at Brown where he studied semiotics, and received a graduate degree in English Literature from Columbia.
So where do good ideas come from? In the 2010 book Steven discusses seven conditions that allow for discoveries and inventions to occur. These conditions are split up into the chapters of the book.
- The Adjacent Possible
- Liquid Networks
- The Slow Hunch
“It is extremely important to build diverse workspaces” Steven said at the Worktech event. “Ideas, collaboration starts here.” Steven went on to discuss that you must create an environment where many disciplines can collide. Organizations need to encourage their associate’s hobbies, and not just focus on tasks. Outside interests can spark ideas, and that is what Steven calls “Cross Pollination.”
“If you take a look at any system that is evolving over time, if you pause the system and stare at it for a moment, there is a fainéant set of ways the system(s) can transform itself.”
The Adjacent Possibility is looking for what can be changed. Provided was a great example of this. There was a village with no hospitals or advanced technology, but they had dire need of a baby incubator. Simple fix you would think, you just send one, but what happens when it breaks? There are no spare parts nearby and there is no one to fix it. So they started looking for what the village did have. They had cars, and a couple mechanics (an adjacent possibility). So what if they built the incubator out of automobile parts? Then not only would there be spare parts, but someone to repair it if it broke. They tried it, and it worked.
So if Adjacent Possibilities are the good ideas that come before you build out of existing spare parts, what are the spaces that provide spare parts? That’s where Liquid Networks come in. Flexibility, openness, all of it is important. Pay attention to information spill over, listen to your neighbors, and go to coffee shops. Unplanned connections are a great vehicle for innovation. Remember to look at the interests and hobbies and how they relate to the problem you are trying to solve, because cross pollination may apply.
In a business environment, diversity is key. Having a team that has a diverse background of expertise, different fields of study or skill will have a large benefit. “We are more creative and innovative if we surround ourselves with people from diverse disciplines and backgrounds” says Johnson. A Stanford survey shows that innovative people have far more weak tie connections in a variety of disciplines. Less innovative people have a majority of strong connections to a limited amount of people disciplines. So don’t only follow your own industry’s news.
Crowd sourcing is a great tool. Make sure to widen the network of employees or even former employees through a peer network. Offer rewards for answers to problems, and allow in external expertise. Diversifying the number of minds available to you as a resource is an excellent idea. If you have the employees, and you have a problem, why not let them help? They may see something you miss, or find a use for a product that you never thought of. Something may be designed for one purpose, but certainly can be used for another. In his book, Steven discusses how Gutenberg used a wine press for his printing press, and that engineers used vacuum tubes (originally made for telephone networks and radio transmission) for electronic computers.