There was an interesting article in The Wired magazine recently on the idea of “clusters of innovation”.
Quoting from the article, “Several years ago, statistician David Banks wrote a short paper on what he called the problem of excess genius: It turns out that human geniuses aren’t scattered randomly across time and space. Instead, they tend to arrive in tight clusters. (As Banks put it, talent “clots inhomogeneously.”) In his paper, Banks cites the example of Athens between 440 and 380 BC. He writes that the ancient city was home to an astonishing number of geniuses, including Plato, Socrates, Thucydides, Herodotus, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. These thinkers essentially invented Western civilization, and yet they all lived in the same place at the same time. Or look at Florence, Italy, between 1440 and 1490. In a mere half century, a city of fewer than 70,000 people gave rise to a staggering number of immortal artists, like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Ghiberti, Botticelli, and Donatello.”
The article attempts to make sense of this phenomenon by invoking the idea of the presence of particular meta-ideas, which support the spread of other ideas. First proposed by economist Paul Romer, meta-ideas include concepts like the patent system, public libraries, and universal education. The article cites several key meta-ideas that could potentially impact innovation. They are:
- Immigration (mixing of new ideas or new influences)
- Education (society places value on education)
- Institutions that promote risk taking (as demonstrated by the professional leagues in the US that churn out winners every year by placing risky bets on rookies)
This article made me think and I think we can start piecing together a blue print for generating innovation within the enterprise by design rather than by accident. Here are my candidates for meta-ideas within the enterprise:
- A culture of thinking outside the departments (a systems approach to solving challenges and identifying opportunities).
- A platform to bring together SMALL groups of passionate people based on ideas and interests that can cut across hierarchies and geographies.
- A culture that promotes risk taking.
- And most importantly, the willingness to share learning, ideas and the openness to accept ideas from people that are not “superiors”.
Social Learning platforms might well be the canvas on which points 1, 2, and 4 above can be implemented. They can create a space where ideas can mingle and take the form of real innovation. Check out this interesting video:
While it is easy to point out to the Googles of the world that seem to have mastered all the four meta-ideas, I am very curious to find out how companies operating in heavily regulated industries, such as pharma, are approaching the need to have a free flow of ideas. Hopefully, I will stumble on some answers soon.