Where Good Ideas Come From

By: Gayle Dendinger Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Inspirations In the previous issue of ICOSA, I wrote an article titled Overdue for Do where I addressed the momentum we are gaining from the coverage of the Biennial of the Americas and our cover story on immigration with Rupert Murdoch, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the Partnership for New York City.

Continuing the momentum, I had the privilege to interview author Steven Johnson who has written such books as Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate; Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter; and The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. But the book I am most inspired by is Johnson’s most recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

While intrigued by many of the concepts in his book, I am most interested in the "incubation setting" where people with "half ideas" can converge to create better ideas or have that "eureka moment." And, I am inspired with how Johnson processes ideas.

IS AN IDEA "in its time" as opposed to "ahead of its time?"

Johnson says that a filtering process plays into ideas, and that the hard part is to figure out which ideas ultimately stick. For example, let’s say that you’re out talking to people and somebody mentions something. Then, you have a conversation with someone else who is in a different field and perhaps they mention something similar that reminds you of the first topic. Johnson says that when you have that feeling that you keep coming across the same idea through various inputs, the idea is usually "ripe."


Johnson concisely expresses how leaders can cut through the data overload, or noise, if you will, and use the noise to their advantage. One of the cross-cutting themes in Good Ideas is the importance of serendipity and of error in leading to new discoveries, and he uses the invention of photography to make his point. He says, "Photography was invented by an accidental mess. When you’re in too sterile of an environment, you know exactly what you are looking for and your research is directed to one path because you’re locked and committed to one idea. If the idea needs to grow, evolve or get refined, then a little noise is needed in that process. You need a little bit of a surprise, messiness, and accidental connection – and that’s the virtue."

Part of the noise reduction has to have, according to Johnson, a "coffeehouse phase" where people from diverse backgrounds can have free flowing conversations that are not too structured. It is where you are likely to stumble across an interesting thing that helped move, enhance or push your idea in a new direction. "It’s the dialogue between those different perspectives that can be really helpful to ideas," he reiterates.

Creating ideas and cutting through the noise is what apparently gets us to that next level of a great idea—the slow hunch. Johnson purports that when you look at great ideas historically, there is almost always a slow hunch phase where the idea is not fully flushed out and the idea is hard to diffuse. For example, as a child, Jack Dorsey would listen to emergency calls on a radio. As years passed, he found a way to build a software platform to send out status updates—today known as Twitter. "So many interesting ideas have this long pre-history, like Dorsey’s, where they start as hunches. The trick is to create mechanisms where hunches can be cultivated and preserved."

Oftentimes however, the challenge for smaller organizations and start-ups is that they live in a hunch time—they don’t really know what the business is yet, but they’ve created a space where they try to find it. Johnson says the advantage of a smaller organization is that it is easier to create a culture that encourages a fluid exchange of hunches and perpetuates people saying, "You know I’ve got this interesting idea! I’m not sure where this leads but what do you guys think?" "Basically, it’s easier to come together in a smaller organization because people have an opportunity to talk to each other," Johnson says.


As Johnson and I discussed the dynamics within small and large organizations, we drifted to the topic of connecting and protecting ideas, and how people and organizations can bridge the gap between reward and fear.

What Johnson tries to demonstrate in his book is that a good driver of innovation is people borrowing and building off of other people’s ideas, instead of starting from scratch. "All innovation is collaborative by definition," says Johnson. He argues that the problem we have with market-driven innovation is that there is this natural tendency to close off and protect ideas because people are afraid that their idea will be stolen. "A certain amount of protection is reasonable, but every time a protective wall is built around an idea, whether it’s being kept a secret or whether it’s wrapped in intellectual property protection, we limit the ways in which ideas can be transformed, reshaped and turned into something even better or something totally different."


I agree with Johnson. He inspires my work here at ICOSA. And as we expand our work to include the Do Tank this fall, I will be using and promoting his work.

I believe that the Do Tank is In Its Time. I believe that we have cut through the noise and are well on our way to serendipity. We, here at ICOSA, have had a hunch for a long time that we are overdue for "do," and we are ready to move forward, fully engaged in prompting change locally, nationally, and internationally. We will have the opportunity to work with others’ ideas and build upon those concepts by facilitating a flow of ideas that allow participants to take action.