For the past five years, I’ve been investigating this question of where good ideas come from. It’s a kind of problem I think all of us are intrinsically interested in. We want to be more creative. We want to come up with better ideas. We want our organizations to be more innovative.
I’ve looked at this problem from an environmental perspective. What are the spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation? What I found in all these systems, there are these recurring patterns that you see again and again that are crucial to creating environments that are unusually innovative.
One pattern I call the slow hunch that breakthrough ideas almost never come in a moment of great insight and a sudden stroke of inspiration. Most important ideas take a long time to evolve and they spend a long time dormant in the background. It isn’t until the ideas had two or three years sometimes 10 or 20 years to mature that it suddenly becomes accessible to you and useful to you in a certain way; and this is partially because good ideas normally come from the collision between smaller hunches so that they form something bigger than themselves.
So you see a lot in the history of innovation, cases of someone who has half of an idea. There’s a great story about the invention of the World Wide Web and Tim Berners-Lee. This is a project that Berners-Lee worked on for 10 years but when he started, he didn’t have a full vision for this new medium he was going to invent. He started working on one project as a side project to help him organize his own data. He scrapped that after a couple of years and he started working on another thing and only after about 10 years did the full vision of the World Wide Web come into being. That is more often than not how ideas happen. They need time to incubate and they spend a lot of time in this partial hunch form.
The other thing that’s important when you think about ideas this way is that when ideas take form in this hunch state, they need to collide with other hunches. Oftentimes the thing that turns a hunch into a real breakthrough is another hunch that’s lurking in somebody else’s mind and you have to figure out a way to create systems that allow those hunches to come together and turn into something bigger than the sum of their parts.
That’s why for instance the coffee house in the Age of Enlightenment or the Parisian salons of Modernism were such engines of creativity because they created a space where ideas could mingle and swap and create new forms. When you look at the problem of innovation from this perspective, it sheds a lot of important light on the debate we’ve been having recently about what the Internet is doing to our brains. Are we getting overwhelmed with an always connected, multi-tasking lifestyle? And is that going to lead to less sophisticated thoughts as we move away from the slower, deeper contemplative state of reading, for instance?
Obviously I’m a big fan of reading, but I think it’s important to remember that the great driver of scientific innovation and technological innovation has been the historic increase in connectivity and our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people; and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new. That really has, I think, been more than anything else the primary engine of creativity and innovation over the last 600 or 700 years.
And so yes, it’s true we’re more distracted, but what has happened that is really miraculous and marvelous over the last 15 years is that we have so many new ways to connect and so many new ways to reach out and find other people who have that missing piece that will complete the idea we’re working on, or to stumble serendipitously across some amazing new piece of information that we can use to build and improve our own ideas. That’s the real lesson of where good ideas come from. The chance favors the connected mind.