Collaboration: Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson’s new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” takes a look at the history of innovation and draws some interesting conclusions:

  • Breakthrough ideas almost never come from single individuals. Rather, they come from the interchange of ideas that evolve, percolate, and ultimately integrate over time into breakthrough concepts.
  • The environment required to nurture breakthrough ideas is not a private zone that insulates the individual from the rest of humanity (such as Archimedes’ bathtub, a cube, or a private office). Rather, innovation is nurtured at the coffee house, the salon, or other space that fosters collaboration between people happy and open to exchanging half-baked ideas.
  • The rapidly developing world of technology sprouting up around us does not impede us from thinking deep thoughts by inducing attention deficit disorder, but rather connects us in ways that makes sharing ideas easier and more frequent thereby producing the fertile environment necessary for effective innovation.

The video Good Ideas, the Four-Minute Version, a promotion for Mr. Johnson’s new book, ends with the tagline:

“Chance favors the connected mind.”

Boy, I sure wish I made that up. It says so much. Here at the Agile CEO, we have discussed how humans are hard-wired to be risk averse. Yet new ideas are not born intact like Athena, but emerge over time from inherently uncertain conditions. That means our predisposition to overcorrect when avoiding the possibility of negative outcomes has the side effect of making it less likely that we will recognize the positive potential in emergent possibilities. When faced with emergent circumstances, we humans tend to make false negative errors (e.g. see “know enough to be dangerous”). “Chance favors the connected mind” succinctly captures the idea that collaboration in a tolerant environment opens our collective mind up to possibilities that we could never recognize as individuals working alone. The risk of making a false positive error is reduced.

The belief that good ideas emerge from close collaboration and experimentation in a supportive environment is fundamental to Agile values and principles. In fact, the reason that most Agile practices exist is to foster just this sort of close collaboration. This would seem to imply that software development is a type of innovation — this is certainly true and well worth a thorough examination. But the inverse is perhaps more important: whenever we have a need for innovation, Agile practices can help. In short, Agile methods are not just for software developers but for anybody who needs to innovate.

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