Working as a patent attorney, sometimes a new idea that stuns me will jump out from a patent. An elegant, innovative idea that makes me wonder how anyone thought of it. Often, my next thought, though, as I understand the idea better, is how simple the idea is. So I think, why didn't I think of that?
Steven Johnson's "Natural History of Innovation" shines some light on the first question as he tells us "Where Good Ideas Come From." Johnson looks back through science history as he teases out from science history, and from natural history, seven "patterns" in which new ideas are formed. Johnson backs up with examples each of the seven groups in his taxonomy of the origins of ideas. Good examples, well told, are what make the book.
Johnson writes science history well. Like in Johnson's earlier book, The Invention of Air, the science history he writes here reads like a fascinating tale of adventure. Although a bit breathless at times, and sometimes drawing too much from too little, Johnson caught my attention early and held it all the way through this fairly long new book.
And it's not just a history of scientists and discoveries. Johnson looks too at nature - like how reefs pack together life and promote evolution - and society - like how larger cities generate exponentially more innovation than smaller towns.
On occasion, Johnson's taxonomy is a tad bit tortured. The seven patterns each get a chapter in the book. But for me, the names of the patterns and the particular examples grouped in them do not give much insight. The patterns - while interesting - seem more organizational groupings than anything else. The patterns are the skeleton. Not much flesh there. The meat in the book is in the examples.
In fact, the insight for me came from the light Johnson shines on my second question - why didn't I think of that? To broaden that question into its most compelling form, how can we, both personally and as a society, increase the number of good ideas we have in the arts, in science, in sociology and government, and in technology?
That $64,000 question Johnson does not really try to answer. He does give some clues. (One thing he says caught my interest as a patent attorney. That is, we get more good ideas by connecting them than by protecting them. In other words, the patent system may be hurting, instead of meeting, its goal of promoting innovation.)
Johnson's book is ambitious. He covers a lot of ground, from scientists to nature to arts to government to society. His idea that good ideas in all of these fields develop in the same recognizable patterns is a bold one. In a sense, he is looking for a unified theory of innovation.
Did Johnson find that unified theory? If he did, you won't find it on a particular page in this book. But by joining Johnson in exploring this question, I learned a lot and thought a lot. That made the book worthwhile for me.
on October 7, 2010
In my years as a Wall Street strategy advisor and as a life-long student of that which propels us towards our greatest potential, I am fascinated by an interesting structural tension when it comes to personal and professional excellence.
We have at our finger tips, some of the greatest knowledge, tools and processes that can help propel people and organizations towards excellence and yet despite this vast wealth of information, many people (and the organizations they are associated with) struggle.
After exploring many theories over the years, I think I just realized why this is the case and I am staggered by the implications.
I have just finished reading "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson (author of "Everything Good is Bad For You" and "The Invention of Air") and found the ideas contained within to be of staggering profundity.
A Different View on Creativity
With no offence intended towards well-intentioned individuals within organizations who come up with interesting ways to help us be more creative, I have often struggled with the value of some of the ideas they have come up with. Some examples come to mind, including the time I flew across the country for a mandatory, all-hands meeting where we played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey or another time when I travelled across the country for a mandatory meeting where the primary thing that was accomplished was a competition to see who could build a toy helicopter out of Lego Blocks the fastest.
When I asked people why we were doing these things, I was informed that it was to help us learn to be more creative. I learned something alright but it was not what they hoped I had learned. By the way, I won the helicopter competition, so there are no sour grapes here. :-)
As I read Steven Johnson's book, I realized why we struggle with how to be more creative.
It's because we spend too much time trying to experience an extrinsic-centric learning event when we should be refining the foundational components of what makes a human being a source of unlimited creativity.
As I read his book, I realized why we are often more hit-than-miss when it comes to increasing our potential for creativity. His book also helped me understand why our creativity sometimes grows in leaps and bounds while at other times, we seem unable to recreate this experience, making our growth in creativity seem frustratingly random or lucky.
Seven Key Principles
Mr. Johnson's engaging writing style guides us through seven key areas that must be understood in order to maximize our creativity, the key areas being:
1. The adjacent possible - the principle that at any given moment, extraordinary change is possible but that only certain changes can occur (this describes those who create ideas that are ahead of their time and whose ideas reach their ultimate potential years later).
2. Liquid networks - the nature of the connections that enable ideas to be born, to be nurtured and to blossom and how these networks are formed and grown.
