Innovation Needs Playmates

Oct 18, 2010


book, Where Good Ideas Come From,
Steven Johnson throws
cold water on the notion
that revolutionary
breakthroughs typically
arrive through a "eureka moment" by a solitary inventor.  Rather,
great ideas start from "the slow hunch" by one individual that is
nurtured by several others.

"In Mr. Johnson’s telling, innovation is most likely to occur when ideas
from different people, and even different fields, are rapidly banging against
one another; every so often the ideas will spawn some radical new combination," said
Megan McArdle in a review for The Wall Street Journal. "The most
innovative institutions will create settings where ideas are free to move,
and connect, in unexpected ways."

That’s why "chance encounters" more
logically rather than surprisingly resulted in breakthroughs throughout history.
It’s also why cities foster more innovation rather than small towns, and supports
why industries that cluster around areas succeed because they foster such brainstorming.

Another suggestion
around idea generation is the importance of just writing down the kernel of
an idea, albeit far from formed. The book also urges sticking a break in a
routine, such as taking a walk. But invariably Mr. Johnson gets back to the
importance of collaboration, including the ways ideas from one field can be
transformed in another and the power of information platforms to connect disparate
data and research.

Mr. Johnson wrote, "A good idea is a network. An idea
is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm." 

The final part of the book turns somewhat
controversial when Mr. Johnson argues that the corporate model of proprietary
research — bogged down by copyrights, patents, a culture of secrecy and top-down
bureaucracies — is not as effective as more "liquid networks" where
hunches and serendipitous situations can be fully explored. He passionately
advocates for "open environments
where ideas flow in unregulated channels."

In his review for The Oregonian, Glenn
Altschuler summed it up, "At
the end of the day, as they say, his advice to would-be innovators is pretty
sound: Write things down, learn from mistakes, ‘follow the links; let others
build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.’"

But the Journal’s Ms.
McArdle argued that while market forces may be less effective at delivering "radical
new ideas" than openness and
inspiration, they excel at converting those ideas into useful tools. She also
said the book discounts the steady progress found from smaller ideas.

"Reducing the history of innovation to a few ‘big ideas’ misses
the full power of human ingenuity," she wrote.

Discussion Questions: What kinds of environments give rise to good ideas?
Should corporations be more open to exploring ideas with other corporations,
even competitors?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

11 Comments on "Innovation Needs Playmates"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
David Dorf
10 years 6 months ago

After the big crash in 2008, we realized things were going to be different for retail and we wanted to be part of the changes. So we created a small R&D group we call Retail Applied Research that incubates ideas generated by the rest of the organization. As described by the reviewed book, there are no “eureka moments.” Most of the time we are just finding different ways to apply technology to retail problems. We don’t bother calculating ROI at the start, because we don’t know where the idea will eventually lead. Many of the ideas fail, but we’re smarter because of them.

In talking to large retailers, I’ve found several that are going down a similar path. The emergence of social and mobile require forward-thinking retailers to experiment and see where ideas take them.

Doug Stephens
Doug Stephens
10 years 6 months ago

I was at a mobile meet-up recently where one of the speakers said, “In order for any application to succeed it will have to be built on a shared and open API.”

His comment resonated because I feel that can be applied to all aspects of business today, regardless of what you sell.

In order for any business to survive into the future, I think they’ll have to view their business model as an open interface that affords collaboration and integration with other businesses, concepts or ideas. The best products and services will increasingly be developed out of mash-ups between unique but complementary businesses.

Things are simply moving too quickly for many companies to keep up in isolation. As a result, these 1+1=3 kinds of innovations will increasingly become the norm in all facets of business.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
10 years 6 months ago

Innovation, particularly in large organizations, is a by-product of the culture of the company, set by the most senior managers.

There are, in my experience at least, four requirements for a company to foster innovation. This includes, first, listening skills by senior managers. If they think they are the smartest person in the room because they have the fanciest title, there will be no innovation.

Secondly, the organization must be encouraged to take risks, even if they lead to failures which can, at times, be more informative than successes.

Third, as covered in the article, organizations must be curious. What’s the other guy doing? What can we learn from this? What do other industries do when faced with the challenges we face? Finally, organizations must be culturally disposed to relentlessly challenge each other and the status quo. What can we do smarter, faster, more effectively?

Provide a culture that has these four qualities (not easy in today’s economy) and innovation will flourish.

Doug Fleener
10 years 6 months ago

I think one of the biggest impediments for most retail organizations is engaging and hearing those front-line employees who know the customer and the store the best. Innovative retailers have the right tools, processes, and mechanisms that let these employees contribute to company innovation. As someone who has done this, I can tell you it takes a lot more work to include them. I can also say we were a better retailer by doing so.

