Good ideas

We live in a world where innovation and good ideas are the assets for our growth and development. This necessity of being innovative is equally the same for individuals and organizations as well. Everything is changing now; having a good idea is more valuable than having a good education. Since the access to all kind of information becomes something that every person can do within a few seconds .So we are in the obligation to be innovative.

Moreover, an individual nowadays can have a good education by himself; there is barely no need to attend the university to have it. The same with companies which are facing a high competitive environment full of different risks that pushes them to be innovative   in order to avoid the vanishing risk.

 In this article I will treat two questions. What is an idea? And how to have great ideas?

I. Ideas are connections

If you haven’t, take a few moments to think about it. The answer is probably simpler than you initially thought: ideas are connections.

Any idea, no matter how trivial, is an association between previous, established ideas. These connections happen in our minds all the time, often spontaneously and below our level of awareness.

Another interesting characteristic of these connections is that you can’t predict anything about them beforehand. Many times, ideas are formed by associating two completely unrelated concepts,  in unexpected or unusual ways. To create the movable type, Gutenberg connected the idea of the wine press and the coin stamp. To create the concept of a mass -circulation newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer combined large-scale advertising with high-speed printing. Great ideas may even seem to be random at times, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do to develop them.

II. Some ways of having good ideas

  • Adjacent possible

 Good ideas do not come from looking forward or backward, rather they come from looking to what is adjacent to us. Johnson builds on Stuart Kauffman’s concept of the ‘adjacent possible’ to reaffirm that tomorrow’s great innovations are built from the stuff of today, specifically from the things around us that can be combined into something new.

“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations”.

The adjacent possible is the pattern of small steps of making an advance is the dominant pattern of innovation. Most innovations are the accumulation of incremental advances, which each on in itself creates a new environment for more possibilities.

For example

Tarnier created the first baby incubator after visiting the Paris Zoo. The mortality rate of newborns dropped from 66% to 37% using this incubator where babies were warmed by hot water bottles. The incubator has been developed into a sophisticated apparatus but it does not work in developing countries because of the high costs.  MIT Professor Timothy Prestero, founder of Design that Matters visiting Indonesia, found that the incubators were all out of order, as was the case with most medical equipment donated from developed countries to developing countries because of high costs of maintenance and parts, or the inability to read the English maintenance and repair manuals. The team looked at what was already available and working in these countries, motor cars! So, they designed an incubator made from motor vehicle parts. NeoNurture was born.

  • The liquid network

Good ideas do not – for the most part – come from inside someone’s head. Instead, they come from outside – specifically from social interaction. A study conducted in leading research laboratories found that scientists rarely, if ever, had a flash of inspiration or eureka moment alone in the lab. Instead, ideas happen in conversation with colleagues.

You want a great idea? Then go to a coffee house and talk with someone.

Nor do goods ideas come from thoughts or visions. Instead, they come from stuff. Every great idea is a combination or mutation of an idea that has already been brought to life. Ideas brought to life in products that are already out there are the building blocks of innovation,  not thoughts.

According to Johnson none of these really describes what an idea is. He postulates that and idea is a NETWORK. An idea is the network of cells in the brain exploring the adjacent possibility of the idea in the brain. Ideas in the neural network have two preconditions, firstly the vast number of neuron connections. The adult human brain has 100 trillion distinct neural connections, whereas the web has 40 billion connections.  Secondly; the network has to be PLASTIC that means pliable and ready to adopt new configurations. It does not matter how dense the connections are but if it cannot make new configurations or adapt then innovation will not happen. The author firmly believes that connections equal wisdom.

For example

Our life is carbon based; this is because of the unique properties of the carbon molecule. Carbon has four valence electrons which gives it the unique ability to form connections with other atoms and other carbon atoms. The combinational power of carbon makes it the building block of life as we know it. Carbon is the CONNECTOR of life. The four valence electrons explored the LIQUID NETWORKS for the adjacent possibility until it found a stable connection that formed the first organism.

  • The slow hunch

 Steven Johnson explains in his book that good ideas do not come as epiphanies, but rather arrive slowly and through a long process of hypothesis testing. World changing ideas generally evolve over time as slow hunches rather than sudden breakthroughs.

Although in retrospect great discoveries may seem like single, definable eureka-moments, in reality they tend to fade into view slowly. They are like gradually maturing slow hunches, which demand time and cultivation to bloom.