3. The slow hunch - the acceptance that creativity doesn't guarantee an instant flash of insight but rather, germinates over time before manifesting.
4.Serendipity - the notion that while happy accidents help allow creativity to flourish, it is the nature of how our ideas are freely shared, how they connect with other ideas and how we perceive the connection at a specific moment that creates profound results.
5. Error - the realization that some of our greatest ideas didn't come as a result of a flash of insight that followed a number of brilliant successes but rather, that some of those successes come as a result of one or more spectacular failures that produced a brilliant result.
6. Exaptation - the principle of seizing existing components or ideas and repurposing them for a completely different use (for example, using a GPS unit to find your way to a reunion with a long-lost friend when GPS technology was originally created to help us accurately bomb another country into oblivion).
7. Platforms - adapting many layers of existing knowledge, components, delivery mechanisms and such that in themselves may not be unique but which can be recombined or leveraged into something new that is unique or novel.
Insight That Resonates
Mr. Johnson guides the reader through each of these seven areas with examples that are relevant, doing so in a way that hits the reader squarely between the eyes. I found myself on many an occasion exclaiming inwardly "This idea or example is brilliant in its obviousness and simplicity".
"Where Good Ideas Come From" is a book that one must read with a pen or highlighter in hand as nuggets pop out and provide insight into past or current challenges around creativity and problem solving.
When someone decides to explore ways of helping you or your organization be more creative and they are getting ready to explore a rah-rah session, an offsite brain-storming session or they are looking to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, ask them if they have explored the foundational reasons behind what makes us creative.
And then buy a copy of this book for them.
I believe this book should be mandatory reading for every student, teacher and leader.
We are all students of Life.
We all at some point, teach others.
And if we accept that a leader is someone who influences others and we acknowledge that everyone influences someone at some point, then we are all leaders also.
Educational institutions, governments and corporations should make this book mandatory reading for everyone within their walls.
"Where Good Ideas Come From" is a fun read as well as a profound one.
May your creativity blossom as a result of exploring it.
Create a great day.
on October 25, 2010
How do we cultivate innovation? Are there some ways to interact, to live, and to work that promote innovation? If so what are the fundamental drivers of innovation? In his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (WGICF), Steven Johnson proposes a framework for answering these questions. WGICF is divided into seven sections with each section addressing what Mr. Johnson considers to be a fundamental factor that facilitates innovation.
Unfortunately, the core of his argument is one of analogy with nature or anecdote. From nature, he looks at structures with disproportionate diversity in nature and asks how these devices and behavior can be mapped to human culture and interaction. Although this kind of analogical writing is rhetorically compelling it doesn't provide any kind of true support for the accuracy of his statements. As for the use of anecdotes, they are useful for creating narrative from data and I am well aware they are nearly a requirement for publishing in this genre of non-fiction writing. I can even recognize they are rhetorically useful for creating emotional pull but no many how many stories you tell they simply do not provide evidence to support a thesis.
Now that I've made my caveats, I do think there are lots of good ideas in the book. The factors that Johnson proposes all seem believable and fit in with what I know of cognition. In particular, three topics he includes, at least based on other readings, deeply related to being a strong thinker - making errors and subsequently thinking about the error, building connections between concepts, and actively recalling knowledge. In other places these three features have been strongly tied to becoming an expert as well as to developing an agile mind. It therefore is a reasonable leap to conclude that developing an agile mind expert in some areas can indeed increase your ability to be innovative in some sphere of knowledge.
Despite the lack of evidence, WGICF was an enjoyable read. The style is pleasant, some of the stories are interesting, and all his concepts seem reasonably related to innovation and regardless of how fundamentally tied his ideas are to innovation it certainly won't hurt your innovative muscles to think about the role each o the dimensions listed in this book may play in helping you come up with your next big idea.
This book reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet age. The facts are up-to-the-minute, the anecdotes extremely well researched. The author, Stephen Johnson, go to some lengths to describe the computer database he uses to assemble and cross-link his references.
He stretches a little bit far for an analogy, comparing the realms of natural history and human inventiveness. One of his metaphors is the coral reef. Charles Darwin marveled at the diversity of life in the waters surrounding coral reefs back in 1836, especially in contrast to the paucity of life on the islands themselves. He then compares cities with coral reefs, noting that human inventiveness increases exponentially as those human beings live in larger agglomerations. It is an interesting point, although perhaps not strong enough to carry an entire book.
