December 28, 2010

News & Opinion: Interviewing Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 4:42 PM – Filed under: General Business

I had the incredible pleasure of interviewing Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From (among many other books). We spoke about patterns among the individuals featured in the book, what an organization created to build on the premise of the book would like, and Bill Gates' reading vacation. What's fascinating about Where Good Ideas Come From is the application of the research to your own pursuit of creativity and innovation and that of your organization. When interviewing Steven, I caught him on his way to the Pentagon to help them think creatively about building a culture of innovation. You'll learn more in the book and a few themes you'll find in the interview is encouraging the mingling of diverse working groups in your organization, building a support structure for nascent ideas and creating space for exploration of new ideas within the workday.

When transcribed the interview is quite long so here is the meat of what we spoke about. Here goes:
KATE MYTTY: You outline many individuals in the book everyone, Darwin, Babbage, Snow and many more. What were the patterns you found among those individuals – were they naturally creative and seeking innovation or were their ideas the result of being in the right place with the right amount of knowledge at the right time?

STEVEN JOHNSON: The first thing to clarify is I think sometimes this book is misunderstood as being against the idea of geniuses or unusually gifted and intelligent people because I spent so much time talking about the environments that lead to innovation. And, it’s worth clarifying that I do believe some individuals are smarter than other people. There are people that are unusually talented and those people are going to be more likely to come up with good ideas than less intelligent people. Now whether people are more intelligent based upon their education or their genetics, that’s no doubt a mix of all those things.

The point of the book is that a lot of these people in addition to being smart, are in specific situations and work environments with certain work habits and certain temperaments and sensibilities that encourage them to not just be smart but also be original in their thinking and ideas. One recurring theme in almost all the people that I look at is that they have a lot of hobbies. The innovators are constantly working on three, four or five pet projects—beyond their main job.

Darwin is a great example. His day job is developing the theory of natural selection and in his spare time, he’s always going and working on his barnacle and beetle collection and working in his garden. It turns out that all those side interests end up informing and shaping the theory he is working on in his main project. It makes sense, given the larger argument of the book, ideas need to network and great ideas often come from smaller ideas of different fields getting together and recombining in a new way. So, if you have a lot of hobbies what ends up happening is that you make it easier to network your own ideas and you see these unlikely collisions happening – in your own private intellectual space without talking to anyone else.

KM: There a lot of ideas bubbling through this book – how did you go about extending research from previous books and pursuing the questions that remained? What was the environment for you to be able to write a book like this?

SJ: There are a lot of ways in which my writing follows the prescriptions and patterns that I talk about in the book. I elude to that a tiny bit in the book – but I didn’t want to talk about it too much in the book. [Steven humbly laughs] -- “I’m writing a book about creative ideas and let me tell you how I get my great ideas.” But, since you asked [laughs again], the hardest thing about this book was trying to figure out how to organize it and what to put in it. It’s such a big subject – particularly because I decided to include the biological aspects – so at one point I sat down and said, “Okay, this book can include any good idea that any human being had in the course of history plus any interesting biological evolution in the course of human history.” That’s a pretty broad scope.

I spent a bit of time flailing around figuring out what I had gotten myself into and then I started to see patterns – there was a going to be a chapter on the slow hunch and on liquid networks and once I had about four or five chapters, it got a lot easier and became fun. I knew I had a couple of examples for each of them and then it was this process of really this open-ended – really, hypertextual is the best way to explain it – exploration of these links. I’d be reading something about Gutenberg somewhere and someone would reference Gutenberg another place and I’d think I should go back and research the real story and see what really happened.

Then I’d go back and research it and find something about the press and that Gutenberg had borrowed a whole technology to finish his invention of the printing press. I was like, “A-ha! I know where that goes. That goes in this chapter.” It was an overwhelming process until I had the structure to anchor everything and then it was really fun and more like when was I going to stop. I kept stumbling across great new anecdotes and I could have written a book twice as long but I didn’t want to write a book twice as long [laughs].

But – a big part of it is, is giving yourself – and I think this is true for everyone, not just for those writing a book like this –time in your day to have that open-ended exploratory and old-fashioned surfing time where you go online or pick up books just for exploration -- time to serendipitously stumble upon things that you didn’t know you needed but you do, in fact, need. Part of the point of the book is that, if you want to use it this way, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It can be used … as filter to see only the things you want to see and know. But if you’re actively trying to surprise yourself and stumble across new things, the web is a tremendous vehicle for that and people should make the time to explore that. It’s a wonderfully generative thing.

In the book, I talk about all those studies that look at the importance of diversity and innovation and what’s interesting about it is we hear a lot about diversity as a social value and we want to be around people that are different than us so that we will be a more tolerant society – all of which is true and great. The other point I try and make in the book is that there is an innovation benefit that comes from diversity. If you’re around people, particularly who are professionally different from you and who have different fields of expertise – that is a great generator of new ideas. If you’re working at an ad agency and talking with an architecture friend and there’s something that the architect friend says about the way he deals with his clients and it could turn out to be particularly useful for how you should deal with your clients.

