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Where Do Good Ideas Come From? - Patterns Behind Innovation

Thu, 11/28/2013 - 7:44pm -- Brian Modansky

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?
When people think of the source of good ideas, they often think of an artist or entrepreneur suddenly being struck with a lightning bolt of inspiration. Whether they call it a muse or a moment of clarity, it's commonly accepted that good ideas can just appear out of nowhere. While that's a very romantic and even reassuring way to think about having good ideas, Steven Johnson wasn't content to accept that assumption as fact.

Like most of us, Johnson has a desire to be creative, come up with better ideas and for organizations to be more innovative. But instead of just waiting to be hit by the fabled lighting bolt, he felt that there was more at play than most people realized. That feeling was a big motivator behind his decision to spend five years really digging into this topic.
So, what did Johnson discover during the course of his research? From the beginning, he decided to approach the issue from an environmental perspective. He looked back over a significant period of time and asked what spaces have been especially successful at driving higher than average rates of innovation and creativity. What he found is that recurring patterns have been at the root of one big breakthrough after another.

Good Ideas Actually Take a Lot of Time
The "slow hunch" is an example of a recurring pattern Johnson found. The reason this pattern is significant is because it actually stands in contrast to the "Eureka" assumption. What Johnson discovered is instead of a sudden flash of inspiration, many good ideas lie dormant for as long as 2 to 3 years. In fact, there are examples of that period being as lengthy as 10 to 20 years. But regardless of the exact length, the key insight is ideas need a period of time to mature before they truly become useful and accessible.
If you're wondering why really good ideas literally require a period of time in order to grow, part of the answer is these ideas of are often the combination of multiple hunches. When looked at on the surface, a great idea may seem like something really big that sprung up on its own. However, once you start dissecting that idea, it's often fairly easy to see the smaller thoughts that came up over time and then united to create the big idea.

The Internet Wasn't Born Overnight
A fairly recent and very relevant story that follows the slow hunch pattern is that of the World Wide Web. While its father, Tim Berners-Lee, is often regarded as a genius, that doesn't mean he cranked out this invention in a flurried week of non-stop coding. Instead, he spent ten years working on the idea and its eventual execution! Additionally, not only did it take a decade for the World Wide Web to become something tangible, but when Berners-Lee started, he was just working on a side project instead of the fully fleshed out idea of what the web would become. In fact, when you realize that all he was trying to do was organize his own data, that sounds like an extremely humble beginning for a medium that would eventually change the world. Finally, it's worth mentioning that in order to make it all the way to the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee had to start and scrap several different ideas.

Don't Cut Yourself Off from Others
From writers to programmers, it's fairly common for people to feel the need to basically lock themselves away in order to get work done. While that approach may help with focus, it's important that it doesn't last for too long. The reason is if you spend too much time in isolation and don't allow yourself to be exposed to new ideas, you may miss out on opportunities that would help you take a small hunch and turn it into something bigger.

And No, The Internet Isn't Destroying Our Brains
It's true that if you're not paying attention to what you're doing, it's easy to waste a lot of time on Twitter, Facebook or just clicking around the Internet. That's why some people have said that the web is literally ruining our brains and attention spans. And even though there may be some truth to that statement, the reality is that increased connectivity is one of the key drivers of innovation over the last few centuries. That's why anyone who cares about coming up with great ideas should embrace the connected digital world instead of shunning it!

Video Source: TED

Brian Modansky

Brian is a 10+ Year Web Hosting Industry veteran. He enjoys helping people achieve their goals in life by utilizing new technology. He believes that an open Internet is the key to purposeful innovation.