Innovation And The Roots of Progress
Steven Johnson

If you look back at the long arc of history, it’s clear that one of the most crucial drivers of real progress in society is innovation: people coming up with creative solutions to problems that we face, and successfully producing those solutions on a grand scale. In my own work, I’ve studied the roots of innovation, across a range of fields, to try to understand where these transformative new ideas come from and how they spread.

There's a funny thing about the language that we use to describe innovation: it invariably revolves around “lightbulb” or “Eureka” moments, where a new idea suddenly pops into someone’s head and the world changes. But my research into the history of transformative ideas suggests that the process behind this kind of true innovation is slower and more incremental. I call this model of innovation the “slow hunch”. An idea comes into your mind — it's a hint of something, a sense of possibility, a sense that there's something worth exploring, but you can't really explain what it is.

If we look back over the last 50 years, I think most of us would agree that the World Wide Web was one of the most important foundational innovations of that period. And if you look at the story of how the Web came about, it's a beautiful case study of the slow hunch at work. Tim Berners-Lee shows up as a young programmer at the famous Swiss physics lab CERN, and he’s surrounded by all these brilliant scientists. So he creates a little application just for his own use to keep track of all the interesting people he’s meeting. It’s basically a little database with links connecting people and the projects they’re working on, or the papers they’re publishing.

He has no grand vision for a global communications platform; it’s just a little hobby that he’s playing with on the side. But he keeps at it and, over the years, the idea begins to evolve. Eventually he realizes that he’s stumbled on a new architecture for global communication. But the original idea was very small and simple, just a fragment really.

The lesson of Berners-Lee’s experience is that we’re often better off focusing on preserving our slow hunches than we are chasing “lightbulb” moments. One simple recipe for this is just writing down all your fragmentary ideas — and then making a deliberate practice of revisiting them months or years later. Sometimes, the hunch you had years ago turns out to be a genuinely useful breakthrough several years later, because the marketplace has changed or some new technology has emerged.

The other key principle about innovation is that it is fundamentally collaborative, and often generates the most promising new ideas at the intersection point between different disciplines. This is a tradition that goes all the way back to Gutenberg inventing the printing press. Gutenberg had solved a lot of the complicated problems involving the inks and metallurgy that you needed for a moveable type system. But, for a long time, he didn't have a pressing mechanism, which, if you're trying to invent a printing press, is actually quite important! Then one day he just decided to go and visit a vineyard and drink some wine, and they just happened to be using a technology called a “screw press” that was used to press grapes. He looked at this contraption and he said, “That's what I'm missing.” And so, he took a technology that had originally been designed to press grapes and turned it into a technology for printing bibles.

You see examples of that kind of cross-disciplinary borrowing again and again in the history of innovation, which is why I think one key strategy in creating a corporate culture that is more innovative is to seek inspiration in seemingly unrelated fields. And, in a way, it’s another argument for the importance of diversity in the workplace. Obviously, we live in an age where diversity is a kind of mantra. But most of the time when we're talking about diversity, we're talking about equality of opportunity, or representation, or making sure that we are including different groups into our teams for social justice or a political reason. But there's another reason to have diverse teams, which is that diverse groups are collectively smarter and more creative.

There is an endless body of research from social science and social psychology that shows that when you get people together in a room who have different backgrounds, whether that be ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, intellectual backgrounds, or from different disciplines — the more diverse the group is, the more likely the group will come up with original solutions to problems. When you get a more eclectic group together with different backgrounds, different traditions and different ways of thinking about the world, there will be a richer array of potential solutions on the table with whatever you're trying to do—whether you’re trying to innovate a new product, or trying to make an important corporate decision about the future of your business.

One of the most powerful ways to diversify the thinking that goes into your product is to involve your customers in the process. What are your customers doing with your products that surprise you? What are they doing that you hadn't actually planned for them to do? Today, given that we live in a world where there is truly global connectivity, where we can sell products and services to people all around the world, you're going to see really surprising uses and adaptations of your products, depending on which country or which city in the world you're doing business in.

We've seen these wonderful examples where some emerging markets just leapfrog ahead of other more established ones: as in many African countries where people never really had a landline phone, and really never had a traditional bank into which they could go and talk to a teller, and instead they just switched immediately to mobile phones and online banking. They just bypassed this whole phase that the rest of us were stuck in for a hundred years. In a way, those customers are probably the most attuned and open to new possibilities.

Paying attention to what those kinds of customers are doing, looking at the ways in which they push the envelope of the product you're selling them, cultivating those markets as a source of innovative ideas and slow hunches — that’s a wonderful way to unlock new possibilities in your business.

Steven is a best-selling popular science author who also creates TV shows and podcasts about the history and future of innovation. He has some surprising takes on how to identify the business possibilities created by new technology.