Where do good, new ideas come from? And how do we create a culture of innovation in an organization, big or small?
The clearest frame for my answer still comes, five years after I first read it, from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which still stands as the clearest articulation I’ve seen to this important question.
The book’s core assertion is that new ideas and breakthrough insights come at the frontier of the adjacent possibile via reassembly and reconfiguration of existing ideas at the edge of what you know: the printing press doesn’t get invented in 1493 without the pre-existence, and reassembly, of movable type, paper-making, and ink (all invented in China from the years 105 A.D. to 1041), together with the existence of woodcut printing presses and paper mills that proliferated in the 14th Century.
The implication is that in order to be a person who creates new ideas, you have to find a way to live and work at boundaries and points of intersection. This allows you to see a lot of different things and positions you to pull together seemingly disparate thoughts, technologies and ideas in new and different ways.
This is why Lin-Manuel Miranda is the only person who could have created the hit musical Hamilton: he not only inhabits the rarely-intersecting worlds of modern musical theater, hip-hop, and urban Latino culture. He also was the kind of person who’d choose to lug the dry, slow-paced, 900+ page Ron Chernow Hamilton biography on his Caribbean vacation, would start reading it on that vacation, and then, most shockingly, at the end of the first few chapters would think, “I know! I’m going to turn this into a hip-hop album/musical about this unsung immigrant founding father!”
And yet, even if Lin-Manuel can uniquely have this sort of insight, the musical doesn’t happen with him alone. What then needs to happen is for this idea to germinate within a team. Lin pulls in folks like “orchestrator, arranger, musical director, conductor and keyboard player” Alex Lacamoire, and together they prod and reshape each idea, they push boundaries and whittle down the unnecessary bits until, ultimately, what results is a masterpiece.
This is the part of the story that is most relevant and accessible to each of us every day: not just the stroke of insight on the hammock under the sun, but the culture that we can create to support and nurtures good ideas each and every day.
I don’t have a perfect answer to how to create this sort of culture, but, having had the chance to work across a lot of teams in many organizations, I have observed some of the ingredients that are supportive of a culture of innovation, and others that are guaranteed to spoil the broth.
So, without further ado…
The Innovation Ingredient List
(aka how do teams that regularly create and develop new ideas behave?)
Diverse voices. Everyone on the team regularly speaks up and shares their thoughts in various ways (in person and virtually).
Idea sources are plentiful and diverse. News articles, blogs, thoughts exchanged over dinner, a great conversation that someone writes up and shares with others… In every innovative team I’ve been a part of, while the form and flavor of sharing ideas differs, there’s always a culture of “hey, I just came across this! I think it will be helpful to us. What do you think?”
Get out of the building. Because of the “adjacent” in “adjacent possible,” for innovation and creativity to flourish, ideas need to come from all over the place. Customers, partners, an art installation, a sign on the subway…it doesn’t matter where, it just needs to be broad.
Thought partners. Multiple groupings of folks converse to make each other’s ideas better. This can be in-person, in writing, on a walk, a eureka moment in the middle of the night. The “how” doesn’t matter, but the passing of ideas back and forth does. There’s a sense of ongoing discussion of exploration and curiosity.
It’s personal. The team feels and acts as if the work they are doing is theirs. It reflects who they are. They are on the hook when things go right and wrong.
Ideas flow. When a new idea enters the flow, it keeps moving. Folks jump in, add to or take away. The pace of all of this is quick. And, like a shark, the conversation around the idea keeps moving quickly to stay alive.
Yes, and… Like in improv, all ideas, even ones that at first blush don’t make much sense, get a “yes, and” response with an eye towards building on them, not tearing them down.
Zoom in, zoom out. At least some of the people around the table are good at digging into the details, and then stepping back to see the whole and putting this whole into focus. This is the bridging work between broad exploration and crystalizing around a few ideas that rise to the top. It literally feels like a camera lens that turns so that everyone involved can say, “Ah, now I see it!” This is a really important ingredient because it allows for lots of idea generation, and some churn, to happen without letting the group get lost or stuck for too long.
