Tag Archives: Isaac Newton

Steven Johnson: Why Your Next Good Idea Will Likely Come from a Good Chat

Everyone knows the three things that matter in real estate: location, location, location. Steven Johnson, who wrote the bestseller Where Good Ideas Come From, explains in this TED talk how the three things that really matter for generating great ideas are these: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.

His research and stories dispel a big myth about how great ideas are generated. The great ideas don’t suddenly appear in that so-called lightbulb moment. It’s seldom a single epiphany. Great ideas are built, and they are usually built through a process that involves iteration and sharing – or in other words, collaboration.

Louis Pasteur famously said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” The adage has helped build the myth that the lone individual toiling away can achieve a breakthrough just through relentless hard work. But Johnson sums up his research with a new take on the quote: it’s not that you shouldn’t be prepared, it’s just that “chance favors the connected mind.”

What does he mean? Johnson begins by showing that the great intellectual period we call the Enlightenment (the late 17th and 18th century) was not coincidence. It was not pure chance that the period produced so many great minds. This happened because the period produced so many connected minds, and the main reason, surprisingly, was the invention of the coffeehouse.  What “makes the coffeehouse important is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share.”

The implication is profound, because we still have a lot of myths about where ideas come from, and, Johnson argues, we need to do away with many of our “conventional metaphors and language.” We need to get away from the basic assumption that an idea is a “single thing.”

That assumption can even get us into trouble. In one striking example, a group in the west had the ‘innovative’ idea of shipping $40,000 incubators to a mid-size village in Africa. The basic assumption was that this was a way to bring this western technology into Africa and save lives.

But the assumption was flawed. After a year, the incubators will have some sort of malfunction, and there’s no one there able to fix them. So they become $40,000 wasted.

What’s the solution? The local team in Africa started to think differently about the problem. They shared ideas. They saw that the local village was very adept at automobile repairs. So they wondered if you could build an incubator out of automobile parts. You can. And they did. They built one at a fraction of the cost, and they’re able to keep it operating because they have the spare parts to fix it when something breaks down. That’s the outcome of a team collaborating.

Part of the task, then, is to get rid of the myths and the old metaphors. Newton didn’t discover the laws of motion in a flash of insight when an apple fell on his head. As Newton said himself, if he saw further than others it was only because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

The myth that Darwin discovered the theory of natural selection in a single eureka moment has also been dispelled. The scholar Howard Gruber painstakingly went through Darwin’s notes and showed that he had worked out the theory “months and months and months before he had his alleged epiphany.”

Another implication is that we need to think differently about how we design workspaces. Johnson says that “if we’re trying to build organizations that are more innovative, we have to build spaces” that foster real collaboration.

We also need to rethink intellectual property, Johnson argues: “we often talk about the value of protecting intellectual property, you know, building barricades, having secretive R&D labs, patenting everything.” But the research suggests intellectual property should focus just as much on fostering collaboration: “there’s a case to be made that we should spend at least as much time, if not more, valuing the premise of connecting ideas and not just protecting them.”

To sum up, there are three key points to take away from this talk:

  1. Where do great ideas come from? Iteration, and iteration happens in collaboration.
  2. How can we build organizations that innovate? Design workspaces that foster collaboration.
  3. And how should we approach our intellectual property? Yes, some ideas need to be protected. But sharing is what likely gets you to the best ideas, so find the right balance that takes full advantage of connecting ideas and collaborating.

Or here’s another way to sum up these three takeaways: collaboration, collaboration and collaboration.