A conversation at work recently got me thinking a lot about the value of openness. The irony of that statement should become clear by the end of this post.
Since open innovation entered business parlance, one of the unsolved challenges has been intellectual property rights. In a more open world, who owns the rights to an idea? How can we more efficiently share rights and returns on our ideas?
Lawrence Lessig has written eloquently on the subject in books such as Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, and solutions such as Creative Commons have emerged to address the issue. Still, this problem of who has the rightful claim to an idea seems to persist.
Undoubtedly, in a capitalist system, great thinkers need to be assured of some return on their ideas to maintain the incentive for sharing their great thinking. On the other hand, “no man is an island.” The myth of the sole inventor is just that – a myth. The instances of simultaneous innovation are numerous and well documented, despite the predilection of popular consciousness to selectively remember only inventors such as Edison over Tesla.
The true origins of an idea are diffuse and imprecise. The “aha!” moment is as much as fallacy as the myth of the sole inventor. Insight comes from a pattern of multiple connections in more than one very real sense.
In neural activity, it is characterized by the gamma-waves commonly attributed to the formation of new neural connections in the brain. The brain holds all sorts of disparate ideas in memory, and the “aha!” moment of insight and innovation is the experience of finally connecting those ideas together in some novel way. (For a more accessible discussion of the neuroscience than the Beeman and Kounios article, I recommend a quick read of Imagine by John Lehrer.)
Steve Johnson was spot on when he said, “Chance favors the connected mind.” Of course, Johnson was also referring to social connections, which is the other very real sense in which insight comes from connections. Social interactions expose us to ideas, the same ideas that are held in the memory of our brain. There they sit, lying in wait for a pattern to emerge when one idea connects to another and still another – what Johnson terms, “the slow hunch.”
I think about innovation as a chemical reaction. A chemical reaction isn’t something you do; rather it’s more like something that happens. You can manipulate the conditions for a chemical reaction, by adding catalysts or energy in the form of heat or motion, but you cannot will it into being. A chemical reaction occurs when the molecules and elements collide, breaking old bonds and forming new ones. The more collisions are created, the faster the chemical reaction.
Innovation is the serendipitous collision of ideas. Those ideas originate from different places and at different times – intense brainstorming sessions at work, a good read on a long flight, a relaxing stroll on the beach. If one of those ideas came from a conversation with a coworker, does my employer have claim to my insight? (Now do you see the irony?)
If we want to innovate, it seems counter-intuitive that we would also want to reduce the number of collisions by talking only among ourselves in soft tones. The Internet has been such a fabulous engine of ingenuity because it is such a transparent and highly visible medium.
I suppose some compounds are more reactive than others and don’t need to be spurred on; some problems can be solved in the walled off gardens of R&D labs or stealth start-ups. I’m not convinced that’s the case with the really big game changers though.
AnnaLee Saxenian wrote a very interesting book on why Silicon Valley is in California today instead of along Route 128. Her argument that the openness of Silicon Valley (e.g. non-proprietary standards, decentralized organization, and cooperative exchange) was its advantage is very compelling.
Look at the example of the Homebrew Computer Club. Apple wasn’t invented in secret; the technology that Wozniak and Jobs used to revolutionize the computer industry was shared freely among like minded hobbyists. Indeed, if you read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs it seems much of what contributed to the early success of Apple did not actually originate within Apple but PARC.
Apple out executed. That’s why being the most innovative doesn’t actually matter. It’s getting the business model right that wins. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how long you hide your light under a rock. When you finally do start marketing to customers, another fast follower is going to eat your lunch.
Let me reiterate: I am not denying the risk that someone else could be more successful with your idea than you. I am questioning if that is a bad thing – exposing people that risk and letting the best person win. Wouldn’t that make for a more efficient market? It’s the only way you are going to get out of the building and be sure you are onto something. It’s the only way you are going to avoid group think and positive illusion about your own ideas.
Stop wasting time and energy trying to keep your ideas from other. Focus instead on unlocking the value from those ideas – before someone else does.