In the last few months, we have been called to be innovative: to develop new routines, new ways to work, new ways to exercise, even new ways to get our groceries delivered.
Much of this has been a process of collecting information, seeing what is out there, and then making decisions and hoping for the best outcomes.
Yet, when it comes to breakthrough innovation, how can we become more innovative and what does the process of “being innovative” even look like?
Steven Johnson writes in “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” exactly about that: how ideas develop and the key principles that are found across disciplines and fields on what that process looks like.
I have learned so much just reading this and it has provided new information but at the same time also confirmed my own ideas around how innovation happens and how we can get more of it into our lives.
Prepare the ground: do the work
People often describe innovation where new ideas fall on us through eureka moments: someone having a shower and suddenly coming up with an idea that changes the world.
Great and important eureka moments seem however inaccessible to us mere mortals.
Yet, to have a eureka moment is the culmination of two processes: 1) of having accumulated experience in a particular profession or idea and 2) the way your neurons collide and forge new connections in your brain.
For example, many scientists have worked 15 years on a particular problem that then “suddenly” reveals itself to them.
There is not actually much sudden in the process, except that they have been willing to accumulate experience, endured failure, and tried new connections and strategies, read far and wide, and engaged in discussions and debates.
The eureka moment then is a culmination of hard work but also the way our brains both while we are awake and asleep.
Dreams can in fact be powerful problem solvers: during sleep, our brains continue the electrical activity and experiment with new connections between different neurons:
“dreams are the mind’s primordial soup: the medium that facilitates the serendipitous collisions of creative insight” (p. 102)
Something or some idea that has been stored in your brain for years suddenly collides with a neuron that carries another memory or experience that was not previously connected.
These connections keep going all night while we sleep and what we remember in the morning might be quite revolutionary if the right neurons have connected and for example produced a dream where we can “see” the answer:
“Most of those new neuronal connections are meaningless, but every now and then the dreaming brain stumbles across a valuable link that has escaped waking consciousness” (p. 101).
But the connections, even if at times random, would not occur if we did not put the groundwork in first to have the information stored in our neurons.
The importance of the slow hunch and collaborations
Slow hunch is the feeling in the back of your mind about something, an idea that is slowly developing, a hunch that you know is there but you can’t exactly pinpoint to all of its features.
The importance of slow hunch in idea development is this: we need to keep it alive, sometimes over the years, because once the right conditions, right connections are made, those ideas can change the world.
Yet, often we will not have the great idea because we only have a part of that idea and someone else, if we connect with them, might have the missing half we need:
“most great ideas first take 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 help complete ideas” (p. 71)
People working in completely different issues and professions for example meet and suddenly understand how their ideas complement each other and a new connection between ideas is made.
This also means that ideas are not necessarily even individual property but rather a collision of minds where the fragmented pieces finally come together and join into something bigger and bolder:
“encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do – the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space. That’s where the true sparks fly” (p. 162)
We can foster greater opportunities for innovation by investing in places, and now online spaces: increasing the possibility of having a conversation or coffee with someone outside our expertise or profession, by someone who has had different experiences, and who can help us to even question the fundamental assumptions we hold.
Keep a working book to document ideas
For slow hunches and any idea development at any time, keeping a common working book is essential.
The great scientists and writers such as John Locke had a common book where they wrote down all their ideas, made notes on their thoughts, documented the different features and characteristics they could almost feel and see but still were not able to capture in their total form.
Having a book like that, whether it is about your life experiences and principles, your decisionmaking processes and outcomes, or documenting ideas over time is helpful as it leaves a legacy of your thinking and how it evolves.
But sometimes we might already have “forgotten” something what we have learned or thought of, some ideas or hunches get easily lost in our busy life.
Common work books, like diaries and journals, help you to go back to you have thought and learned and build a thought evidence base.
By revisiting your early ideas and comments, you can help to make your brain to make new connections between something you already knew but had forgotten.
It is precisely the collision of ideas and of neurons that enable you to be more creative and foster innovation in whatever role you are in.
In many ways, these lessons are essential also in such scientific fields as climate change adaptation.
There is so much knowledge, experiences, thoughts and ideas already documented, already people and communities making decisions how to adapt to climate change, that innovation is within our grasp.
However, as with basic principles of innovation, we need to connect these ideas, learn from experience, seek knowledge outside of what we know, reach to other sources of knowledge, and ensure that we create spaces that foster dialogue.
True innovation emerges from collisions of thought, of new connections.
We must choose to foster it.