One of the surprises is how thin Johnson's biography of real books appears to be. He leans really heavily on Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell. Both of those guys write well and serve up provocative ideas. However, in both cases, many people, including myself, find the provocative ideas to be very frequently out in left field. In Gould's case they are driven by his left of socialist politics, and in Gladwell's by his commitment to diversity and all that that entails. In other words, these are highly flavored writers, useful to add a bit of savor to a book, but a little bit strong for a main course. In the realm of biology, Johnson would've been better off making more frequent quotes from people like Pinker, Dennett, Dawkins, Hrdy, or even Darwin himself. I suspect he would have if he had read them. He is a child of the Internet age. He does have a very extensive bibliography in the back, but all of us who have been to college know how you cook those up. You sometimes just might borrow from other people's bibliographies, or reference the book even though you only read a minor squib from it that you found on the Internet.
Johnson has an ideological point to make with regard to invention. Most modern inventions are made by groups of people with government funding, and the fewest inventions seem to be made by individual inventors motivated by profit alone. I grant this ideological point, though somewhat grudgingly, because it seems to be overly labored and politically laden.
He does have a useful catalog of the major inventions of all time in his appendix. It is presumably the basis for his quadratic compartmentalization of inventions as group or individual, public or private.
on June 12, 2011
It's always interesting to read a book that discusses the field in which you happen to work. I actually liked the book early on, especially the description of the slow hunch, but soured towards the end when I realized that he would never really explore key concepts, such as persistence, ability to tackle technical risks effectively and systematic approaches (as opposed to the intuitive approaches he focuses on). There is a focus on the glamorous aspects of innovation but much less on what is sometimes the most time consuming and challenging aspect: making it work.
As someone who has created knowledge/patents/academic manuscripts in nonprofit/for profit environments, in high tech and dot com, and as someone who is part engineer/part scientist, I think there are important nuances that are missed when you draw broad strokes across fields and then connects everything to evolution. I don't see myself as an expert but know enough to see what the author doesn't know. I would have liked to see more discussion about what stereotypical engineers do (design, debug), what stereotypical scientists do (question dogma, create knowledge). What is the difference between product development at amazon/twitter and product development of medical devices/academic work/pharmaceuticals (one example is that technical risks are much larger and more frequently encountered in medical/academic areas-- in other words, amazon can build a website and the challenge is in the business decision, while a drug may fail at many points b/c a technical challenge cannot be overcome).
Why does it matter? Because if you take an innovator from one field and place them in a different field, bad things often happen unless they recognize the differences, assumptions and biases. Whether it's an academic trying to do product development (or vice versa), a biologist doing engineering (or vice versa), someone from the software world trying to do med devices (or vice versa), there are lots of pitfalls during innovation due to the differences.
His argument at the end about open innovation with quantitative "proof" based on categorizing a few inventions was weak and I don't buy it.
Overall I think it's a good introduction, and there are some good points, but he misses some aspects and details.
on November 21, 2010
Creating a theory of innovation is not an exact science as the process is messy, erratic, and often catalogued with a high selective bias towards the final "eureka" moment. In his book, Steven Johnson attempts to unpack some of this process and proposes a framework of seven key themes:
1. Adjacent possible: different innovations vary in their ability to unlock adjacent capabilities. In other words, timing matters.
2. Liquid environments: from a coffee house to your lab, the environments ability to circulate ideas plays an incredibly important role.
3. Serendipity: more often than not, it is a rare connection of two existing ideas that sets off a lightbulb, not discovery of a new one (see 2).
4. Slow hunch: instant flash of insight usually comes from years of exploration, where at some point, those ideas collide (see 3).
5. Error: many discoveries come about as an unrelated, and unexpected consequence (ex: penicillin) - be flexible with your ideas.
6. Exaptation: existing components and discoveries can often be adapted to different use cases (ex: consumer GPS applications.. see 1).
7. Platforms: where possible, build platforms and ecosystems that foster environments where 1-6 can be recombined at will.
While the specific examples chosen by author can be argued with, and an occasional metaphor is stretched too far, the book itself is well written and very engaging! Great read.
on April 17, 2011
There have been a number of interesting books in recent years on ideas, creativity, innovation and the forces that shape the progress of the human race, including The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur.
This book, despite a title that sounds sort of warm and fuzzy, puts forth some interesting ideas about ideas, with quite a few meaty and entertaining anecdotes from wide ranging sources. Johnson relates the fascinating history of many interesting ideas such as the World Wide Web, GPS, YouTube, the pacemaker, the air conditioner, the triode, the theory of island formation, the printing press, the nature of neural connections, the method of transmission of cholera and many others.
