11th November 2021
Innovation. Innovation. Innovation. If I had a penny for every time I heard that word then…well… then I’d probably stop taking the pennies. But that’s beside the point.
We’ve become accustomed to talking about innovation at every turn; ‘true’ innovation, where a new idea or concept reigns supreme and slaps you in the face on its way to superstardom (or, as some like to call it, ‘good PR’).
Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there blindly calling what they’re doing ‘innovative’. General rule of thumb: if it’s taking ages and causes little disruption, then chances are it’s not – and neither are they. What I’m more interested in discussing in this article, however, is whether there’s a blueprint for innovative environments – and how best to go about nurturing them if so.
Slapped wrists aside, I’ve been interested in how we identify and leverage an environment that contributes directly to innovation for some time now; an interest that led me to an insightful TED Global talk a few months ago by science author and media theorist, Steven Johnson (whose book, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, is definitely worth a read). In it, Johnson discusses the arenas and journeys behind how our ideas – specifically those of an innovative nature – form in context to the social networks and environments we inhabit.
Central to his exploration, he states that: “…an idea is a network on the most elemental level…it’s a new configuration that’s never formed before. The question is: How do you get your brain into this new innovation environment where this network is going to form?”To provide an answer, Johnson pressed rewind to 1650’s Oxford, England, to a time where the gentry were making a transition from pubs to coffeehouses; from booze to coffee; from a depressant to a stimulant.’The Enlightenment, as it was later dubbed, became key to understanding how ideas worked in the “architecture of space…where ideas could have sex”.
This “liquid network” as coined by Johnson was all down to the introduction of stimulating environments – coffee, public spaces and the open network all served to introduce thoughts to one another. In essence, the coffeehouses of 1650 had become speed-dating emporiums for ideas. And my god were they promiscuous.
To cut to the chase and shamelessly paraphrase Johnson’s point, what the coffeehouses offered, for the first time ever – and indeed what we should be chasing today – was an energetic melee of thought, discussion, ideas and debate, packed tightly into one aromatic nucleus.
No longer were embryonic ideas locked in the dark recesses of people’s (usually inebriated) minds, wandering whether they’d ever get their time to shine. Rather, they were being provoked, nurtured and groomed by their synaptic peers into joining forces, exploding through craniums and welcoming themselves to the living ether.
It’s here, however, that Johnson’s true argument for ‘where good ideas come from’ turns up to the party. The idea of people sat in solitude dreaming up perfectly packaged innovations before releasing them to the masses is a no-go; ideas don’t form in social isolation. Prime example? Charles Darwin’s notes show that he’d nailed his Theory of Evolution months before his proceeding ‘eureka’ moment in apparent solitude.
So why didn’t he realise it sooner? Well, as Johnson proposes, he likely couldn’t chemically – and therefore intellectually – join the proverbial dots needed for his theory to prevail at that time; allowing those connections to flow and mature into a fully formed understanding on a conscious level was key to his realisation.
And so it is that the social and intellectual connections in our liquid networks turn out to mirror the synaptic connections those very same ideas travel through in our grey matter. Our brains don’t form thoughts and ideas from using one, isolated and deliberated over synapse, just like innovative ideas don’t take shape in the locked rooms of soundless studies. Innovative ideas form in myriad networks. They form by being challenged or complemented by other ideas. They form by being fed with energy and chaos.
Sounds pretty simple in theory, right? Well, there is a twist to this tale. The one, base ingredient needed for the cauldron of innovation to succeed is the ability to succinctly communicate those thoughts and ideas to those around you; easier said than done when treading on ground untouched. As Jack Anderson, Innovation Specialist at Chevron, highlighted in a recent MeetTheBoss interview, getting people “…to tell their story… and get to the point in two minutes” is key to unlocking a thought or idea and move it forward as a group. To have an idea is to be able to interpret it accordingly – and that means externally to a team as well as internally to yourself.
So while our exponentially virtualised worlds continue to become just that – with VoIP, video conferencing and smartphones all playing a bigger part in the way we communicate – we’re still all in one big coffee shop; it’s just got far, far bigger. We still choose to use brainstorming sessions and focus groups (and, more recently, crowdsourcing) as part of our chain of connections, and we still decide to investigate potential innovations as part of a wider group. But all of these efforts are by-products of an initial idea.
In order to become better as ideas people – and in order to establish fertile soil to grow more innovative concepts from – we need to embrace the chaos and loosen the leash on exploration. We need to challenge. We need to create an environment that encourages disruption and innovation. But most of all, we need to understand that those environments work just like the tiny synapses that make us tick – often unidentified and always connected.
As Johnson concludes himself, “That’s the real lesson: Chance favors the connected mind.” His liquid network applies just as much to innovation today as it did to the coffeehouses and gentry back in the 1650s. The only real difference? Skinny Lattes.