Catching an Idea

A Practical Guide to Having Ideas


Whether generated in the fertile chaos of the internet or the hermetic silence of a log cabin, Ideas have the infectious power to change the world we live in.

Sometimes, that “world” can be as small as your office, your family or your book writing posse but ideas challenge the status quo.

This article will help you understand what nature and the history of innovation can teach you about having more ideas.

This contains a distilled summary of Steven Johnson’s book,  Where Good Ideas come from and is inspired by my notes on this subject.

The Author's approach

The author uses both inductive and deductive reasoning to dissect the world of ideas. Steven travels through the world of single celled organisms to human development and innovation at a planetary scale to understand the nature and need for original ideas to keep things spinning.

One the one side, the book tells us of the journey of innovation that the natural world had undertaken for its own survival and adaptation. He then juxtaposes that with similar developments in the world of human innovation.

Most of them are based on the simple premise of investigating the train of thought that led to some of the Aha! moments. The author hopes to dispel the notion of the lone thinker or the bolt from the blue. He tells us that most ideas are slow hunches that eventually find themselves in the right environment with the right resources that come together.

Purposefully demystifying these wondrous moments makes them accessible for everybody.

The Adjacent Possible

Good ideas are ... inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them

Steven Johnson

Ever wondered what “an invention ahead of its time” means?

  • The idea of the first programmable computer was developed by Charles Babbage in 1837.
  • John Logie Baird held the first public demonstration of the television in 1926.
  • In 1989, Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm Computing, created the GridPad, a Tablet computer that ran MS-DOS.

Consider the years mentioned for each of these inventions and the time it took for these inventions to be accepted by the populace.

The first lesson in having ideas can be derived from contrasting these from the birth of organic life on earth. The reason why our understanding of life is called “carbon-based” is due to the ability of carbon to easily bond with base elements that existed in the formative stages of earth.

The most prolific ideas and the concept of life both came from piecing together something new by using something old. The concept of expanding the use-case of a core idea with it’s immediate environment is called the adjacent possible. The author gives a visual exercise to understand it:

Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.

Steven Johnson

Ideas that use the adjacent possible find immediate use cases in the time and environment they were born in. YouTube and Smartphones are the best examples I can offer. The off-take for these were so immediate and scaled so rapidly that it felt like the world was waiting impatiently for someone to deliver this.

A lot of the credit goes to their deft reading of the time and environment they were in. That environment is the next piece of the idea puzzle.

An Environment for Ideas

Ideas emerge and collapse everyday for almost everyone. But unless the civic and cultural environment do not provide a positive space for expressing them, they disappear without a trace.

I am sure I’m not alone in feeling that we were more energized and mentally stimulated in college. Collaborating for the one project we’re still secretly proud of, remembering thrilling debates and provocative posters seemed like they happened an age ago. Nothing that came after seems to evoke the raw productive chaos of that campus, I wonder why?

Let us follow the anthropological footprints of innovation. We see that most of the civilization-building developments happened when prehistoric humans decided to stop nomadic migration and settle in colonies. Agriculture, domestication, food storage, common languages and trade; all stemmed from the post-settlement era. You can watch an informative video about this marvel in human development here

The point to be understood here is that whether it is in the legendary Building 20 at MIT, your humble college campus or the first human settlements at Jordan valley, good ideas have a tendency to flow from mind to mind when they are encouraged to become part of the network.

I am not asking you to claw your way back to college now, but to look at the new breeding grounds of ideas. Consider the garage start-ups of the 80s or the coffee shops of the 2000s. They shared similar cultural characteristics.

The charm of coffee house start-ups is to have your conversations in a free-flow environment. The smell of coffee, mixing with the sounds of an earnest pitch being made in the next table. Where, “couldn’t help but overhear you..”, becomes the opening line for a fresh take on the problem you are working on. Multiple perspectives reaching across virtual borders to share their work-in-progress ideas. Something is bound to click.

Modern office design encourages such inter-disciplinary exchange of ideas. Many firms have experimented with a culture where individual employees could pitch their ideas to co-workers from other teams and create a project-as-a-start-up within the company. When these projects mature they take their pitch to the leadership team and canvas for time and resources to incubate the same within the company.

But before we get to the stage of incubating an idea within a group environment it has to take seed within yourself first. Let us talk about that journey

Slow Hunches

The author navigates the difficult space of deconstructing ideas only to discover the wealth of breadcrumbs that led to the breakthrough. He gives the example of Darwin’s revolutionary “hunch” on natural selection. Many accounts reduce the origin of his proposal to the proverbial spark. But a closer study reveals the scattered notes he maintained that toyed with the idea until time and available resources made it real enough to be released for scrutiny and consumption.

