Blog | March 10, 2015

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

Life Sciences editor Rob wright

Lately, I found myself immersed in the concept of innovation. During my research to gain a better understanding of what innovation is and where good ideas come from, I stumbled across some interesting concepts I would like to share. The first concept begins with the word stumble itself, because the process of developing good ideas often involves a lot of serendipity (i.e., fortunate happenstance).

We often refer to innovation in the business world as having a link to serendipity. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time — a lucky break.” But is this really the case? If you look closer at the events leading up to an instance of innovation, it’s likely you’ll notice a point where a little bit of chaos — something out of the ordinary — was introduced into a situation. Consequently, this change led to some type of innovation.   This is what you want to strive for in your organization, what I refer to as adding structured chaos. That way you are improving your odds of “stumbling” into some good ideas. Here’s an example.

Where Do Good Ideas Happen

In the 1990s, psychologist Kevin Dunbar began conducting research on the researcher (Yes, you read that right.). Setting up cameras in several molecular biology labs, he recorded as much action as possible. He also conducted extensive interviews with the researchers. His most striking discovery had to do with the physical location where most of the innovative breakthroughs occurred. Turns out, ground zero of innovation was not the microscope, but the conference table where the researchers would gather and informally discuss their latest work. Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, refers to the process uncovered by Dunbar as “liquid networks” — the collective flow of energized minds working on a problem. So the good idea didn’t occur in isolation, but within a network. Here’s a more personal example. 

Not long ago I was struggling with writing an article. I really didn’t want to take a break. However, I had committed to meet with one of my colleagues over lunch to discuss a number of things which had nothing to do with what I was currently working on. Reluctantly, I kept my appointment and allowed myself to be dragged away from what was my own personal hell. However, when I returned I had a different perspective. The process of writing, which had previously been beyond my grasp, was suddenly within easy reach. This is what I refer to as structured chaos. I don’t want to work in an office where there is constant interruption, this is total chaos and not productive for me. However, by structuring in breaks here and there, you create the opportunity to have some serendipitous discussions. But be careful, if you pull out a map with the intent to plan your journey toward serendipity, you probably won’t find it. One of my favorite examples of this approach was effectively captured in the brainstorming session from the movie Crazy People, where a bunch of ad execs are having a hard time coming to terms with the latest advertising gimmick — total honesty.

In your office, you probably have people who feel compelled to work through lunch. Perhaps there is nothing you can do about that. Or is there? When was the last time you invited someone to join you for lunch? Do you sit in a common area and invite serendipity to join you? Dunbar’s example of having researchers gather informally to discuss their work is a great example of structuring a bit of chaos in the office and creating some liquid networks for ideas to grow. But if you do this, don’t make it feel like work. Instead, try to make it fun. If you are the person doing the inviting, be willing to engage and have something interesting to talk about to kick off the conversation. Also, be willing to ask lots of questions. By not always working on work, you might just stumble into a few good ideas. Some of Googles best products have come from creating a bit of unstructured chaos (i.e., the 20 percent time concept which enables engineers to spend one day a week on a project not necessarily in their job description).  

Innovation Necessitates Some Non-Subject Matter Experts

In the business world, many organizations have taken to having an intelligent but non-subject matter expert sit in on innovation meetings so they can ask very naïve questions, the kind the real experts wouldn’t have even considered to ask. Here’s a reason why this is a good approach.

Naveen Jain, a trustee of Singularity University and X Prize foundation, believes the people who will come up with the creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems will not be experts in their fields, but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge, and opportunities. “Experts, far too often, engage in a kind of myopic thinking,” Jain writes. “Those who are down in the weeds are likely to miss the big picture. To my mind, an expert is in danger of becoming a robot, toiling ceaselessly toward a goal but not always seeing how to connect the dots.”

I agree with Jain, and it got me thinking about fostering innovation in the BioPharmaceutical industry. Why not allow your employees to network widely? In fact, why not encourage folks to find a conference that is just outside their area of expertise so they can explore adjacent possibilities that can be applied to their line of work? But before you do, consider helping people within your organization capture their ideas via a “commonplace book.”

How to Avoid Letting Your Good Ideas Be Lost Forever

A commonplace book is a device with memory enhancing powers, and certainly not a new concept. In its most customary form, “commonplacing” involves capturing thoughts, ideas, quotes from books, concepts from movies, or a variety of other sources on a variety of subjects, in one centralized location. It is a personalized encyclopedia if you will. This doesn’t require a huge financial investment, other than a pen, a notepad, and committing the time to make the process of “commonplacing” a habit. Here is resource to get you started. By transcribing your ideas to paper, you fuel innovation by preventing ideas from slowly fading from memory, and you enable what Johnson calls a “slow hunch” pattern — the idea that breakthrough ideas almost never come in a moment of great insight, but take time to evolve.

In my own “commonplace book” I have areas for books I want to write, parenting ideas, thoughts on leadership, favorite movie quotes, notes from books I have read, sayings I have heard, just to name a few. In fact, the other day I had an idea about hiring the best people I jotted down I want to share.

Imagine you are the CEO of a BioPharma company and you want to find the top 10 most talented people to join your company. Where would you start? How would you explain your objective to your person in HR? What if you just told them to go out and find the top 10 best people? How do you think they would do? Odds are they would begin by creating some structure or ask you for parameters. “Are you looking for the top 10 chemists, biologists, marketing people, or one of each,” they might ask. If you give them little guidance, odds are they will develop their own. Maybe they would start with only looking for people with college degrees. Next, you probably can’t go wrong by looking at the top 10 colleges in the country. When the HR person comes to you with a list of their top 10, ask yourself if they achieved the objective. Sure, they found you 10 intelligent people from the 10 best colleges, but is there the possibility that there are 10 extremely brilliant people who never went to college? Of course there are. But you didn’t find them because you allowed for a little too much chaos and not enough guidance as to what you are looking for. And while you are thinking that finding the Will Hunting’s of the world (Will Hunting is the character played by Matt Damon in the movie Good Will Hunting who has a gift for mathematics that is working as a janitor at MIT) is unrealistic, I say, given the advent of social media and its ability to connect people in ways we never thought possible, perhaps it is not as unrealistic as you might think. It might be hard, but finding top talent often is. Rather than dismiss this type of idea out of hand, I challenge you to start commonplacing your own wild and crazy ideas, so you can discuss with a few non-subject matter experts over lunch, and see what kind of innovative ideas you can come up with.