Creating environments for innovation
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
I don’t know about you, but I have the feeling that when I tune into one of the TV channels specialized in nature documentaries I get at home, 90% of the times I find myself faced with one animal gobbling up another or about to do so. Without a doubt, the aspect of the natural world that sells is the savage fight for survival and (at least when watching TV) what fascinates us about natural selection is the part of competition and not less so, adaptation. I won’t deny that the African savannah is a bloody place and somewhat horrifying, especially if you are a lame or somewhat unfit gazelle, but I’m a bit fed up with inners and corpses and I would prefer to think about the history of the natural world as a history of innovation, in which collaboration has given rise to the adaptive evolution of the species.
Steven Johnson contemplated this idea a few years ago in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” focusing on the ecosystem of the coral reefs, examples of what has been called the “Darwin paradox”: despite the reefs settling in nutrient-poor waters, they host an amazing number of species and forms of life. The paradox is due to the fact that these formations are environments in which there is great innovative connection among organisms, enabling reefs to overcome the theoretical sterility of the scenario, generating a rich ecosystem where one would not have thought could exist.
The fundamental idea following Steven Johnson’s approach is that, like coral reefs, there are climates that stimulate the capacity to generate new ideas and they do so because they comply with a series of patterns that already exist in the natural world. I thought it interesting to draft a short list of tips based on the patterns identified by Steven Johnson. How can we, according to the author, build more innovative environments in our organizations and even in our personal lives?
- Encouraging exploration. The most innovative environments are those that pose a number of components and encourage us to find ways of recombining them. We need to maximize the number of “doors” within our reach and encourage ourselves to open all of them. The limits of the “adjacent possible” will extend as we explore.
- Becoming flexible. A good idea is not something isolated, generated by art of magic, rather a network of neurons that connect at a given moment and transform reality. It is important to promote liquid environments, which enable the circulation of ideas, and that, above all, are capable of adopting new forms when these enter into contact.
- Feeding and connecting hunches. Most good ideas are simple hunches at start, which haven’t yet connected with their “other half”. That “other half” usually can be found in someone else’s head, also in the form of a hunch. Creative spaces with high connectivity are environments with high information density, which facilitates the emergence of those “proto-ideas”, the slow boiling of ideas and the meeting with the “missing part”.
- Embracing organized chaos. When nature tries to innovate, it favors fortunate accidental connections. In the same way as when we dream, when our brain establishes connections that we would be incapable of performing awake (in “organized” mental state), open work environments with a certain chaos cause individuals to have more possibilities to leave the “immediate task” and find themselves in an associative state more inclined to creativity.
- Valuing error. As Seth Godin says, “All the creativity books in the world won’t help you if you aren’t willing to have bad, lame and even dangerously bad ideas”. Being right is nice, but it won’t make us move forward. When we aren’t right, we don’t have any option other than to find new paths. Making mistakes is important and an innovative environment must be a free space where we can make fertile errors.
- Breaking barriers and recycling. Nature has the innovative instinct to take old components and find new uses for them. In the area of human creativity and innovation, it occurs in spaces that allow the convergence of different specialized fields. Ronald Burt, sociologist and professor at the University of Chicago who investigated into the origin of the ideas in corporations reached the conclusion that employees who are in contact with people outside their department or immediate environment are more productive than those that are not.
- Letting others to build on our ideas. Ideas don’t come out of nowhere. We create from what others had created previously and the history of innovations is the history of a collective and progressive contribution to an emerging platform that grows continuously. This only happens when we see ideas not as physically independent or untouchable elements that must be protected, rather as links in a type of group and infinite “work in progress”.
In short, ideas need to come into contact, mingle, reinvent themselves. To do this, they need a context full of stimulation, governed by free circulation and connectivity. The “secret to business inspiration”, as Johnson says, is to build information networks that allow individual intelligence and collective intelligence to meet, environments fertilized for innovation. Where do you think enterprise social networks fit in all this?