The history of innovation is the story of ideas that seemed dumb at the time. — Andy Dunn
We all know that lightbulb moment. A sudden clarity where all makes perfect sense. An idea has been born and now it seems so obvious. But how does the idea come to life?
An idea is a new assemblage of neurons in your brain. It is a synaptic sequence which had never happened before. In order to stimulate this new assemblage, you have to put yourself in a fruitful environment. In essence, that neuron assemblage is a network. And the network of neurons is better stimulated when you surround yourself with the network of people. Our brain seems to follow this network pattern. If you talk to people you’ve never talked to before, it is more likely that the conversation will result in entirely new synaptic trajectory. This could lead you to a new point of view, a new perspective, which will open possibilities that you haven’t thought of before. Take coffee shops for example. This place is extremely fruitful when it comes to generating ideas. First of all, coffee is a stimulant which will make your brain awake. Second, you are in an entirely new physical environment, which breaks your everyday pattern. Third and the most important, you have a company. Someone to interact with, someone who will listen to your ideas and share their point of view about the topic. Something you hear can open up new possibilities and improve the idea that you’ve developed in your head. My point here is that connecting the idea is so much better than protecting the idea. This way, you can build on the initial idea and create something bigger and better.
Knowledge spillover or idea spillover is an exchange of ideas among individuals. This spillover effect stimulates technological and economic growth. An example of a knowledge spillover could be the collective growth associated with the development of social networking platforms. These platforms created a variety of new software, new marketplaces and benefits for the users which were originally unintended. These conceptual breakthroughs perpetuated the development of the industry as a whole. What started as a small, niche platform, opened the door to unlimited possibilities spread outside the industry it originated from. Today, the spillover enabled media companies to gain more audience, marketers to reach more customers and consultants to reach more clients.
There are two kinds of knowledge spillovers: internal and external. A positive impact of knowledge improvement between individuals within an organization of the same subject matter is an internal knowledge spillover. It enables growth within that silo, within a single industry. On the other hand, external knowledge spillover occurs when this positive impact of knowledge within one industry affects the individuals outside of a production organization and enables the growth beyond the industry where the knowledge originated. Internal knowledge spillover creates specialization within an industry. On the other hand, external knowledge spillover enables growth on a larger scale, affecting more individuals and industries. It does not create specialization within adjacent industries, it just picks it up to another level.
Another point to be considered is the geography of innovation. Ideas are being shared locally and the proximity to the source is very important. There are two types of knowledge spillover, related to the geography of spillover: the proximity of specialized industries and proximity of general knowledge.
The proximity of specialized industries or common industries often affects how well knowledge travels among companies to facilitate innovation and growth. The exchange of ideas is largely from employee to employee, where employees from different companies within the same industry exchange ideas about new products and new ways to produce goods or provide services. It’s a fact that knowledge spillover in specialized, geographically concentrated industries stimulate growth. Local competition fosters the pursuit and rapid adoption of innovation. The opportunity to exchange ideas lead to new products and improved production methods and frameworks. A good example is a business incubator or innovation park.
The proximity of general knowledge affects how well knowledge travels among companies from different industries. This diverse proximity brings together ideas among individuals with different perspectives. This encourages the discussion and facilitates innovation by putting old tools and methods to novel use. The exchange of ideas is happening between employees from different industries and innovation from one field could open the door for another innovation in a completely different, seemingly unrelated domain.
That seemingly unrelated domain might just help you in improving your idea. In Steven Johnson’s best-selling book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”, he explains that most innovations are in fact not brilliant moments of inspiration. Rather, they are the natural consequence or evolution or other existing innovations combined with one another in new and interesting ways. He explains it elegantly:
“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…[the adjacent possible] captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.” — Steven Johnson
Adjacent possible can be viewed as an inverse course of history, exponential in its possibilities the further we go into the future. However, the number of possibilities is narrowed down at every step going forward, by the limitations of the present.
Think again about the knowledge spillover. Each idea from a different industry can be married to another idea from your own industry, making it a winning combination or an invention. Similarly, each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. So as you explore new ideas and as you experiment with them, you unlock new possibilities for you and your direct peers.
I can think of many examples. Mobile apps, for one. An idea first demonstrated by Steve Jobs, as a few thumbnail-sized images on a touch screen unlocked an innovation landscape that moments ago was merely a science fiction. This single idea streamlined the future of hardware and software development in the field of mobile phones.
Back to you, on a personal level, each time you read or create something new, you are brushing the adjacent possible. It opens new doors and enables you to make something innovative. Have in mind that your invention and innovation is actually a key for unlocking somebody else’s adjacent possible. This way, you’ve streamlined your future and the future of people around you by eliminating countless possibilities for solving the problem differently.
How to stimulate a good idea?
Allowing the mind to move from one context to another will force you to approach the same problem from different angles. It is important to browse through different topics and have broad interest because ideas can be sparked from a totally unrelated context. A good example is browsing through printed newspapers. Newspapers facilitated accidental discoveries because finding a topic of your interest requires browsing through the rest of the pages. Some unrelated headline could grab your attention and give you a great idea. Here are a couple of ideas for unlocking the adjacent possible:
1. Read more books
Books are the closest thing to downloading other people’s experiences. Reading a book expands your horizon, giving you new insights and stimulates thinking. Although you are far away from the book author, reading the book gives you the proximity to knowledge spillover. If you read books related to your industry it is an equivalent of the proximity of specialized industry and knowledge spillover. On the other hand, you can stimulate your thinking by reading the book from a completely unrelated domain. This way, you can emulate the proximity of general knowledge and benefit from the idea spillover.
2. Socialize with people outside your normal circle
Hanging around with the same people from your normal circle can get you going in the same thinking loop. You could take advantage of all those LinkedIn connections and start some exciting conversations. New people don’t know all your thought patterns and old stories. The same applies the other way around. You could hear some fresh insight from a complete stranger. The refreshing perspectives will help to surface new thinking and possibly combining their idea with one of your own, making something great.
3. Exercise your creativity
One of the best ways to improve your creative thinking is to try. Seriously. Research shows that when people try to think more creatively, they almost always can — and those effects are both significant and repeatable. The idea is that the more you use your brain to do something, the stronger the connections between the cells involved become. Try introducing an everyday routine, where you will unplug from distractions such as social media and email. I like to call it a “ten ways to…” routine. Force your brain to think about ten ways to improve this, ten ways to solve that, ten ways to disrupt that. Thinking about more than one solution will force you to think differently. The first solution that comes to your mind comes from your usual way of thinking. Forcing yourself to more and more solutions will make you think in new and innovative ways.
4. Pay attention to new ideas
During the day, we are exposed to so much information and new ideas. The more information we get, the fewer we get to capture. Information overload drives us to saturation. To overcome this problem, start capturing interesting ideas. You don’t necessarily need to evaluate each idea right that moment, but it is crucial to write it down somewhere. If you happen to have a pen and paper, that would be even better. Your brain captures the idea when you use your hand to write it. The brain is engaged in the writing process, and the idea is likely to stick. You can revisit the idea later, on your own convenience. One of these ideas might be something which can become a breakthrough, when combined with your own idea.
5. Mix and match
Often, a new idea is a combination of two separate ideas from a seemingly unrelated domain. You could force this to happen by creating two categories and try mixing them together. For example, list ten platforms and ten businesses. Then, try matching each of them. In other words, explore the viability of a certain business on a certain platform. Maybe it already exists, but maybe you’ll mix something yet unseen. This could illuminate the way towards the new market, yet untapped.