Great ideas are traditionally portrayed as eureka moments by geniuses alone in their garret … A classic example is Charles Darwin’s portrayal in his autobiography of how he comes up with the Theory of Natural Selection. But his diaries reflect a rather different picture: that he had already fully articulated the theory well before his ‘epiphany’. The ‘light bulb’ moment was more to do with pulling it into a coherent idea, but even this was something that didn’t happen overnight but gradually evolved.*
So if it is the slow hunch rather than the eureka moment which characterises the emergence of good ideas, how can we nurture our own slow hunches?
How do we help our organisations to bring their ideas to fruition?
How can we accelerate the process?
Although we make the assumption that an idea as a single thing, Stephen Johnson (Where Good Ideas come from published by Penguin) argues that it is more like a ‘liquid network’ – an idea is fluid: it flexs, grows and changes with new inputs. It is a set of neurones firing in a new way. These liquid networks are more likely to form where there are different ideas, perceptions, philosophies, beliefs all jostling together in a semi-chaotic fashion.
So what are the environments which lead to an unusually high level of innovation and creativity?
How do we balance the need to protect ideas (patent, trademarks etc) with the truth that we often only have half an idea… where do we find the other half?
The Coffee Shop
The coffee house had a key role in stimulating the wealth of ideas which characterised the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, an age where ideas emerged and were adopted at a rate never seen before. Not only was a stimulant (coffee) replacing a depressant (alcohol) as the daily tipple, coffee houses provided a place where people met up to debate, discuss and argue over the latest ideas of the day. This bringing together of disparate views and the opportunity to debate was the key to stimulating the multitude of ideas which emerged. The role of discussion and debate in innovation is endorsed by Kevin Dunbar’s research into the generation of ideas in scientific labs. Almost all the important breakthrough ideas occurred, not at the lab bench, but at the weekly conference where people were debating their ideas.
Some questions to think about:
How can we stimulate a coffee house environment?
Have we the opportunities to bring disparate people together to discuss & debate?
Do we have a culture which allows people to argue and disagree?
Do we have an approach (such as Google’s 20%) which gives people the time to debate and create?