Friends often ask me how long it takes to write one of my web articles. I can frame the question narrowly or broadly. In the narrow frame, the answer might be 90 minutes or so. In the broad frame, it might be 30 years or so. Talk about a slow hunch.
I’ll illustrate with my most recent article: Hate, Happiness, Imagination. As with many things – especially innovations – the article is a mashup of several different sources and concepts. Let’s track them in chronological order.
The first idea came to me through Graham Greene’s brilliant novel, The Power and the Glory. The novel includes a lovely quote: “Hate is the failure of imagination”. Greene wrote the novel in 1940, so the idea is now at least 75 years old (or perhaps older since Greene seems to echo previous authors).
I read the novel when Suellen and I lived in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1980. The quote about hate and imagination struck me and has stuck with me ever since. So, I’ve been gestating the idea for 35 years. I would occasionally mention it to friends but, otherwise, I didn’t do much with it.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. He stressed that, all too often, we fail to imagine what life is like for other people. If we did use our imagination more fully, we would empathize more, and our lives would be richer and fuller. First, we have to recognize that we can make a choice — that we don’t have to operate on our egocentric default setting. Second, we actually have to make the choice.
I didn’t know about Wallace’s speech until I started teaching critical thinking. As I looked for sources, I came across a video of the (abridged) speech and used it several times in my class. I first stumbled across it in 2012.
I didn’t do much with the Kenyon College speech until a few weeks ago. Frankly, I had forgotten about it. Then one of my students discovered it and asked me to show it to the class. That led to a very healthy discussion during which I connected what Wallace said to what Greene wrote.
Bingo! I made the connection between the two ideas. Why did it take me so long? Probably because I was just thinking about it. Thinking is fine but I don’t think that merely thinking creates many new ideas. The give-and-take of the class discussion stimulated me to make new connections. The diversity of opinions helped me open up new connections rather than merely deepening old connections.
Still, I didn’t have a complete thought. Then Suellen read me a paragraph from a review of the new biography of Saul Bellow. The review mentioned Bellow’s belief that imagination is “eternal naïveté”. When I realized what he meant by that, it dawned on me that it completed the thought. Greene connected to Wallace connected to Bellow.
What can we learn from this? First, this little story illustrates Steven Johnson’s idea of the “slow hunch”. Many good ideas – and most innovations – result from mashing up existing ideas. Unfortunately, we don’t get those ideas simultaneously. We may get one in 1980, another in 2012, and another last month. The trick is to remember the first one long enough to couple it with the second one. (Writing a blog helps).
The other point is that the pure act of thinking is (often) not enough. We need to kick ideas around with other people. Diversity counts. I’m lucky that I can kick ideas around with my students. And with Suellen. If not for them, I wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as I am.
So, how long does it take me to have a good idea? About 35 years.
As I’ve written on several occasions (here, here, and here), mashup thinking is often the driver behind breakthrough innovations. Mashup thinking is not the same as thinking out of the box. Rather, it’s thinking out of several different boxes.
Wheeled luggage is a good example. There’s a box called wheels. There’s another box called luggage. You take an idea from each box, mash them up, and create a third box called wheeled luggage. Now we can select an idea from yet another box called power supplies. We mash that up with wheeled luggage and we get yet another new product: self-propelled wheeled luggage.
Note that the originating ideas (wheels, luggage, power supplies) are not breakthrough ideas in and of themselves. Indeed, they’re rather mundane. It’s only by mashing them up that they become, new, different, and valuable.
How do you promote mashup thinking in your organization? The simple answer is collisions. You need to get people, ideas, and concepts to collide. Think of it as an atom smasher. When two atoms collide at high speed, they produce a very interesting array of new particles. You want to produce similarly productive collisions in your organization.
Here are some tips on creating productive collisions:
Diversity – let’s say you get two engineers to collide. That’s interesting but not usually productive. After all, they’re in the same box. The trick is to get two people from different boxes to collide. That requires diversity. This includes ethnic and geographic diversity. Some very innovative companies have found that putting together people from, say, Africa, Europe, South America, Japan and the USA can produce very interesting results. Age diversity – old people mixed with young – can also create productive collisions. For me educational diversity is equally important. Indeed, I tell my clients that one of the reasons they should hire me is because I don’t have an MBA. I think differently.
Seating arrangements – why do so many companies put engineers in one area, marketers in another, finance people in another and human resources folks in yet another? That practically guarantees that all collisions will be same-box collisions. Randomize your seating chart. You’ll be surprised.
