The Emerging Consensus View of Innovation

We can now claim, with some certainty, that we collectively understand how innovation works. I say this after reading two recent books:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries by Peter Sims, and

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson.

Both of these books present essentially the same account of creativity and innovation that I presented in my 2007 book Group Genius. That’s no doubt because all three books are based on the latest scientific studies of creativity and innovation. Here’s a quick summary of the emerging consensus view:

  • Creativity is not about one big genius idea; it’s about a lot of small sparks (Sims calls them “little bets”) over a long period of time.
  • Over a long period of time, the small sparks may gradually result in a successful new innovation. This is more likely with certain work habits, and with certain collaborative team designs.
  • The work habits, and team designs, that make creativity more likely are those that:
    • Fail often and fail quickly
    • Involve an improvisational approach to the problem, rather than an advance planning approach
    • Tap into many different people and information sources
  • Creativity is never the result of one genius having a brilliant idea; these stories are always mythical. Instead, many people contribute the small sparks that are behind a successful idea.

Both books contain some of the same stories that I told in Group Genius: For example, one of Steven Johnson’s favorite stories, about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection, was first told in my book (pp. 103-104). I thought the stories in Sims’ book were a bit more original; he told several stories I wasn’t aware of.

I was particularly intrigued by Sims’ summary of research into “lucky people” by Dr. Richard Wiseman. Wiseman studied the behavioral patterns that are different in lucky and unlucky people (people defined themselves as lucky or unlucky). The lucky people pay more attention to what’s going on around them than the unlucky people, and they are more open to opportunities that come along spontaneously, whereas unlucky people are “creatures of routine, fixated on specific outcomes” (p. 123). The lucky people have three times greater open body language in social situations, and smile twice as much, as unlucky people. Examining their social networks, lucky people “are effective at building secure, and long-lasting, attachments with the people they meet…they often keep in touch with a much larger number of friends and colleagues than unlucky people” (p. 124).

So if you want to learn about this emerging consensus view of innovation, which of the three books should you read? Of course, I like my own book! And I like Peter Sims’ book, too. I would say that Sims’ book is a bit more journalistic, a bit more skimming across the top of the research, whereas my book goes into a bit more depth with the stories and the underlying themes. My book is a bit more explicit about the practical take-home lessons, too (but Sims has good advice as well).

5 thoughts on “The Emerging Consensus View of Innovation

  1. Haven’t read the books you refer to, yet. I find that an interesting problem people and organizations tend to have is that they fail to see that innovation is happening at many levels at the same time. Thus they set out to create an I process at the highest levels and then they expect the lower levels to be about bricks and mortars. I’d expect to see generic and highly specific innovation related to the different aspects/professions/levels across the whole spectrum of the change space.

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