 For example: According to Darwin, the theory of natural selection simply popped into his head when he was contemplating Malthus’ writings on population growth. But Darwin’s notebooks reveal that far before this so-called epiphany, he had already described a very nearly complete theory of natural selection. This slow hunch only matured into a fully-formed theory over time. Only in retrospect does the idea seem so obvious that it must have come in a flash of insight.

Another example: Another slow hunch led to a revolution in the way we share information today. As a child, Tim Berners-Lee read a Victorian-era how-to book and was fascinated by the “portal of information” he had found. Well over a decade later, working as a consultant at the Swiss CERN laboratory and partially inspired by the book, he tinkered with a side-project which allow him to store and connect chunks of information, like nodes in a network. Another decade later, CERN officially authorized him to work on the project, which finally matured into a network where documents on different computers could be connected through hypertext links. After decades of Berners-Lee’s slow hunch maturing and developing, the World Wide Web was born.

·  Serendipity

Serendipity is about random encounters that make sense to you, it has to be meaningful. Serendipity needs something that can anchor the connections and discoveries; the environment needs to support it. Serendipitous discoveries can be facilitated by a shared intellectual or physical space. When ideas converge in a shared physical or intellectual space, through for example people from different disciplines meeting, creative collisions happen.

For example: Consider the modernist cultural innovations of the 1920s. Many of them were largely a result of artists, poets and writers meeting at the same Parisian cafés. Shared interactions allow ideas to diffuse, circulate and be combined randomly with others.

-On an individual level, facilitating such serendipitous connections is simply a matter of simultaneously introducing ideas from different disciplines into your consciousness. Innovators like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin favored working on multiple projects simultaneously, in a kind of slow multitasking mode. One project would take center stage for days at a time, but linger at the back of the mind afterwards too, so connections between projects could be drawn.

-On an organizational level, the key to innovation and inspiration is a network which allows hunches to mature, scatter and combine with others openly. The greatest of such network in existence is, of course, the World Wide Web, where a wealth of ideas is not only available, but hyper-linked for easy connections between several disciplines.

  • Error

Great innovations emerge from environments that are partly contaminated by error. Error is present in both the evolution of life and the innovation of great ideas, and it is not always a bad thing. Error often generate success: some of the biggest successes sometimes come from a spectacular failure that produced an unexpected result. Tolerance of failure is important.

For example: Alexander Fleming only discovered penicillin because of an error: he mistakenly allowed a bacteria sample to be contaminated by mold and began to wonder what had killed the bacteria. In fact, major new scientific theories often begin as pesky little errors in the data which keep demonstrating that something in the dominant theory is wrong.

  • Exaptation

Exaptation is a complimentary action to the adjacent possible. From studies, it shows that people with a wider network of people with different backgrounds, education and industries are more successful when it comes to innovation and new ideas. People with such wide networks also act as bridges in organizations, connecting groups. They can also use solutions from another place to apply to their own situation.

For example: The web that we know today was an exaptation from a military backup phone system and a system for academic information sharing. When this concept is applied to cities if follows that bigger cities has more people, more diverse industries, from this follows that there are more instances to observe how other people and industries operate which increases the possibilities of observing other people at work/life.

·  Platforms

 Platforms are like springboards for innovations.When we talk about a platform in the context of innovation, it represents an innovation that produces many more innovations.

It’s about putting together components that are not unique but which when recombined can create something that enables many others to create something new.

Platforms often stack on top of each other, meaning that one platform provides the foundation for even more platforms, which again produce countless new innovations.

For example: Such platforms exist in the sphere if innovation as well, and they are used as springboards to leap into the adjacent possible. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a good example of such a platform. Originally developed for military use, it has now spurned countless innovations from GPS trackers to location-based services and advertising.

Another example: The story of Twitter is similar: the Web was based on existing protocols, Twitter was built on the Web and now countless apps have been designed on the Twitter platform, the adjacent possible being expanded at every step.


After understanding what is a good idea and how to get it, it’s primordial  to ask ourselves these questions in order to be more practical. These questions are:

1) What new possibilities are there today, that didn’t exist a year ago? (Principle of adjacent possibilities)

2) What hunches have you had for some time about what to do)? (Principle of slow hunches the more others share them or build on them, the better they may be)

3) What do fresh eyes think we should do (principle of liquid networks?)

4) What’s worked that’s surprised us? (Principle of serendipity: build on what surprises, chance happenings)

5) What’s the biggest learning from our biggest error? (Principle of error)

6) What other purpose can our product or service be used for? (Principle of exaptation)

7) What big success can we build on? (Platform principle)

By Emna Attia, student at the University of Angers in the Master 2 IESCI


Steven Johnson- Where good ideas come from

Admin M2 IESC