Chance Favours the Connected Mind

Steven Johnson is a fantastic author, and his next book is about innovation. It is called Where Good Ideas Come From, and it comes out next month. It is the result of a few years of study, where he has investigated creative, innovative environments. He explains the key points from the book in this TED talk:

There are a few key points that are important for people trying to encourage innovation within organisations:

  • Ideas are networks: Johnson maintains that innovative ideas at their most basic level are the result of new, novel connections within the mind. Just as important is the environment in which people are working. Those that regularly come into contact with people having diverse interests and viewpoints are more likely to come up with innovative ideas. Innovation = Connections – one of the key themes that we repeatedly come back to here.
  • If we want to encourage innovation, we need to design workspaces to support it: this conclusion follows directly from the first point. If good ideas depend on interactions between people, we need to take a network view when we design the spaces in which we’ll work. How can we regularly interact with those that are working on different problems? How can we encourage diverse viewpoints? The physical space has a significant impact on these issues, and we need to take this into account.
  • Good ideas are more likely to result from slow hunches: one of the points that Johnson makes is that even when an idea seems to come to us in a flash of inspiration, it usually actually has a longer history behind it. He uses the example of Darwin, who in his autobiography says that the idea for natural selection came to him in a flash one day while he was reading Malthus. However, recent research based on his notebooks shows that the theory had been developing for months prior to that.

Johnson closes the talk with a great story – he tells how GPS developed from the work of two guys that were initially just curious about whether or not they could track the signals from Sputnik. They figured that out. Then they figured out how to use the doppler effect to figure out where Sputnik was. And through a series of similar small steps, we ended up with GPS.

The GPS story demonstrates how ideas generate interactively, and how they can have wildly unexpected outcomes once you execute them. It is a great innovation story – and it shows how chance favours the connected mind.

Note: Here’s another video that has been made to promote the book. It is shorter than the TED video, and uses a completely different set of examples. Both are worth watching. I’m looking forward to the book!

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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15 thoughts on “Chance Favours the Connected Mind

  1. I was about to shoot you an email recommending this talk, but I figured you would already knew about it, and I was right.

    Enjoyed the talk, “Chance favored the connected mind!”

  2. Brilliant. I love it.

    Ideas are indeed networks, and it’s very interesting to think about how the modern, social internet imitates the synaptic traits of the human brain. What if the entire planet evolved into something of a single, digital brain? The potential in that is staggering.

    I firmly believe in connecting people and ideas. No idea ever materialized out of thin air, and I think “flashes of brilliance” are more akin to all the pieces suddenly clicking into place, like a new engine being fired for the first time – all systems are finally go.

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you, Tim. Just stopping by to comment on today’s post (“The Problem with Metrics”) and thought I’d revisit this one. I’ll put this additional talk on my #todo list and watch it ASAP.

  4. Just watched ‘em both. Rad. I picked up this book at Powell’s the other day, found it intriguing, and then noticed the Darwin story at the front – and I knew Tim just had to have read this. And so you have!

  5. I should add I’ve just read some really thickheaded comments from people who haven’t even read the book on Amazon that I think demonstrate that even having a desire for innovative thinking in the mission statement won’t convince people to think differently. You know why? It’s hard.

  6. Darwin stories + innovation = pretty much an automatic read for me – as you obviously know!

    Amazon is much better than imdb, but you still get some pretty boneheaded comments there.

    I hope things are going well up your way Amber.

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