The secret to innovation? Constraints

Good ideas don't happen in isolation. You need to be able to freely associate among existing ideas -- within limits, author Steven Johnson writes.

When Twitter, the real-time microblogging service, was first introduced it was heralded as a refreshing way to approach writing on the web. Just 140 characters per entry? You'll have to get pretty creative to make an impact.

And that's just it, really. The secret to innovation is not having what you need -- to a degree. It's the ride, not the destination. It's solving the puzzle.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a lovely excerpt of author Steven Johnson's latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and it's a delightful reminder of how we come up with truly good ideas.

Citing the organization Design That Matters, he writes:

Ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we've inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

Johnson cites evolutionary theorist Francois Jacob's concept of evolution as a "tinkerer," not an engineer. (Think organic compounds, chemistry, and all the random interactions that occur at the molecular level.) He also cites scientist Stuart Kauffman, who suggests the term "the adjacent possible" as a way to show that limitations need not be limiting at all.

Silicon Valley and science in general like to push the idea of that lightning-strike breakthrough, the "Aha!" moment of invention. In reality, good ideas can't exist without those that come before them. There must be a significant degree of free association. Squirreled away R&D labs may be beneficial for focus, but they're detrimental to ideas generation -- the "adjacent possible" is no longer adjacent.

"The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts," Johnson writes. "The trick is to get more parts on the table."

The Origins of Good Ideas [WSJ]

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