Most of us have been fed the fanciful notion of the lone-genius working in a closed cabin for years until one day, a dream, an apple or an ignored petri dish set in motion the idea that changes our world. This narrative is not only an oversimplification but also misleading and dangerous.

A tiny hunch emerges when an observation validates or contradicts a cache of your thoughts. That hunch settles in the rich company of your other thoughts and germinates in the stream of experiences you have. Until one day, in the right environment, it finds its purpose and becomes an actionable idea. Since this is not a conscious process for many, it either slips through their fingers or takes them by surprise. But the autopsy of all ideas reveal a seed planted long ago.

How do we effectively harbor these hunches so they may have their “Aha!” moment someday?

The Idea Machine

A look at the best practices of the brightest minds points to one simple suggestion: Take. Notes.

From Da Vinci to Darwin and Tolkein to Hemmingway, volumes have been written about their lives and work. Greater illumination about the way they think comes to us courtesy of their notes. Call it their Journal, Commonplace Book or Diary, all of them maintained an accessible single-point repository of their thoughts and maintained it diligently. It becomes the true DNA of their ideas.

Develop the habit of consistently recording your hunches when they occur. Then create a routine to revisit your archives. This will ensure that when the right trigger arrives, your brain will offer up the spark that connects.

In the context of organizations, keep your company’s intellectual capital as well as its goals visible and accessible to your employees and empower them to contribute. I have written about this as developing an OKR culture. OKRs are a mechanism of open-sourcing ideas to meet the company’s common objectives.

While the philosophical process of having ideas trickles like a stream until it becomes a river, the biological and social process of it is much more radical. Making your peace with it will ensure that you do not miss out on an opportunity disguised as a problem.

Embracing Conflicts and Errors

Alright, so now we know that Ideas are born in the right environment when our hunch meets a trigger. To have a good repository of hunches, you write them all down. Now how do we encourage the trigger? Two words. Controlled Chaos.

In his book, Steven Johnson makes a comparison to something that neuroscientists have observed about the brain. Apparently, the communication pattern between neurons in our brain oscillate between a “phase-lock mode” where it exhibits a steady pattern and a “chaos mode” where it fluctuates randomly. Why is that? The book explains:

The phase-lock mode (the theory goes) is where the brain executes an established plan or habit. The chaos mode ...(approximately 55ms per cycle) where the brain assimilates new information, explores strategies for responding to a change situation.

Steven Johnson

The brain creates a deliberately randomized environment to encourage new connections.

This is the equivalent of throwing random words onto a page and then proceeding to derive a story from it.

Where can I access such chaos?

Glad you asked. Have you looked into inter-departmental conflicts at office meetings, economic downturns, pandemics?

Human history is rich with instances of disproportionate acceleration in social, cultural and scientific innovations in the wake of a crisis. Renaissance following the black plague, the rapid recovery post the great depression and even the questionable positive impact of wars on innovation are a testament to the relationship between the two.

From an evolutionary sense of the term, every time complex organisms or even single-celled organisms have been subjected to stress it has led to a higher mutation rate, forcing their systems to find innovative solutions to survive and thrive under the new conditions

Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore

Steven Johnson

Another catalyst in the mix is the power of error. Anomalies in data, unexpected observations in your simulation or even a sales pitch gone wrong are not necessarily signs to drop the exercise. Sometimes the noise is the signal.

There have been many instances where scientists stumbled upon something new when they were chasing something else entirely. Discovery of vulcanized rubber, the development of microwave cooking appliances and the discovery of plants exhaling oxygen are the oft-quoted examples.

These “accidents” did not just happen to the lucky few. The said few were “lucky” because they took what was an anomaly and actively converted it into an opportunity.

People avoid conflicts and errors because of the discomfort they bring. But modern organizations and revolutionary leaders were known to incite constructive collision and the modern day hackathons are a testament to the productive power of controlled chaos.

Organizations once created divisions to avoid conflicts and encourage specializations within each division. But this led to an “us versus them” attitude within the organization and affected their ability to innovate. We are now seeing the return of the flat organization, championed by names we know. Their intent was to promote free exchange of ideas. Let us see why that is essential.

Borrowing and Re-purposing

Once we dispel with the notion of the lone inventor working in a secret lab we arrive at the understanding that all innovations came by standing upon the shoulders of many related and unrelated innovations prior. The “genius” came in the form of putting them together. That also implies that borrowing and re-purposing is a natural part of innovation.

