Where Good Ideas Come From?

The opening keynote at the Consumerization of IT conference was by Steven Berlin Johnson.

Steven Berlin Johnson

The title of his talk was From Idea to Innovation. The key points of the talk were drawn from his book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

He gave a short version of his talk a few years ago. You can watch the video here.

I’ll summarize his talk in brutally short form. If you want the full version, read his book or listen to his presentation. Also, his TV progam will be on-air this fall.

  1. Slow hunch: Johnson said that a great idea comes from bits and pieces of information over a long period of time that give us hunches about things. When enough of these hunches accumulate, they form a great idea. That is the “aha,” “eureka,” or “light bulb” moment. In other words, a great idea does not come to mind instantly or without those slow hunches.
  1. Networks of ideas: Interactions with many different people in different walks of life and with different backgrounds, expertise, ideas, and so on are what stimulate a great idea. In short, a great idea tends to come out through interaction with a lot of people from different backgrounds.

Slow hunch: This explains many things we take for granted. My “aha” moment was when I heard his explanation. As we spend time on this earth, we go through a lot of experiences of various kinds. As we experience success and failure, we put each into one of our many pockets. But we usually forget about each pocket and its contents. At some point, when we put a new piece of information into yet another new pocket, we may remember its relevance to some of the old pieces of information in other pockets. Then, all of a sudden, a great idea may be born.

However, if we do not have enough pockets of information, we may not be able to get a great idea. When we are young and have only a few pockets, a great idea may be harder to come by. Of course, this is a general discussion, and the number of pockets and the quality of information in each pocket will differ with each individual.

Networks of ideas: When I was an engineer, my manager called for a weekly status meeting with other people who reported to him. I thought a one-on-one meeting with him was good enough and felt that my time was wasted by listening to another guy’s status that was not directly related to my duty. According to Johnson, people receive stimulus by interacting with other people in different disciplines. You can ponder on some idea alone without interacting with others, and you may come up with a great idea. But he said a great idea tends to come to you when you interact with other people.

When I think of applying IT to the power industry, these points may be useful. IT and power industry people are usually very different. It is rare to find people who have expertise in both. An exception is John McDonald of GE. Frankly, it is sometimes difficult for me to talk to people in the power industry because I still lack the basic underlying knowledge, such as terminologies. I do not yet know precisely what the current status of the industry is or what the big problems are.

But I think I can gain a lot by continuing to talk to power people. For example, I am studying data science and analytics. I cannot learn those without some context, and new information about the status and problems of the power industry can help me learn how analytics can help.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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