Steven Johnson asks a simple question – where do good ideas come from? Looking across the history of innovation and the development of some of the most important breakthroughs in history, his book by the same name explores what are the lessons that we can learn from them, and apply in our own work.
The themes of the book really resonated with me. As a campaigner, I’m constantly on the lookout for the latest idea and approach that will help my campaign to gain the traction needed to secure change.
A campaigners work is often about doing the most with the scarce resources that exist so any edge we can get needs to be explored.
So what are simple steps that we can take as campaigners to come up with better ideas?
1 – Go for a walk – Getting away from our desks is one of the simplest actions you can take. It draws you away from the every day tasks that you get focused on when sitting at your desk. It gives your mind space to make connections between ideas you’d previously had. Try it. I know that I often find some of the best campaign ideas I have come to me on my cycle ride to and from work – which then presents the challenge of how to remember them before I get into the office.
2 – Read a newspaper – in the days of social media we get specific and curated information in front of us, but we’re losing out by not reading a newspaper where you browse across articles on a range of subjects, some of which might peak our curiosity, even those not linked to a topic we might naturally be interested in. Johnson is also a big advocate of reading more in general, he points to the examples of innovators like Bill Gates who take a whole week out a year to read – now most of us can’t devote that much time to reading, but we can all increase the breadth of the content we’re reading.
3 – Chronicle everything – During the Enlightenment, keeping a ‘Commonplace Book’ was well common place! These book are collections for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across, and help you to review them to make connections or new ideas. Johnson encourages us to create our own 21st century version of these books, a collection of quotes, ideas, thoughts but through a digital medium. More on how to create them here.
4 – Connect with others in coffee shops – Johnson is an advocate of the inhabiting spaces where you’ll find ‘liquid networks’ – groups of people working on different challenges and topics. In those space he argues that ‘different people with different perspectives coming together’. The 21st coffee house might be very different from those from a few hundred years ago, but the principle of proactively taking time to meet with, learn from and debate with those working on very different challenges from yours seems to me to be a good one. One practical way I’ve thought about doing this is looking to go along to talks and conferences on topics that aren’t immediately related to what I’m working on.
5 – Make a mistake – that might sound counter intuitive but Johnson argues that ‘being right keeps you in your place, being wrong forces you to explore’. Some of the most important innovations come about because of mistakes. For me this is about how we continue to embrace a culture that allows us to interrogate the mistakes we make, rather than looking to hide them or not make them for fear that in some way we’ll be penalised. It’s a theme I’ve explored more here.
6 – Take up a hobby – Individuals like Benjamin Franklin, the American inventor, or John Snow who is seen as the father of modern epidemiology, because of his work in tracing the source of a cholera outbreak in London, have a number of things in common, including the fact that they both had lots of hobbies. In an era when we’re told to focus our efforts on one thing, Johnson argues that having hobbies can be an invaluable way in helping our minds to make new connections, and to bring the approach we might take from on hobby into thinking about another area of our work.
7 – Have lunch together with colleagues – Psychologist, Kevin Dunbar set up cameras in a biology lab and look to study where most of the research breakthroughs came from. Now you might expect it’d be at the scientist’s desk, but it turned out to be a conference table in the middle of the room during breaks. Dunbar suggests that this was because it was the space where researchers could challenge assumptions or blend together ideas or hunches they were having. So while we might think we’re doing our best work at our desks, sometimes the questions that we need to be asking across the table from colleagues during a coffee break or lunch.