Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Challenge the Status Quo — Part 2

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I blogged about liquid networks, serendipity, and slow hunches, three of the six qualities that Steven Johnson contends contribute to innovations that radically alter the status quo.

The good ideas that Johnson writes about in Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation’s are the monumental innovations that challenged the status quo. Things like the automobile, airplane, telephone, nuclear power, personal computer, and social networks, etc.

Let’s think big again. Coming up with innovations that would radically alter the status quo so that, for example, writers have access to useful, understandable, and profitable markets, or that authors, at all stages of their careers, could link up with appropriate mentors aren’t innovations that one person can accomplish.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the world to bring forth and sustain a world-changing idea.

The big stuff requires groups of people working together because they want to, not because they are forced to.  (liquid networks) Chance encounters plays a part. (serendipity) So does allowing an idea to simmer for a long time, usually as long as ten to twenty years for most solutions. (slow hunches)

The other half of the equation is exaptation, emergent platforms, and brain chaos, three areas which, to most people aren’t as familiar as the three qualities described in the previous paragraph.

Exaptation is using a function or feature for which it was not originally intended. Remember Angus MacGyver of the TV-show MacGyver (1985-1992)? His last name has entered the language as a verb: to macgyver something is to do the impossible, using what’s readily available.

Emergent platforms is using one innovation as the base for the next innovation until they are stacked like archeology sites. Think of the begets in the Bible, generation after generation—in this case of ideas—each coming about because the thing immediately before it contained one small step upward.

Brain noise is also called brain chaos, and it happens in regular cycles.

We are creatures of habit. When we go to the store to buy carrots we have a carrot map in our heads. Go to the produce section. Look for something that is orange, longish, bumpy. Comes in bunches. Maybe it will have green tops. Read carrots on a sign or the bag. Pick up the bag and head for the till.

Suppose the store played carrot games. They stock only New Mighty Maroons or black carrots? They store the purple or black carrots next to powdered milk instead of in the produce section? They changed the sign to read rutabagas or neeps instead of carrots? We might eventually find carrots, but not without a lot of frustration.

What if they did that not just with carrots, but with every product. And they changed the products around thousands of times every day. We’d quickly find another place to shop.

What’s bad for supermarkets is brilliant for the brain. There are millions of habit pathways in our brain. How to drive a car. How to drive a car to Grandma’s. Grandma’s cell phone number so we can tell her we’re going to be late. We think that those pathways, once formed, never change, but it ain’t so.

Our brains go through regular cycles of electrical chaos, where neurons are completely out of sync with one another. Fortunately after these infinitesimally-small chaotic periods the brain reestablishes the previous pathways. As a bonus, the brain also tries to find a home for new information. Oh, carrots can be purple or black as well as orange. If the street crews are working on our usual route to Grandmas, let’s try 8th street is an alternate route. Of, if you’re someone like Tim Berners-Lee, and if this new information, and that, and this other thing get connected in new way, it eventually leads to developing the Internet.

Chaotic periods in the brain provide “I don’t know” moments, to which the brain responds, “Let’s try to figure it out.”

People with very high IQs have longer chaos periods than the rest of us. People epilepsy or schizophrenia or who use recreational drugs have different chaotic brain patterns than people who don’t have those conditions. And, right now, that’s about where the research stands.

No one knows — yet — how to control or take advantage brain chaos periods to improve idea generation. I suspect that when the researchers do discover something, it will involve getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating vegetables, whether they be orange, purple, or black.

I’ve brought forward the things I listed last week and added to the list.

Want to change the status quo of something that makes you unhappy?
  • 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.
  • Dare I say it? Think outside the box. Use old things in new ways.
  • Work to create one tiny step forward. What you contribute might be the link to the next platform.
  • Until the brain chaos researchers report back to us, get enough sleep, exercise regularly and eat your vegetables. It can’t hurt and it might help.
  • Above all, share, share, share.

Quote for the week:

Chance favors the connected mind.
~Steven Johnson


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, they already DO change the products in the supermarket around all the time--and they've eliminated the competition that would allow us to find a different place to shop. Have you ever tried to find your favorite hair conditioner or deodorant from ten years ago at CVS?

Anonymous said...

Don't get me started on Vanilla shampoo. I even managed to locate the company that made it and was promised I could order it by mail directly from the company. That was over 10 years ago. Somehow, I don't think my order is going to arrive.

Sandra Parshall said...

I hate it when I love a product and it suddenly vanishes, replaced by a "new and improved" version (which never is). This happens all the time. I've learned that if I like something, I'd better buy a lot of it because it won't be around long. The frequent changes must be profitable, or companies wouldn't do it.

When it comes to rooting out old, destructive ways of thinking, though, people are much more resistant to change. We are burdened with a political system and a health care system that are outdated and serve us poorly.