Johnson's definition of ideas is not limited to human ideas. He includes good ideas by chemical and biological actors through evolution in his definition.
While this may seem unusual, it is completely consistent with Johnson's view of progress. He begins with the notion of the "adjacent possible", which is the set of possibilities enabled by taking one step beyond the current state of things. The notion is that most ideas are variants on things that already exist. It is accumulations of these variations that comprise progress. This is consistent with biologist Francois Jacob's notion of evolution as a tinkerer, rather than an engineer. Johnson notes that there are exceptions. But even in the case of of revolutionary theories, there are often preconditions which set the stage for Darwin and Wallace to both discover evolution, or Newton and Leibniz to both invent calculus.
Following from this premise, what is needed to foster ideas is an environment which continually brings together existing concepts by being both sufficiently dense and fluid to create fruitful new combinations. This is why a coral reef is a fertile ecosystem, urban environments are hotbeds of cultural progress and the Internet fosters advances of all kinds at an unprecedented rate.
A couple of interesting examples of bringing together ideas from different areas are the application of the wine press to printing books by Gutenberg, and the application of the punch card, invented for mechanical looms, to data processing.
Johnson discusses the commonplace book, a type of scrapbook used by John Locke, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Joseph Preistley, Erazmus Darwin and Charles Darwin to not only save interesting ideas from different sources, but index them so as to bring loosely connected entries together in the author's mind. Johnson has implemented his own modern day commonplace book using a software tool called DevonThink.
The latter portion of the book is a discussion of individual vs network and market driven vs "open source" in the generation of inventions. He sees a historical shift over time from the individual, market driven inventor to the the networked, open source model of invention. In this argument, his is somewhat at odds with the views of Matt Ridley, whose Rational Optimist argues persuasively that trade and the market have always been the driving force behind progress and the evolution of ideas.
His arguments are largely consistent with the thesis of Arthur's The Nature of Technology, also excellent. Arthur is somewhat more narrowly focused but also compelling in his case for incremental progress.
Johnson also a large appendix which contains a chronicle of key innovations from 1400-2000 with a paragraph on each.
The book is well written and insightful. Highly recommended.
on December 15, 2015
Most certainly will revisit this book because it was very nice. Steven Johnson gives a great analysis of where some of the best ideas came from. The main reason I give this 5 stars is for his strong conclusion as well as his appendix which is almost like a cheat code for a reader because it leaves you with a timeline for some of the greatest ideas ever. This is a game changer because this is the kind of book that pushes you to pursue more knowledge and definitely encourages further reading and research.
I would definitely recommend this book to wantrapreneurs and entrepreneurs alike because it may teach the entrepreneur to keep persisting and to remain patient while doing so, and the wantrapreneur may finally receive that last nudge towards entrepreneurship from this book.
on May 6, 2011
One of the best non-fiction books I have read in years. Very well-written, eye-opening, profound, and Mr. Johnson illustrates his points with wonderful examples of discovery and invention. He is a creative thinker and compelling story-teller. I am reading it a second time (and getting more from it, in the process) and outlining it, for my own edification. In case you can't tell, I loved this book.
on November 27, 2012
The book is about the history of innovation. Over 200 innovations from the last 600 hundred years are referenced in making the case that over time there are emerging patterns that describe how innovative ideas are created, transmitted, and reinvented in the future.
The lessons drawn from the past can be applied today and tomorrow. They include: 1) the notion that ideas are not a single thing, but more like a swarm, 2) good ideas are not conjured up out of thin air, but are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands over time, 3) the way we collect, store, and use information can make us more creative and innovative, 4) pay attention to our hunches and cultivate them 5) pay attention to memories and dreams, they represent the creative chaos of our minds, 6) making mistakes forces us to explore, and 7) borrow, recycle, reinvent, and build upon the ideas of others.
The book reads more like a mystery as the author leads the reader through his analysis of events from the past. I particularly like the balanced view he provides. About the time you are ready to accept his premise, he challenges the very view that he has espoused. In that way, it is an energizing experience to follow his flow of thought. By the end of the book, it is ironic (or is it?) that he has immersed you into the very patterns that he described.
With the topic of innovation being so heavily in vogue today, I recommend this book to gain a fresh perspective from the annals of its history.