That’s one place where people should make sure they meet other people and that their organizations are set up so even within the association they’re interacting with people who work on very different kinds of projects. That’s an organizational principle that’s important.

There’s another principle in which the web is useful and where social media is useful. If you follow an interesting bunch of people on twitter who come from different fields – for example, I follow a bunch of musicians on twitter and I’m not a musician myself but I find something very interesting about their creative process and what they’re doing -- twitter is a 140 characters but the links that people pass around are the true value of that service. It’s not that you want to hear what people are having for breakfast but you do want to hear about the article they’re reading that morning or the blog post they’ve just written. By assembling a diverse group of people to follow, in a sense reading over their shoulder, that’s a great mechanism for discovering new links.

KM: Do you find yourself seeking those sources of information out and constantly looking on the edge of what other disciplines to go and learn from?

SJ: I certainly do. And that’s easy for me because it is what my job is about. I write multidisciplinary things and am constantly looking for new ideas but – I think for someone with a day job a little more focused on one field – there is intrinsic value in spending at least some of your time in that exploratory mode. Even if it just generates metaphors for how you approach problems. Sometimes you can literally take a piece of technology and say, “Hey I can use that.” And bring that technology or system into your field – like Gutenberg did.

To get into the offline world is the reading vacation; the legendary reading vacation that Bill Gates always takes. I think companies should encourage this more because the problem with reading is – now, I’m biased [laughs], books are a great source of information and ideas – but most of us read at the margins of our day. We have a whole day at work and then we put the kids to bed and have 15 minutes to read before we fall asleep and so it takes us three weeks or a month to finish one book and then we’re on to the next one. What I think is so interesting is when reading a couple of books back to back or even simultaneously, there’s an interesting dialogue that happens between them. Say you’re reading a biography of Churchill and a fiction book and something else – and somehow something in Churchill’s biography connects with the blog post you’re reading and something else you’ve read and the spark forms in your head. That’s very hard to do that when you’re reading one book, then you’re adding another book later and then reading the next book for three weeks because [by book three] you’ve forgotten everything you read in that first book.

The reading sabbatical idea would give people five days or additional days on weekends to go read a bunch of articles and other things and really think. There’s value in making organizational time for that deep dive – even if it’s once every couple of years. If it worked for Bill Gates, it’s going to work for other people, too.

KM: What else did you want to include in the book that you didn’t because you didn’t’ want to make a twice-the-size book? Have room or space for?

SJ: Some of it is stuff that I allude to but now in talking about it more I have gotten even more excited about it. One of them is the idea of co-working spaces. There’s a brief nod towards [in the book]. It’s come up on tour several times – these spaces where you have an office environment where there’s wifi and a printer and that sort of stuff and everyone working in the office is working on different projects – three people working a startup, few freelancers, employees from a corporation based in another town, and often times there’s some shared them – like green start-ups or internet companies. There’s enough diversity in all of the different projects and because everyone is working for themselves or for different people, it becomes this liquid network – or this coffee-shop-like space where there is the togetherness of people sharing a physical space – which is a very powerful force – and the diversity of people working on different projects for different organizations sharing that space which is something that rarely happens – normally the way we organize things. … One thing city governments can do to encourage innovation is to help fund some of these co-working spaces. It’s a great way to jumpstart new small businesses.

KM: If you could build an organization and base it upon some of the key ideas that come out of your book and the key pieces of research you’ve established, what would that creative and innovative organization look like?

[Steven kindly offered me a prize for being the first to ask this question.]

SJ: I would imagine it being a mix of a few things that already exist put together in a new way. I’m fascinated by Kickstarter in the way in which it is a new model for how to get new ideas supported so people come online and say, “I have an idea for a new art installation and I need $10,000 to make it happen” and getting the crowd-funded, micro-patrons to support it. You take that ability, anyone can come and find backers through this mechanism and add some of the co-working/etsy-like feeling where there’s shared space where people can work on their projects around other people. There’s the documentary film people sitting next to the people who were doing some kind of social good, non-profit people.  So that in addition to the distributed method of funding ideas and getting ideas out into circulation, you also come into a space where you’re sharing resources. Or maybe there’s just a coffee house structure where once every month folks get together and talk about their projects and have an extended coffee house, Ben Franklin style riff about them -- some kind of face-to-face connection there.

Then maybe there’s a mechanism where ideas that make more sense as organizations and less as one-off projects have a more structured space they can graduate up to.  If somebody, through that mechanism, comes up with an idea that could be a sustainable company, there’s a more incubator structure that comes in and says, we can help you, we have legal advice here, we have accounting advice, we can get you set up and do the business side for you while you grow and move into your own traditional organization. Once you get through that process then they may end up looking like a traditional company.

It’s the layer of ideas turning into larger projects or groups of people working on projects or organizations where good ideas are most likely to happen – and where they are most fragile. That is where I think some of these new organizational structures could allow for. There’s a lot to invent there – we have a lot of opportunity to create new support structures that could support ideas at that layer. And that’s what I’m really interested in.

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Thanks for reading. And thank you to Steven for the interview. You can find the book here and Steven's blog here.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.

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