Connecting Ideas for Innovation


Connecting Ideas for Innovation

When do your great ideas come to you? Where do your great ideas come to you? Is it when you’re alone in your office or lab? How about when you’re out for a walk?<

Are you sure about that?

Steven Johnson, the author of How We Got to Now, Everything Bad is Good for You, and Where Good Ideas Come From argues that while bits and pieces of those ideas may come together in your solitude, they actually become really good or even great ideas when they have a chance to mingle with other ideas.

In his TED Talk Where Good Ideas Come From (see the video below), Johnson argues that the really great ideas come when a percolating idea from one person encounters those of other individuals. It happens at meetings with colleagues, those in-between conference session conversations, and, in his main example, places like coffee houses (he notes the original coffee houses of London to start the point rolling).

Johnson gets to the heart of this his Ideas book:

“But the truth is, when one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.” (Johnson, 2010, p. 22)

We need to help our ideas connect. We need to put ourselves in those situations where serendipity can happen.

Universities are prone to siloing. A siloed structure encourages people stay within their colleges, sometimes just within their departments and this can be a problem if we want to encourage creativity. I’ve seen early forms of ideas blossom when a faculty member from one department has a conversation with a colleague from across campus at our Course Design Institute around something as basic as assessment. I’ve seen blog posts about one concept lead to ongoing conversations across the Web leading to new courses or research topics. If we remain within our silos or cloistered away in our offices with no flow of ideas outside of our heads, we could be doing ourselves and our ideas a great disservice.

As Johnson said, ideas want to connect, they want to evolve with the input of others, they want to join forces with the ideas of others and become great.

Johnson, S. (2010) Where Good Ideas Come From: The natural history of innovation.  New York: Riverhead Books.