Harnessing Where Innovation Occurs

4211151090_5134bfee0f_b James Dyson said, “I would get America back to what it does best: take risks. Or rather, the right type of risks. The United States was founded on brave, bold and untested inventions, not financial gambles. Real engineering, not endless economic engineering.” (as reported in the New York Times of August 21, 2011.)  I was struck by his words as it reminded me of his advertisements of how many times he tried to make the best vacuum cleaner in the world.

In the news today, there are articles on Steve Jobs, one of the greatest innovators or our time, perhaps the greatest. It is reported that he was so successful at creating new things because he was willing to take risks – just as Dyson mentioned. It made me wonder about what we are doing to stimulate innovative thinking in our companies, our schools, our society? Are we helping our young people to learn how to prepare themselves to innovate?

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steve Johnson talks about where innovation occurs – at the ‘adjacent possible.’ He says, “A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind. This is true whether the idea in question is a new way to solve a complex physics problem, or a closing line for a novel, or a feature for a software application. If we’re going to try to explain the mystery of where ideas come from, we’ll have to start by shaking ourselves free of this common misconception: an idea is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm.”

The word swarm got me thinking. How can we increase the possibilities of creating a swarm? I think there are at least two ways to do so.

  1. Increase the amount of information and knowledge that is in our brains. Keep reading, keep talking to others, keep reflecting on what you have experienced – all the things that we talk about in this blog about bringing fresh knowledge into our lives every day.
  2. Ask more questions. We don’t always encourage the habit of asking questions. Beginning in school, questions are not always welcome. (Let’s not even think of what teaching to multiple choice tests means in this context.) Even today at conferences, some don’t ask a question unless it shows how much they know rather than what they might learn. There is something about a question that opens up the mind and exposes a lacuna of possibility. (See my earlier blogs of August 12 and of April 22 and 15.)

Risk is also essential for innovation. Once you get an idea, what stimulates a willingness to try for it – even if it doesn’t work the first or ninety-first time? There is much that can be said about risk, but you must begin by being willing to ask a question. Will you ask?

Photo by Steve Garfield