Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

You probably knew a book review was coming when I went all “you MUST read” on you, didn’t you.

I’m giving myself a Goodreads challenge again, and this was book 5 for me this month. I tend to read more early in the year, and my challenge is to read books more consistently. The Kindle Daily Deal helps immensely, for it constantly adds to the queue in an easily affordable way. So many books, so little time…

Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of InnovationWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (Goodreads Links)
Link to Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

My Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a word, exceptional.

I greatly appreciate authors like Johnson who are ‘slow hunch’ cultivators, thorough researchers, and articulate explainers.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is a focused celebration of the phrase “hindsight is 20/20.” The scientific history of innovation is curated to support Johnson’s thesis, which is his answer to this question: What kind of environment creates good ideas?

There is another, more subtle question which lurks throughout the book as well: Are you open to sharing your ideas before they’ve fully formed? (…for here are the reasons why.) From his Introduction:

“The poet and the engineer (and the coral reef) may seem a million miles apart in their particular forms of expertise, but when they bring good ideas into the world, similar patterns of development and collaboration shape that process. If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. Like the free market itself, the case for restricting the flow of innovation has long been buttressed by appeals to the “natural” order of things. But the truth is, when one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.”

He then proceeds to cover 7 different qualities he’s discerned about the nature of ideas, with very meaty chapters on each, all illustrated by the scientific stories of innovation:

Ch 1 — The Adjacent Possible (I have shared Johnson’s definition before, within this blog post: An Aloha Business for 2012)
Ch 2 — Liquid Networks
Ch 3 — The Slow Hunch
Ch 4 — Serendipity
Ch 5 — Error
Ch 6 — Exaptation
Ch 7 — Platforms

After reading each one, you can’t help but put the book aside for a moment, and ask yourself, “where do I sit with this, given my own habits?” and, “how must I further shape the environment my ideas will percolate in?”

Johnson’s book is the perfect candidate for the workplace book club. Two reasons immediately came to mind:

1. It is hugely conducive to company adaptation, and would be a marvelous trigger for in depth, “what about us?” discussion on a number of different questions which are kin to his central one [What kind of environment creates good ideas?]”¨

— Who is our Darwin in this company? (or a number of others he profiles)
— What are the important stories of our own scientific, or innovative history? How were they sequential stories and not singular events?
— Where are the different rooms of our ‘adjacent possible,’ and who, among our own people, are already working in them?
— We say mistakes are cool, and that we have to ‘fail forward’ in our experimentation, but how well do we actually understand error? Have we built on any errors?
”¨” and so forth.

2. It will add to your Language of Intention in culture-building. I love books like these, which teach you new words or phrases, and then treat you like the like-minded insider you become as those words and phrases get built upon in each successive chapter and proposition. Your own vocabulary becomes enriched.

For someone like me, strong proponent of aligning our values, Johnson’s exceptionally well written book is a good reminder about the wealth of possibility that diversity contributes to the healthy and inventive mindset. He hasn’t changed my mind about value alignment, and how necessary it is to culture-building; he zooms me forward. Okay, you have a healthy, MWA-infused culture. Now what will it take to innovate and grow?

Johnson takes his time with his book’s concluding remarks (more stories!) introducing a final filtering concept he calls “the fourth quadrant” to help us better sit with our own conclusions about what we’ve learned. I’m not one of those cynics he need worry about, but I appreciated his patience and attempt to be so open-minded and thorough. I think Johnson was very smart in including his environmental exploration with a “what if” treatise on governmental systems; it’s an arena where cultural innovation is chronically necessary, and any reformation efforts will be complex, and will take time, keeping Johnson’s book relevant for years to come.

I admit to feeling personally challenged by this book still, wondering if I understood everything, and if I took it all in completely — there is so much covered! This will therefore be a book I gladly read again (and now, not later) moving it from a 1st read appetizer and overview to a more complete meal I can savor. A certain degree of reading restraint is called for; I want to read this again before picking up any other non-fiction book.

I’d decided that my reading of Where Good Ideas Come From was long overdue because I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s blog, and reading it is a good way to get a preview of what you’ll read in his book. You can be assured the book will be better, for his blog posts are his own “slow hunches,” made public to simmer and cook with some early feedback.

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Why Goodreads? They have become an App Smart choice for me, for I want to return to more book reading, and have set a goal to read at least 24 books this year. Read more about the Goodreads mission here, and let’s connect there if you decide to try it too! You can also follow them on Twitter.

Previous review done for Talking Story: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Use this link if you prefer to read my book reviews here on Talking Story.