What if John Logie Baird did not have access to Philo T. Farnsworth’s electronic “Image Dissector” camera which was an essential transition to the television we know today? or if Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not have access to GUI from PARC Xerox?

I remember watching Pranav Mistry give this TED talk about the Sixth Sense Project in 2009 and Elon Musk talk about unveiling the idea behind the Hyperloop that he thought of in 2012. They were both impressive achievements in their own regard. But I recollect being more impressed when they both concluded their exposition by announcing their plan to open source their idea.

The core of these technologies have become part of innovations which these two couldn’t have imagined. Rather than becoming a proprietary solution, Musk’s hyperloop has now created an ecosystem of minds chasing the high-speed transit dream. But it neither takes away from acknowledging their genius nor did it stop them from attaining great heights in their respective fields.

He who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me

Thomas Jefferson

Why, then, do we live in a world of Patents, digital rights management, intellectual property and trade secrets? The assumption the bottling ideas for reserving financial gain may succeed in rewarding a few in the short run but stifle innovation where it counts.

The developers behind Bitcoin may remain invisible, but they unexpectedly unleashed a blockchain revolution that he/she/they may have never envisioned. It would have been impossible if blockchain were “chained”

Open source, serves not only as the opposite of the patent but also as a catalyst of innovation. Knowing its power and being a contributor and not just a borrower of the concept, makes the open source pool grow richer and stronger over time.

Journey of an Idea Infographic

Practical Lessons

Buried within the science and history of innovation are some practical lessons on how to prime your mind for ideas. Here are some of them:

Record thoughts that spark your mind. As often as you can. Maintain extensive notes, then network and revisit them periodically. They’re active hunches waiting for the right trigger. For a practical guide to maintaining networked notes, with Obsidian, I have a beginner’s guide.

Host your personal coffee house conversation. Bring your ideas into a freestyle discussion and see what people from different backgrounds do with it. Harvest actionable ideas from the “adjacent possibilities” that emerge from such discussions

Make OKRs public across your organization as a means of encouraging serendipitous collaboration

Understand that observed errors might be signals and not noise. In fact noise may be necessary. Run your results by objective outsiders to get a fresh perspective on what you have observed. Rather than dismiss the unexpected answer you stumbled across, you might want to change the question you started with.

When faced with a stalemate of possibilities, introduce distress, create artificial restrictions and handicaps. Like evolution, innovation will find a way out

Your hobbies aren’t distractions, they’re an active construction of your idea pool. They’re your brain’s chance to wear different hats , allowing it to subconsciously look at the problem from different angles. Sometimes the solution to your problem at office would come from your workflow in photography.

Conclusion - The Future of Ideas

The man, the minuscule and their collective environment are always innovating, at different timescales

A single ant, working by itself contributes to very little in the grand scheme of things, very little even within its own colony. Then how do they achieve such complex habitats and social hierarchies despite being simple creatures without a complex brain

Each ant follows a simple instruction and a continuous cycle of such interconnected instructions lead to a complex organic system in action. They exhibit a function of distributed intelligence.

Human innovation is coming to terms with a similar realization. On its own, one person with an idea rarely changes anything. That notion comes from the romanticized, post-facto look at the final product.

Kevin Dunbar, on the other hand, decided to trace the birth of ideas. He did it by recording the proceedings of four cutting-edge micro-biology labs all day everyday for a year.

The observations from this meta-exercise is an unvarnished look at the systematic generation and processing of ideas. And the least glamorous, yet most important observation was regarding the efficiency of “distributed reasoning”. It is the process of having individual ideas deconstructed and validated or questioned by collective members of a group. This is a summary of his observation :

Distributed reasoning provides new premises and models that a particular individual might not be able to generate when reasoning alone

Kevin Dunbar

Make no mistake, the induction/observation emerged from the mind of one scientist. But it was only when the ant-colony of his peers processed it though their cognitive polishing did that observation become a series of workable experiments. This is a common feature in the most innovative labs on earth and it indicates where the future of ideas are headed.

You have a spark, you record it and actively process it within a multi-disciplinary environment. You take the feedback, objections et al and rework your hypothesis where necessary. All the while your little journal on this idea is getting richer with multiple perspectives. When the right trigger shows itself… voila!

“Transparency” and “fluidity” are the other principles at work here. Today, we are blessed with an option that gives us access to distributed reasoning, transparency and fluidity all under one roof: The Internet.

With this very article I am putting forward my observations for validation. Readers add value through their patronage, response or creative re-purposing within their own circles. In its own way, the internet has democratized the process of innovation and still shows latent potential waiting to be harnessed.

The question remains, What are you going to do about it?

Header Image:  Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash

Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info

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