Combining Ideas – a Key to Innovation

One of the challenges of managing innovation is figuring out what your industry is going to look like in a few years’ time. The big difficulty here is that you are juggling data from three domains, and all of them are changing rapidly: the external environment that shapes your industry, innovations within your industry, and innovations within your organisation. These act together to create non-linear feedback loops which make the change process nearly impossible to predict or manage. How do we manage this?

The act of innovation consists of combining ideas in new ways, and then executing the this new combination effectively (If you’re nerdy, I’ve got a fairly technical model of how this works in the paper I wrote with Jason Potts & Mark Dodgson for this year’s DRUID Conference). One of the ways that we deal with the complexity we face is by innovatively connecting ideas. We can try to do this in a way that guides the future of our industry, but to do this we need to figure out what ideas to connect. Where should they come from?

Yesterday I talked about Robert Sutton’s contention that we shouldn’t take ideas from people that claim to have solved the exact problem that we’re facing. His point is that this will not lead to innovative solutions to your problem, and I think this is correct. This means that we need to find ideas from people that have solved problems that are similar to ours, but not identical.

There is a striking example of some of the issues here in this conversation between Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky.

The whole discussion is worth watching, but the part that I find really striking comes in Shirky’s first section. He talks about how when he started writing about the challenges that the internet would pose for newspapers, he was a bit nervous because he thought that he was getting to the party too late – that others had already said everything there was to say on the topic. And this happened in 1993! There was a lot of discussion about what would happen to journalism as people became aware of the web’s capabilities – and this was before google, before craigslist, and before amazon. The main thing that was happening then was that we were already starting to see an impact on the music industry.

How did it take 16 years for this problem to become important to news organisations? I think that a big part of it is that they spent a lot of time arguing why news was different from music, or anything else that might have served as a useful analogy. So my corollary to Sutton’s rule is – you must ignore people that say that the problem you face is completely unique. Even game-changing radical innovations are not completely unique – everything is embedded within the existing economy. The very nature of our network economy means that everything is connected.

That statement is general enough that it might sound trivial, but it’s not. This connectedness means that whatever industry you are in, there will be similar, related industries. An important innovation skill is to be able to combine ideas from these related areas with your ideas. These new combinations can become path-breaking innnovations.

Innovation is making new combinations. Scanning for ideas that you can connect with is a critical innovation skill. If you view your problems as unique, it makes it harder (impossible?) to find these new ideas. So look for problems that are like yours, and see if other people have found solutions that you can adapt to your situation.

(If you’re interested in the issues facing news in particular, this post collects all of the entries that we have made discussing business model innovation in news)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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