- Measure of innovation
There are many ways to measure innovation, but perhaps the most elemental yardstick, at least where technology is concerned revolves around the job that the technology in question lets you do. All other things being equal, a breakthrough that lets you execute two jobs that were impossible before is twice as innovative as a breakthrough that lets you do only one new thing.By that measure, YouTube was significantly more innovative than HDTV, despite the fact that HDTV was a more complicated technical problem. YouTube let you publish, share, rate, discuss, and watch video more efficiently than ever before. HDTV let you watch more pixels than ever before. But even with all those extra layers of innovation, YouTube went from idea to mass adoption in less than two years.
- Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor. The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. The more we embrace these patterns—in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools—the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking. Patters for innovative thinks are
- THE ADJACENT POSSIBLE
- LIQUID NETWORKS
- THE SLOW HUNCH
- THE FOURTH QUADRANT
- As you descend toward the center of the glass, the biological scales contract: from the global, deep time of evolution to the microscopic exchanges of neurons or DNA. At the center of the glass, the perspective shifts from nature to culture, and the scales widen: from individual thoughts and private workspaces to immense cities and global information networks.
When we look at the history of innovation from the vantage point of the long zoom, what we find is that unusually generative environments display similar patterns of creativity at multiple scales simultaneously. The long-zoom approach lets us see that openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms. We can
think more creatively if we open our minds to the many connected environments that make creativity possible.
The Adjacent Possible
Adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room (new ideas) that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.
The Web is one such example of adjacent possible. In early 1994, the Web was a text-only medium, pages of words connected by hyperlinks. But within a few years, the possibility space began to expand. It became a medium that let you do financial transactions, which turned it into a shopping mall and an auction house and a casino. Shortly afterward, it became a true two-way medium where it was as easy to publish your own writing as it was to read other people’s. YouTube made the Web one of the most influential video delivery mechanisms on the planet. And now digital maps are unleashing their own cartographic revolutions.
Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time. Some of those parts are conceptual: ways of solving problems, or new definitions of what constitutes a problem (re wording the problem) in the first place. All of us live inside our own private versions of the adjacent possible. In our work lives, in our creative pursuits, in the organizations that employ us,in the communities we inhabit—in all these different environments, we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines.
What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on “average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.
Challenging problems don’t usually define their adjacent possible in such a clear, tangible way. Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients. This, then, is, where the next six patterns of innovation will take us, because they all involve, in one way or another, tactics for assembling a more eclectic collection of building block ideas, spare parts that can be reassembled into useful new configurations. The trick to having good ideas is not to, sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.
A good idea is a network. A specific constellation of neurons— thousands of them—fire in sync with each other for the first time in your brain, and an idea pops into your consciousness. A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind. When we look back to the original innovation engine on earth, we find two essential properties. First, a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And, second, a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system.
On a basic level, ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned. Research suggests one vaguely reassuring thought: even with all the advanced technology of a leading molecular biology lab, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop or meeting with like minded persons. The lab meeting creates an environment where new combinations can occur, where information can spill over from one project to another. When you work alone in an office, peering into a microscope, your ideas can get trapped in place, stuck in your own initial biases. The social flow of the group conversation turns that private solid state into a liquid network.
The Slow Hunch
A metropolis shares one key characteristic with the Web: both environments are dense, liquid networks where information easily flows along multiple unpredictable paths. Those interconnections nurture great ideas, because most great ideas come into the world half-baked, more hunch than revelation. And so, most great ideas first take shape in a partial, incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person’s head. Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, of course, but they also do some thing more sublime: they help complete ideas.
Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength. And then one day they are transformed into something more substantial: sometimes jolted out by some newly discovered trove of information, or by another hunch lingering in another mind, or by an internal association that finally completes the thought. Because these slow hunches need so much time to develop, they are fragile creatures, easily lost to the more pressing needs of day-to-day issues. But that long incubation period is also their strength, because true insights require you to think something that no one has thought before in quite the same way.
Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory, in the dense network of your neurons. Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of our memory too quickly, precisely because they possess a certain murkiness. You get a feeling that there’s an interesting avenue to explore, a problem that might someday lead you to a solution, but then you get distracted by more pressing matters and the hunch disappears. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down. We can track the evolution of Darwin’s ideas,with such precision because he adhered to a rigorous practice of maintaining notebooks where he quoted other sources, improvised new ideas, interrogated and dismissed false leads, drew diagrams, and generally let his mind roam on the page. We can see Darwin’s ideas evolve because on some basic level the notebook platform creates a cultivating space for his hunches; it is not that the notebook is a mere transcription of the ideas, which are happening.offstage somewhere in Darwin’s mind.
Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper.
The English language is blessed with a wonderful word that captures the power of accidental connection: “Serendipity”. Serendipity completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked. Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries. Otherwise, your ideas are like carbon atoms randomly colliding with other atoms in the primordial soup without ever forming the rings and lattices of organic life.
The challenge, of course, is how to create environments that foster these serendipitous connections, on all the appropriate scales: in the private space of your own mind; within larger institutions; and across the information networks of society itself. One way is to go for a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub; in fact, the original “eureka” moment—Archimedes hitting upon a way of measuring the volume of irregular shapes—occurred in a bathtub.) The shower or stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—-paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity:Why didn’t I think of that before?.
While the creative walk can produce new serendipitous combinations of existing ideas in our heads, we can also cultivate serendipity in the way that we absorb new ideas from the outside world. Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives. But those of us who aren’t scholars or involved in the publishing business are only able to block out time to read around the edges of our work schedule: listening to an audio book during the morning commute, or taking in a chapter after the kids are down. 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. If it takes you two weeks to finish a book,by the time you get to the next book, you’ve forgotten much of what was so interesting or provocative about the original one. 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.