Warren Love
Warren Love
10 years 6 months ago

The best industry innovations come from horizontal partnerships. An iPhone is not groundbreaking electronics innovation but the combination of available bits and pieces (touch screen, cell phone, MP3 and windows software (iTunes)) put together in an innovative way that is usable by the ultimate customer. Without good, trusting relationships with suppliers and insightful customer-centric knowledge an innovation will stay on the shelf as a cool tool for techie visionaries.

I believe the survey response is jaded by our own hesitancy to share ideas within our own organizations for fear of losing a competitive advantage at work. We all need to prove our worth. Innovation starts with “permission” from the top, trust of senior management and everything that Malcolm Gladwell identified in his book, “Blink.”

James Tenser
10 years 6 months ago
In an idealized world without intellectual property, Johnson’s notion of open collaboration and idea-sharing would very likely lead to unbridled innovation and problem-solving. This may be why I tend to root for the open-source developers and boo Microsoft and Apple. Of course, today’s capitalists would never invest in new products without the promise of limited, government-enforced monopoly–ask any pharmaceutical executive. Dad was a patent lawyer, which means his clients paid my college tuition, so I’m not about to tear down the centuries-old system in this forum. On the other hand, the intellectual property concept is in some ways quaint–its inventors certainly could not have forecast the creation of corporate R&D departments or business method patents. In other words, patents were designed to provide limited protection to individual inventors who invest personal savings and time in creating a new type of farm implement, but not necessarily to protect the employers of the white-coated creators of new software routines that make a database run faster. So I’d offer this distinction: Individual patents are usually narrow and specific–a… Read more »
Gene Detroyer
10 years 6 months ago
With very, very, very few exceptions, innovation does not come from large companies. And, while many talk a great game about innovation, few actually can pull it off. In most cases, innovation and change is the antithesis of the corporate mantra. Look at retail. Why aren’t any of the great retailers of 50 years ago the great retailers of today? Why are the great retailers of today only been factors in the last 30 years or less? Innovative thinking sees things in context with other things, contingent and non-contingent things, intuitively, in a seeming leap that makes no sense on the face of it, but which, when you understand what drives that intuition, that putting together of sometimes unseen and unanticipated pieces, makes absolute, brilliant and wonderful miraculous sense. It is putting the pieces together in a way that others don’t see. The fact that it often makes no sense on the face is why it can’t be done in a traditional corporate environment. As a contradictory example, people say “look at Apple.” They are… Read more »
Alison Chaltas
Alison Chaltas
10 years 6 months ago
We agree–good ideas are not necessarily reflective of the classic image of someone in a chemistry lab mixing beakers full of colored liquids, full of satisfaction at discovering a breakthrough in modern science. Good–dare we say great–ideas come from anywhere. In fact, there are typically folks in any given organization who are creative beyond their job description and just need their imaginations tapped in the right way. One example we can come up with goes back a few years to when one of our team members was running the Playtex gloves business. The business needed a boost and the team was looking for a big idea to get displays in the stores to remind consumers to buy gloves. It was early summer, and the person doing the forecasting on the business was a breast cancer survivor. She suggested creating pink gloves–a huge departure from the typically bright yellow Playtex standard–and putting them into displays for September/October for breast cancer awareness month. Needless to say, the program was a huge success on every business metric and… Read more »
Janet Poore
Janet Poore
10 years 6 months ago

In addition to being a creative concept person and “dot connector,” I have experience in both professional idea generation and facilitation of group idea generation sessions using formal exercises to get to out of the box ideas for new brands, products, etc.

Innovative and great ideas come from lateral thinking and vision, whether it’s one person’s brain or group think. One lateral thinking dot connector with vision will come up with better and more innovative ideas than a room full of linear, vertical thinkers who have been trained to follow rules.

The most creative and innovative ideas come from entrepreneurs who have the vision to see what’s possible and know how to turn the possible into reality. There are larger companies that have entrepreneurial cultures and encourage creative thinking. These are usually companies that started out as very entrepreneurial innovators and created new paradigms–like Apple,, Starbucks and The Container Store.

Mark Burr
10 years 6 months ago

To tack onto what Mr. Tenser said, Edison also said “I didn’t fail, I just found 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb.” Organizations that don’t crush failure but encourage it as a path of perseverance towards success end up with real innovation. That environment comes from the top, once they are willing to win from the bottom up.

Jerry Gelsomino
10 years 6 months ago

After viewing Mr. Johnson’s TED speech on his topic, I agreed with some point of view and disagreed with others. The first lesson one learns in Design School is that creativity often comes out of play. So environments that encourage play should and do help the ideation process. But some play can also range away from solving the problems or reaching the conclusions desired because there is too much play.

As a deal thinker, some of my best ideas started off as Eureka moments, and through discussion, research, play, dismissal and re-engagement, came out as great solutions.

I think the most important element is a concierge to control the creative environment, and manage participants, guiding them to stay focused and identify consensus for a meaningful solution.


Take Our Instant Poll

To what degree is innovation at corporations hampered by an aversion to openness and sharing within companies and with other organizations?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...