It’s Ok to launch, it’s OK to kill. This is a tough one to get right, but too much or too little of either creates either a culture of perfectionism or people getting spread too thin.
You have criteria for success. Related to the above…because you can only kill things if there are criteria in place to judge if they are working.
Solution dissatisfaction. While there’s openness and positivity, there’s also a need not to be easily satisfied with solutions that seem pretty good. Some of this solution dissatisfaction comes from experience and pattern recognition, which together lead to an informed intuition that says, “we can do better than this, even though this is pretty good.”
Ingredients to avoid (aka things that spoil the broth)
If the above list looks unfamiliar, or hard to pull off right away, one way to approach change is to identify what is gumming up the works, things that you and some brave allies can work to change.
A culture of fear. Usually this is a fear of being wrong, fear of speaking up, fear of contradicting the most important person in the room.
A culture of recrimination. This goes hand-in-hand with a culture of fear. The thing people fear is being punished. There’s usually a bit of shame thrown in.
Things that feel static. This is the opposite of the ‘flow of ideas’ described above: if people throw ideas into the pot (in a meeting, in writing) and all that comes back is silence, or if the pace of dialogue gets too slow, eventually folks will stop sharing their best ideas.
Never pulling the plug on things. If it’s impossible to stop things, at some point the (lifetime) cost of starting something is too high. Worse, if keeping all of today’s plates spinning is spreading everyone too thin, there’s no space for figuring out how to make things better.
Waiting for / blaming the “people in charge.” This can either take the form of waiting for someone else to tell everyone what to do (to be the source of insight, to walk out on the limb…“we’d do great work if only…”), or of knowing that someone else will criticize, fail to approve or otherwise undermine good work that is created by anyone else. This is the opposite of a culture of ownership.
Criticizing people, not ideas. In teams with a culture of fear, the criticisms are always a little (or a lot) personal. In these cultures, when an idea isn’t a good one, the thing that gets beat up is the person who had it. The two mistakes to avoid are: 1. Communicating “you are stupid” instead of “this idea needs work;” and, as problematic, 2. Hearing any critique of an idea as a personal affront. This is a very hard balance to get right. The book Creativity, Inc, which describes how movies are developed at Pixar, is a great case study of how to design an organizational culture whose sole purpose is to produce the best ideas by structuring interactions in ways that foster diverse and generative input. One of the bits I like the best is that while script input comes from lots of people, including Pixar’s “stars,” what to do with that input (what to take on and what to ignore) is up to the author: there are no mandatory changes.
Thick skins. This is related to the above. A senior guy I know in the U.S. Army talks about how, before any After Action Review, the Army’s post-engagement process of reviewing what went right and wrong in an engagement, you have to “put on your thick skin.” It is because your best work is personal that it is so hard to be told that something you worked so hard to create could be better. But it’s important.
No, but. Most new ideas are met with some sort of negative language. Listen for the actual words, and if positive (“yes,” “and,” “also”) or negative (“no,” “but,” “maybe,” “however”) language is used more often.
I don’t care what was said, I care who said it. This is an easy one: if the validity of an idea is predominantly the result of who said it, you’re sunk.
To wrap it all up, I’ll defer to John Clease’s wonderful lecture on creativity, in which he describes the qualities of mind that lead to creativity and breakthrough: it’s a playful mind, a mind that explores, a mind that is comfortable with the discomfort of an unresolved question.
The hare brain loves clarity; it wants everything to be expressed in a very simple, straightforward clear way. Tortoise mind doesn’t expect clarity; it doesn’t know where the illumination is going to come from. The language of the unconscious is images. That also means a lot of times when you’re being very creative you can feel very confused. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. And you can tolerate that and continue to defer the decision. Because you’re taking your time in tortoise mind, if you have a question, you’re much more likely to get interested in the question.