Where Good Ideas Come From – Review

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks, may seem like an obvious truth, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas, keeping them from the kind of random, serendipitous connections that exist in dreams and in the organic compounds of life.

This one sentence sums up the core ideas in Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The natural history of innovation. Johnson goes on to explain what organizations can do to foster innovation:

The secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine. Instead of cloistering your hunches in brainstorm sessions or R&D labs, create an environment where brainstorming is something that is constantly running in the background, throughout the organization, a collective version of the 20-percent-time concept that proved so successful for Google and 3M. One way to do this is to create an open database of hunches, the Web 2.0 version of the traditional suggestion box.

This is what organizational social learning using social media can do – enable a free flow of hunches and ideas. The chapter on The Fourth Quadrant provides some specific advice for business innovation. The quadrant is the Non-market/Network which “corresponds to open-source or academic environments, where ideas can be built upon and reimagined in large, collaborative networks.” Innovations in this quadrant include: Braille, RNA splicing, Quantum Mechanics, Punch Cards, Germ Theory and many others developed at an increasing pace post-1850, as we became electrified [my observation here].

Participants in the fourth quadrant don’t have these costs [protecting intellectual assets through barricades of artificial scarcity]: they can concentrate on coming up with new ideas, not building fortresses around the old ones. And because these ideas can freely circulate through the infosphere, they can be refined and expanded by other minds in the network.

Steven Johnson presented this morning at the CSTD conference , reinforcing these points and making several others. He talked about the concept of getting more parts (or ideas) on the table in order to have more to work with and more potential connections. I liked his view of intellectual property protection as an “innovation tax”. He also talked about the emerging role of the organizational translator who can help break down silos and enable better communication and collaboration, similar to the ideas in the post, adapting to a networked world.

Overall it’s a great book with some solid advice for any organization.

Update: Video of SBJ discussing Maple Syrup, Airplane Crashes & the Power of non-Market Innovation (the fourth quadrant).

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