How Being Secretive Can Kill Your New Ideas

philmckinney | April 28, 2014


protect ideas

Many conceptualize brilliant new ideas as singular products that drop in, seemingly from outer-space. Some call them Aha! Moments, Epiphanies, and Flashes of Insight. Writer Steven Johnson disagrees.

In a July 2010 TED Talk, Johnson describes important breakthrough ideas as networks that patch together slowly, sometimes lingering in the backs of minds for decades until the right intersection of circumstances reveals them. Johnson suggests connection and collaboration produce the right intersection of circumstance.

In his research, Johnson examined environments, looking for patterns common among places where great innovations were developed. What kind of setting would best serve a slow fading-in of important ideas? In his studies, he found that a certain amount of chaos was common to several birthplaces of great ideas. Specifically, when multiple minds gathered and volleyed ideas back and forth, the stage was set for breakthroughs.

Johnson calls this The Liquid Network–where several people gather and discuss their ideas, their mistakes, their successes. It may be this collision of slowly forming hunches that aids the cobbling together of real innovation.

We see this in modern day industry. A similar thought was shared recently by Gary Vegh, who has worked closely with the auto industry on environmental technology innovations for over 20 years. In an article for Environmental Leader, Vegh describes automotive innovations as necessarily collaborative. Automotive innovations are necessarily collaborative, because the production chain is so long and complex–multiple industries and disciplines touch new ideas. Due to the need for group effort, Vegh states the best innovations typically come out of the automotive manufacturer association meetings and symposia.

If creative new ideas are best facilitated by the free exchange of thoughts and frustrations between multiple minds, our tendency to over protect our ideas hinders innovation. The incentives and rewards for owning an innovation may not do much to aid our creativity.

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