Business Calcium Blog

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Must Read Book


There are a handful of authors whom I suggest business leaders read everything they write: Jim Collins, Pat Lencioni, Malcolm Gladwell, and Steven Berlin Johnson – the latter likely the lesser known of the group.

In fact, it is one of my best-read mentors, Reade Fahs, who first turned me on to Johnson’s work, hammering me for not having read Steven Johnson’s earlier book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software.

In essence, it’s “emergence theory” that describes precisely how a Google, Facebook, or Wikipedia can achieve in a few years what it’s taken other enterprises decades to achieve in both scope and scale. And the lessons learned can be applied to any business to help it scale faster.

Johnson’s latest book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation builds on Emergence and debunks many of the myths around innovation. More importantly, he explores in depth why some environments squelch new ideas while some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. Again, all companies can take a lesson or two from Johnson’s discoveries to increase the number of important ideas it generates, the lifeblood of growth firms.

Connect vs. Protect
As Johnson so eloquently notes: “If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them…they (ideas) want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.”

Over the years I’ve encountered numerous inventors and potential entrepreneurs reluctant to share their ideas for fear they would be stolen. In reality, the likelihood is high that someone else is also pursuing the same innovation and that the person who shares their idea with the most people is going to garner greater input and thus create a better idea faster.

Do your promotion and incentive systems encourage information hoarding or sharing? Do the people with the most information tend to win in your company and thus are reluctant to share what they know with others? These people systems must be adjusted to support knowledge sharing.

Liquid Networks
Much of the success of sharing an idea is related to the size, diversity, and quality of one’s network. This is why certain cities and environments are better at stimulating important breakthroughs than others.

People who make a conscious effort of having lunch with those in another department or division will dramatically increase the odds of a better idea. People who purposefully surround themselves with friends of diverse backgrounds and interests also do better.

Notes Johnson, “it’s not that the network itself is smart, it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.”

Physical Location
And if this diverse group of people have a place to meet, the likelihood of a great idea emerging goes up. Johnson highlights the research of Kevin Dunbar, a psychologist at McGill University, who actually watched scientists work to determine how their “greatest hits” were discovered.

Recalls Johnson “the most striking discovery in Dunbar’s study turned out to be the physical location where most of the important breakthroughs occurred.” Rather than occurring in the lab as a lone scientist hunched over their microscope and stumbling across a major new finding, Dunbar found the most important ideas emerged during regular lab meetings where a dozen or so researchers would informally discuss their latest work.

“If you looked at the map of idea formation that Dunbar created,” describes Johnson, “the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table.” Therefore, even with all the advanced technology of a leading laboratory, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains “a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.”

3M’s Innovation Center in Austin, TX, is the finest facility I’ve ever visited, designed specifically to encourage new ideas. A key lesson all firms can take from their design is to create a single centralized area of break rooms and restrooms encouraging the kind of shop talk Dunbar’s research found drives new ideas. This is particularly important when a growing firm moves to an additional floor in a building. Close off one set of restrooms and break rooms and require people to bump into each other on the other floors.

Slow Hunch
The biggest good news, bad news revelation about breakthrough innovation is that it’s a lengthy process. The idea of a “Eureka moment” is less of a momentary event and more of a slow, iterative, and grinding process over time, often consuming a decade or more of effort focused on solving a particular problem.

The good news is that you’re way ahead of anyone else in your industry if you’ve already invested this kind of time and effort; the bad news is if someone else has beaten you to the punch, starting a decade ago. For Apple, their design brilliance started with a calligraphy class Steve Jobs took in college almost four decades ago.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, I’m always amazed how overnight successes take a helluva long time i.e. it’s never too late to get started!! Surround yourself with a diverse group of people with whom you spend a lot of talk time discussing important ideas – and keep pounding away until you discover an innovation that changes the world (or at least your company!).

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