In a TED talk from 2010, Steven Berlin Johnson discussed the origin of great ideas. He researched great innovations, including the theory of natural selection and satellite technology. Johnson concludes that, contrary to popular belief in “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moments, great ideas come into view slowly. Many may think that individual “flashes of brilliance” or “strokes of genius” lead to the best, innovative ideas, but it’s much more common, Johnson says, for social, informal conversations to put the pieces in place that will eventually connect to form that breakthrough concept.
For example, Johnson points out that an informal lunchtime conversation about Sputnik – granted, it was among physicists – led to a casual side project that evolved over time, eventually creating the GPS systems that most of us carry around today.
In the past 10 years or so, many companies seeking to create an atmosphere of innovative thinking have embraced the so-called “creative” or “open-concept” work environment. Maybe you let your office Ronald Reagan tear down all the cubicle walls. Your kitchen may resemble a trendy bar more than a place that you store your homemade sandwich. If you have beanbag chairs anywhere in your office, you know what I’m talking about.
Innovation and breakthrough thinking, however, will not come just from putting funky chairs in your lobby or a “kegerator” in your kitchen. Aside from having access to one another, employees need to have a relationship that extends slightly beyond prearranged meetings and conference calls. If your company is trying to foster the creativity that spurs innovation, employees should be comfortable taking time out during their days for casual conversation and following tangential trains of thought.
Johnson points out that, historically, innovation has come from connecting – not protecting – ideas. One idea or question can turn into a much larger and potentially breakthrough concept if it’s given the right environment and some room to grow.
Does your company do anything to encourage creative, innovative thinking? Let us know in the comments below.