Architecture – the way you organize your space can either promote or prevent collisions. Fewer bathrooms, fewer coffee stations, and fewer lunchrooms all promote collisions. Rather than providing lots of places to congregate, offer fewer. You’ll get larger congregations.
Policies – earlier this year, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! announced that employees would need to come to the office. No more working from home all the time. The policy got a lot of pushback. But I’m sure that it also produced a lot more collisions.
I walk our dog, Bella, two or three times a day. I enjoy it almost as much as she does. I’ve also found that walking a dog is a great way to meet people. (If only I had known when I was single). It’s nice to meet the neighbors. But what’s frightening is that we all think alike.
As Bill Bishop pointed out in The Big Sort, we’ve sorted ourselves out by political viewpoints. Republicans live in Republican neighborhoods and Democrats live with Democrats. We don’t mix and mingle much. When we meet people, we tend to hear things that confirm rather than challenge our views. We live in echo chambers. Tom Friedman calls these monocultures as opposed to polycultures.
Monocultures can make you crazy. If you only read and hear ideas that you agree with, you’ll only reinforce pre-existing connections in your brain. You won’t create new connections. From everything I’ve read, the brain thrives on connections. The more, the merrier. Tom Friedman writes that polycultures are much more sustainable than monocultures. I suspect that a polycultural brain is much healthier than a monocultural brain.
We also know that mashup thinking is one of the best ways to stimulate innovation. You take ideas from different boxes and mash them up. This is not out-of-the-box thinking. It’s multiple-box thinking. Take X-rays and mash them up with computer processing and you get CT scans. Take phones and mash them up with computers and you get smart phones. Take MTV and mash it up with cop shows and you get Miami Vice.
The more we have monocultures, the less we’ll have mashups. The more we talk to people just like ourselves, the fewer innovations we’ll have. It’s by putting different things – products or ideas – together that we get innovation. We all have partially formed ideas. Only by interacting with people who have complementary ideas can we develop bright new innovations. (I suspect this is why Apple recently hired Angela Ahrendts from Burberry).
Given all this, I’m constantly amazed that companies deliberately create monocultures throughout their facilities. Engineers sit with engineers. Finance folks sit with finance folks. Marketers sit with marketers. Each little zone is a monoculture. People with the same outlook, backgrounds, education, and conditioning sit together. They don’t talk to people with complementary ideas. They talk to people with the same ideas.
If you want to stimulate innovation in your company, mix it up a bit. Even a random seating chart is probably better than a department-by-department arrangement. Group people with different interests and backgrounds together. Then change it every now and then to establish new patterns and innovative connections. Just remember, where you stand depends on where you sit.
Do you have an MBA? So do most of the people I work with at my client organizations. One of the ways I add value is merely by the fact that I don’t have an MBA.
It’s not that having an MBA is a bad thing. It’s that so many companies are run by people educated in the same way — they all have MBAs. The fact that I don’t have an MBA doesn’t mean that I think better than they do. But I do think differently. Sometimes that creates problems. Oftentimes, it creates opportunity.
If all your employees think alike, then you limit your opportunity to be creative. Creativity comes from connections. By connecting concepts or ideas in different ways, you can create something entirely new. This works at an individual level as well as an organizational level. If you read only things that you agree with, you merely reinforce existing connections. If you read things that you disagree with, you’ll create new connections. That’s good for your mental health. It’s also good for your creativity.
At the organizational level, connecting new concepts can lead to important innovations. Indeed, the ability to innovate is the strongest argument I know for diversity in the workforce. If you bring together people with different backgrounds and help them form teams, interesting things start to happen.
In this sense, “diversity” includes ethnic, economic, and cultural diversity. It especially includes academic diversity. As a leader, you want your engineers, say, to mix and mingle with your humanities graduates. Perhaps your lit majors could improve your MBAs’ communication skills. Perhaps your philosophers can help you see things in an entirely new light. In today’s world, innovation requires that you bring together insights from multiple disciplines to “mash up” ideas and create new ways of seeing and doing.
Most companies keep data on ethnic diversity within their workforce. However, they don’t usually keep statistics on the different academic specialties represented among their employees. You may well have enough MBAs. But do you have enough linguists? Philosophers? Sociologists? Anthropologists? Artists? If not, it’s time to start recruiting. The result could well be a healthier, more innovative company.