The mad, brilliant and socially awkward scientist. The artist shivering quietly in the studio. The maverick hyper competitive marketer, alone in their spreadsheet. It is a dominant image – explaining the great steps forward being huge individual and innovative leaps, driven by one dynamic individual. And it’s often wrong – as Steven Johnson’s great book Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History Of Innovation explains. My personal take on marketing creativity and innovation is that it is best accomplished by working with selected collaborative partners – either internal or external to the organisation. The most creative and successful people I have met have been those that have picked up the phone to speak to others, to invite someone different to a meeting, to bring in some new ideas. They are not isolated intellectuals but collaborators, mavens and connectors. Many brands and projects that struggle from too little contact with new (and external) thinking and too much internal analysis, collective isolation and a reluctance, bordering on the paranoia, to discuss ideas with other third-party organisations. People often say; “our business is too slow and too bureacratic” and I often interpret this as; “we’re very insular and do not have any friends in the industry”. It becomes a negative spiral: the more pressure to look at internal restructures and analysis, the more reluctance to engage outside and explore the unknown. Safer, more comforting and easier to manage a brainstorm with known colleagues than to really challenge assumptions with thinking from outside the city walls. Steven Johnson’s great book – Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History Of Innovation covers a lot of this kind of territory in a smart way and in particular shining the fresh light of EXAPTATION on innovation.. “Expa-what?” Exaptation. A concept from biology defined as; ” The utilization of a structure or feature for a function other than that for which it was developed through natural selection.” Quite simply, evolution often means that organisms adapt a piece of existing stuff for the purpose of something new – and often better. Arms become wings. Ship wrecks become home to reefs. In the world of inventing new products and services, exaptation is recurring theme. Some of the best innovations are often not something completely dramatic and revolutionary – they simply bring together some existing ideas and thoughts into a different arena, from ‘the adjacent possible’. Guttenberg – the inventor of the printing press in 1440 was a maker of small mirror knickknacks who happened to be in the main wine making region of Germany: where the expertise was in producing highly effective wine presses. To use a biblical metaphor, her turned wine into printing. Guttenberg did not really ‘invent’ the press – he just combined the existing wine-press technology and added moveable type printing method (invented by the Chinese) – to create the printing press. His brilliance was in seeing how these existing technologies could be adapted and combined. The process is one that Johnson calls ‘coffee-house’ model. The best ideas and innovations come from those who discuss and share thoughts with others, combining disciplines, merging backgrounds, exploring
and debating. Guttenberg was in the right coffee houses and bars to meet the makers of wine presses. The coffee houses of 17th century England were also notorious for this kind of mad but highly effective way of generating new business ideas. They were a mix of academics, poets, merchants, scientists. As Johnson states; “many of history’s greatest innovators managed to build a cross-disciplinary coffee-house environment within their routines.” They have lots of hobbies and that means lots of different conversations and opinions. In many corporates, a lot of conversations are the same, reinforcing the corporate line and reluctant to look outside the status quo. Johnson goes on to classify great innovations and inventions into four quadrants. Those created by (1) an Individual serving the needs of the Market (business) or (2) a Network or collaboration serving needs of the Market. (3) Individual – Not market driven. And finally; (4) a Network or collaboration – Not-market driven. From 1600-1800, the majority of innovations were non-market innovations. Dominated by famous academics, scientists. However, in the last 100 years the majority of major inventions have been market-driven and of those, the trend is towards Networked innovation. The rise of television required broadcasters, writers, journalists, electricians and government. The electric guitar and broadcasting were needed to create the modern music industry. In more recent times, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page designed Page Rank it was reliant upon the academic and hypertext language notebook work done by Tim Berners-Lee. It is not introspective isolation but an interest in other thinkers, doers and ideas. Johnson summarises the history of innovation in a compelling way; “Ideas collide, emerge, recombine, new enterprises find homes in shells abandoned by earlier hosts, informal hubs allow different disciplines to borrow from one another. These are the spaces that have supported innovation, from Mesopotamian settlements 8000 years ago to the invisible layers of software that support today’s Web”. So what does this mean for marketers? According to Johnson; ” If we want to build environments that generate good ideas – we need to keep that history in mind and not fall back in the easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only source of good ideas”. Reading this great book in context; taking into account Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan – it does reinforce to me the need for organisations to explore ideas, contacts and new relationships that are on the edge of their experience, not within it. The best innovations come from collaboration not introspection and relationships need to be pioneered, nurtured and rewarded.