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Connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act in innovation.
If this is the case, how do we get better at it?
I was being interviewed in my office by a student yesterday for a project that she’s doing. As we talked, she kept looking at my bookshelves, with an increasingly confused look on her face. Finally, she said “this is off-topic, but what exactly do you study?” She had stumbled across one of my strategies for connecting ideas creatively – reading very widely.
Here is how I approached this issue in an earlier post:
A while back my PhD student Sam and I were talking, and he asked me about my RSS feed. His question was something along the lines of ‘what blogs would I have to read if I wanted to be able to make the connections that you do on your blog?’ As we talked, I realised that it didn’t matter if I gave anyone else my exact RSS feed, they wouldn’t be able to replicate my blog.
The reason for this is that the articles in my RSS feed that trigger ideas are completely dependent upon my unique set of experiences, including all of the things that I’ve read and done previously. It reminds me of the idea of psycheography that was developed by Guy Debord and The Situationists (it should be noted that they would be horrified at the use of these ideas in a context that has anything to do with business, but I guess this is part of building novel connections between ideas!).
Consider this map of Paris:
It shows the sections of the city used by a student over a period of several weeks. There are two important points to think about this with this. First, each person’s map of the city they live in will be unique. My version of Brisbane will by fundamentally different from that of everyone else that lives here. The same is true for all cities. Second, most people use only a very small percentage of the city in which they live. The student’s version of Paris is actually quite a small amount of the overall city.
The Situationists’ response to this was the dérive:
One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
This might seem a bit abstract, but there are some important implications here for innovation, including:
- Identify the paths you normally take through information: the world of information is even bigger than a city. Each of us takes a unique path through this every day. What is yours? What are the limits that this path imposes on the ideas that you have and the connections you make?
- Introduce some new paths through this information: the dérive was a method for finding a way out of the normal paths one takes through a city. How can we do the same with information? Twitter can work as a serendipity engine, but to achieve this, you need to consciously connect and pay attention to people that have backgrounds and interests that are quite different from yours. And again, there is great value in reading widely.
- Make your own map: I’ve been telling my MBA students that their assessments should reflect their own map through the materials that we’re working on together – each person’s will be unique because they are applying the ideas in a unique situation. In other words, they have to make their own map through the material. So do you.
All of this is probably just a way to rephrase what John was saying when he was telling us to Be a Hedgefox!
The bottom line is this – to increase the quality of our innovative ideas, we have to figure out a way to make novel creative connections between ideas. To do this, we have to find a way to access ideas outside of our normal patterns of thinking. We have to make our own map.
The benefits of having an own map is even harder to explain to people during these days of navigational systems and nanny states around the world.
Yes, think about that!
The benefits of having an own map lie at the intersection of having a distinctive vision and being lost in an uncertain world while at the same time knowing how to handle a map, a plan, a compass!
Your own map gives you a feeling of mastering the landscape, the nature, culture, and future of your whereabouts and whatabouts.
Not being forced to a navigational system (ie. processes, structures, regulations, limitations) gives you individuality and independence, gives you serendipity!
Tim is a lecturer at The University of Queensland Business School. He researches, writes, teaches and consults on topics relating to effective innovation management, with an emphasis on studying innovation networks. He blogs at The Innovation Leadership Network. Twitter: @timkastelle