The Innovation Blog

Where Ideas Come From

Posted by Creative Realities on October 8, 2010

Where do ideas come from?  I recently came across this fascinating interview from Wired Magazine in which authors Keven Kelly and Steven Johnson discuss the "natural history" of innovation and technology.  Together, Kelly and Johnson provide what I can only describe as an evolutionary/biological/anthropological perspective on the history of new ideas.  I highly reccomend reading the entire article, but here are a few key insights to keep in mind in any pursuit of innovation.


1. Foster Environments of Collaboration

Kelly and Johnson make the point that the idea of a lone genius sitting alone thinking up inventions is a myth.   Even the classic genius inventor, Thomas Edison, once said "nobody ever came up with a great idea all by themselves."  Instead, ideas happen in situations where ideas are given the opportunity to connect.  That is why at Creative Realities we are the innovation management collaborative.  By creating environments where diverse teams are free to collaborate, we facilitate the connections that lead to breakthrough innovations.    

2. Ideas are Really Connections

Kelly says "we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters."  Our CEO Mark Sebell believes that "at least 30% of innovations come from borrowing from other worlds."  By that, he means making connections between seemingly irrelevant stimuli.  The story of Velcro is the classic example.  Innovation comes when ideas are recombined and repurposed in a whole new way.

3. Outsiders Provide Fresh Thinking

Johnson describes how Kelly was able to capture the essense of what his book was about better than he could himself becuase Kelly was able to read it with "fresh eyes."  The importance of bringing in outsiders, or "wildcards", as we like to call them, cannot be understated.  Everyone brings a unique perspective to the table and you never know who will be able to make that connection from their world that sparks breakthrough innovation in your world.

4. Focus on the Adjacently Possible

Kelly and Johnson provide numerous brilliant insights on how the adjacencently possible defines the space for innovation, but the main point is that any new invention has to be built on the platform of previous and closely related technologies.  In business, this means that organizations should focus on innovating in spaces that leverage their core competencies.  As, Kelly says "the great inventions are usually those that take the smallest possible step to unleash the most change."  It is much easier to launch a new product when you already have the supply chains and distrubtion channels in place than it is to build them from scratch to support the product.     

5. Generate, Invent, Explore... Then Throw Out the Bad Ideas

An interesting a consequence to the concept of the adjacently possible is that you need to have the range to explore tons of ideas in order to produce a few superb ones.  Kelly argues that the best TV is better now precisely because there was the opportunity to produce so much bad TV.  In invention session, we encourage clients to generate as many ideas as they possibly can, then go back and assess them later.

by Chris Dolan.  Follow me on Twitter @theChrisDolan

Topics: Chris Dolan, Core Competencies, Innovation, Collaboration, connection making