Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Challenge the Status Quo — Part 1

Sharon Wildwind

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about an inventive book trailer, the first one that has led me to go look for a book. The book in question is Steven Johnson’s Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation. Here’s a short video of Johnson talking about a couple of ideas from that book.

Johnson’s good ideas aren’t that perennial question asked of writers: where do you get your ideas? He’s working on a larger scale: where do workable innovations that radically alter the status quo come from? Things like the automobile, airplane, telephone, nuclear power, personal computer, and social networks, etc.

He contends that, consistently over the last 500 years, the most significant and the largest number of truly great innovations have come from groups of people networking, often informally, on an idea because it excited them, not because their boss said it was a good idea or because making money was their main goal.

Let’s think big. For example, what innovations would radically alter the status quo so that writers have access to useful, understandable, and profitable markets, or that authors, at all stages of their careers, could link up with appropriate mentors?

Beats me.

It would beat any individual. Johnson’s point is that real change happens only in fluid cooperation among diverse people, over a long period of time. This week and next week I’m going to blog some thoughts about the six qualities that Johnson says are needed for radically altering the status quo .

This week I’m focusing on liquid networks, serendipity, and slow hunches. Next week come back for brain noise, exaptation, and emergent platforms.

Liquid networks are those in which people are free to interact in multiple groups and across groups. Such networks foster open environments where ideas flow in unregulated channels. Remember the phrase Does Macy's tell Gimbels? In a liquid network, the answer is yes.

Liquid networks reverse the idea that information is a weapon rather than a tool. Information is seen as belonging to whomever is interested, whether that person is an employee, competitor, or customer. What could grow out of publishers saying openly to potential first-time authors, "XYZ publishers contract approximately 100 first-time authors a year. Last year, for first-time authors, 2% of contracts were for advances of over $5,000; 10% were for under $2,000; and 88% were in the $2,000 to $5,000 range"?

Liquid networks also recognize the value of serendipity, chance meetings, and and cross-fertilization. We’ve all heard stories of a company CEO struggling with a problem for months and then, one day, she sits next to a person on a cross-country flight who has a product that solves the problem perfectly. The question is how do we increase the potential for those encounters until they become, not random chance, but a certainty? We do it by inviting a variety of people into our lives.

Let’s say that you had a question on your mind, maybe, what transforms social media into an effective marketing tool? Professions tend to stovepipe, and writers are no exception. A writer would be most likely to discuss that question with other writers, and some times with agents, editors, librarians, booksellers, and readers. After a while the discussion gets a bit incestuous. Do you think you might get different answers—and perhaps a spark of serendipity—if you brought together authors, musicians, actors, engineers, and graphic designers to discuss that question? I do.

Really innovative ideas aren’t light-bulb moments, they are slow hunches. On the average it takes ten to twenty years of obsession to build an overnight success. Some very successful companies now permit, even require, that their employees spend 1 day out of 5 focusing on their obsessions.

This doesn’t mean that employees are free to go shopping for high-end shoes or cultivate the perfect tan on work time. Fortunately for both the employees and the companies, people tend to obsess about something related to their work. Very often it’s a project or idea that they have been dying to work on, but  never have the time. The return for the companies? Happier, healthier employees. Less sick time. Decentralized research and development, and more of those serendipitous sitting-next-to-the-perfect-solution situations, with the bother of a cross-country flight.

So, here’s what I learned so far from Steven Johnson.

  • Think big and ask the hard questions.
  • Treat information as a tool rather than a weapon.
  • Spend as much time as you can talking to people who do something different than what you do.
  • Use up to 20% of your work time to work on your what truly excites you.
  • Pace yourself for the long haul.

See you next week for the other half of good ideas.
Quote for the week:

Always keep some of your creative energy for play.
~Barbara Hambly, science fiction, mystery, and fantasy writer

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