Connecting Ideas is the Fundamental Creative Act in Innovation

In this week’s class we talked about Jeff Bezos’ TED talk. When I think about innovation, to me the central part of the process is connecting ideas. As I keep emphasising, once we’ve done this, we then have to work like crazy to execute them well, and to get them to spread. But we need to start with great ideas, and we get these by making novel connections. I like this talk because there are several great examples of the importance of connecting in innovation.

The first example of connecting works at the meta level. This is a great example of confronting an uncertain business situation (what do we do about the internet?) through the use of analogy (trying to find the most comparable set connections out of several possibilities). In this case, Bezos takes on the idea that the internet was like the gold rushes of the 19th century. This was a common idea after the dot.com bust. He argues that this comparison is not the most accurate one, and that a better analogy to use would be that the internet is like electricity.

Bezos also demonstrates the importance of connecting ideas with all of his examples of repurposing. As he says, homes weren’t wired so that they’d have electricity, they were wired so that lights could be installed. However, once the houses and businesses were wired for electricity, hackers found many uses for it that had nothing to do with lighting. That’s how electrical appliances got started. It’s yet another example of how innovators often don’t know how their new ideas will ultimately be used.

And Bezos has multiple examples of making innovative things by combining existing ideas. The toaster is a good one. Prior to electric toasters, people made toast over fires, or using a rack on a stove. Once homes were wired, someone figured out that you could use electricity to heat an element stuck in the middle of the same kind of rack. It was a creative recombination of ideas – connecting ideas – that led to the innovation.

Finally, he shows the value of trying many possible combinations of ideas. Not all of them work, and in retrospect the ones that don’t look stupid. Like the electric tie straightener, and the stupid dot.coms. But that’s the essence of innovation – experiment widely to see what works. Find has many new connections between ideas as possible, and try them out. This leads to waste – so we need to find ways to test these new combinations as quickly and cheaply as possible. But since we don’t know in advance which ideas will work, the best way to filter them out is through experimenting.

We often talk about how organisations can place too much emphasis on aggregating ideas. Instead, I think we need to focus on getting better at connecting ideas in novel ways. This is how innovative ideas arise. There are skills that help in this regard – pattern recognition, lateral thinking, and so on. If you’re trying to be more innovative, try to build these skills. Don’t try to compile more ideas, focus instead on making more novel connections, because that’s the fundamental creative act in innovation.

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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