Book Review: “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson
Another good title by Steven Johnson that provides insights on elements related to how innovation happens, how to foster it and what to look out for to set up an environment where innovation can thrive. Though not exhaustive, I found the book interesting and took a decent amount of notes around the following areas.
The adjacent possible
The world is capable of any extraordinary change, but timing matters. This is similar to the “standing shoulders of giants” concept. For example, the invention of the spectacles in the XIII century enabled a number of other inventions like the telescope, the microscope, etc. And when Gutenberg invented the press and democratised the access to books, people realised they were farsighted and needed spectacles, which enabled mass market adoption for the product.
The point here is that the stories of isolated eureka moments that lead to big inventions are rarely true. The trick to having good ideas is not to sit in glorious isolation but rather about getting more parts on the table to work with. Building open networks that allow for information spillover have always been effective ways to spur innovation.
Chaos is a productive way to explore the adjacent possible. Industrialisation brought the view that processes, efficiency and order are qualities to strive for in business. The counterintuitive idea here is that disorder in fact allows for tinkering with new ideas, allow for information spillover and enable change.
The intersection between different disciplines
Hunches that don’t connect are doomed to stay hunches. The transition from a hunch to an idea takes time and without a way to materialise them they get lost to the more pressing needs of day-to-day issues. The tradition of maintaining a commonplace book, where ideas were written down in a non-structured format, helped spur innovation and new ideas in the XVII century.
Browsing the stacks in a library is a good way to discover and connect with new ideas across different fields. The raise of the Web has helped serendipity by building a global distributed medium in which anyone can be a publisher. Conversely, hypertext has led to a decline in serendipitous discovery: we went from browsing to looking things up.
A shocking large number of transformative ideas can be attributed to contaminated laboratory experiments. For example, Fleming’s discovery of penicillin when mold infiltrated a culture of Staphylococcus. Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain noise and error. Innovation thrives on useful mistakes and get suffocated with the demands of quality control.
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