Where Good Ideas Come From

Stacked platforms are like that: you think you’re fighting the Cold War, and it turns out you’re actually helping people figure out where to have lunch.

Proprietary platforms that reach critical mass are not unheard of—Microsoft Windows has had a good run, for instance, and Apple’s iPhone platform has been extraordinarily innovative in its first three years—but they are rarities.

Concepts from one domain migrate to another as a kind of structuring metaphor, thereby unlocking some secret door that had long been hidden from view.

But that noise makes the rest of us smarter, more innovative, precisely because we’re forced to rethink our biases, to contemplate an alternate model in which the blue paintings are, in fact, green.

We need the phase-lock state for the same reason we need truth: a world of complete error and chaos would be unmanageable, on a social and a neurochemical level. (Not to mention genetic.) But leaving some room for generative error is important, too. Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes, and suffer when the demands of quality control overwhelm them.

Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.

Even as much of the high-tech culture has embraced decentralized, liquid networks in their approach to innovation, the company that is consistently ranked as the most innovative in the world—Apple—remains defiantly top-down and almost comically secretive in its development of new products. You won’t ever see Steve Jobs or Jonathan Ive crowdsourcing development of the next-generation iPhone.

The process is noisy and involves far more open-ended and contentious meetings than traditional production cycles—and far more dialogue between people versed in different disciplines, with all the translation difficulties that creates. But the results speak for themselves.

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

A world where a diverse mix of distinct professions and passions overlap is a world where exaptations thrive.

You can immerse yourself in a single author’s perspective, but then it’s harder to create serendipitous collisions between the ideas of multiple authors. One way around this limitation is to carve out dedicated periods where you read a large and varied collection of books and essays in a condensed amount of time.

He took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned it into an engine for mass communication.

But there is steady variation nonetheless, not just in the subject matter but in the kind of work performed in each task.

The problem with assimilating new ideas at the fringes of your daily routine is that the potential combinations are limited by the reach of your memory.

Two brilliant scientists with great technological acumen stumble across evidence of the universe’s origin—evidence that would ultimately lead to a Nobel Prize for both them—and yet their first reaction is: Our telescope must be broken.

But encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do—the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.

[I]t’s no accident that one of the mantras of the Web startup world is fail faster. It’s not that mistakes are the goal—they’re still mistakes, after all, which is why you want to get through them quickly. But those mistakes are an inevitable step on the path to true innovation.

The groups that had been deliberately contaminated with erroneous information ended up making more original connections than the groups that had only been given pure information.

By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it’s easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago.

It is possible to create such a space in a walled garden. But you are far better off situating your platform in a commons.

Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson