Spreading Good Ideas

I just finished Where Good Ideas Come From by Stephen Johnson a couple of days ago. The book is about the movement and birth of ideas and what kind of environments accelerate their maturity. He writes:

…when one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

The book has chapters on the adjacent possible, liquid networks, serendipity and the need for errors. He writes about the adjacent possible:

What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.

and for liquid networks he writes:

A metropolis shares one key characteristic with the Web: both environments are dense, liquid networks where information easily flows along multiple unpredictable paths. Those interconnections nurture great ideas, because most great ideas come into the world half-baked, more hunch than revelation.

The reason I mention the book and these ideas (and others in the book not mentioned here) is that I’ve been thinking about them in relation to Salesforce’s Chatter product. Chatter is a Twitter like tool that can be used inside an enterprise (or outside as they roll out communities) to link together an organization’s knowledge workers.

Chatter is the kind of tool needed in the enterprise to address the ideas in the book about spreading and accelerating good ideas. If we just stick with internal to the enterprise, then technical staff might use it to post results, ask questions, look for ideas and generally connect with one another. Sales staff could use to talk about what worked at one customer and then another sales executive might see that result and realize that it could be used elsewhere. Groups can be formed in Chatter to focus on particular subjects, technologies, customers, suppliers, etc. where deeper conversations could take place. I can imagine Oracle DBAs forming a group and then sharing solutions/ideas and asking questions across organizations and locations and teams.

Twitter doesn’t really work for inside the organization conversations because one tends to follow a lot of noise and the channel is not private without a lot of overhead of making it private and approving each follower.

In short, Chatter becomes a tool to facilitate the liquid network, exploring the adjacent possible, reporting on errors (and successes) and setting up the organization for serendipitous opportunities. It just seem that Chatter (and tools like it) are nearly a perfect match to help organizations get better at a faster rate.

There are of course caveats to this as organization size and culture play a role too. However, I think there is real value here.

You can read more about the book on John Battelle’s Searchblog  post too.

6 thoughts on “Spreading Good Ideas”

  1. Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, once said, “innovation happens elsewhere”. The idea is that no matter how many smart individuals a Product Manager recruits on his/her team, there are always more smarter people elsewhere. I think micro-blogging platforms like the Salesforce Chatter help in tapping into that “elsewhere smarts”.

    1. It’s been about a year since I’ve been using in Chatter at work, and I’ve observed a rapid surge in the number of connections I’ve made within the company. In fact I’d estimate that the number of new connections I’ve made in the past year is on par with what I’ve made in the previous 8. I don’t attribute the improved network entirely to Chatter, but it certainly has facilitated it. I also see the tie to innovation, because its much easier to see the adjacent possibilities, and know who to talk to in order to explore them.

      1. I agree Dave. It is much easier to make connections and hear about what others are doing or working on or struggling with on an ongoing basis. This is also something you seem to have to immerse yourself in to understand.

        Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Pingback: enterprise 2.0

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