Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Russian Doll Theory of Ideation


I've often discussed my research into the ideation and innovation process. This work is most recently being conducted as a "systems visualization" effort in alignment with MIT's Comparative Media Studies program (http://cms.mit.edu/) in support of Professor V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai (http://www.vashiva.com/).  An interesting aspect of this attempt to graphically depict the formation of ideas is that it has given me a new perspective on the process and the results that it produces.

The first part of the new perspective is that ideas are essentially packages of remnants from the knowledge, values, and experiences of the person (or people) that originated it.  In other words, an idea has a "DNA" that gives evidence from where it came from. Since the originator of the idea is also a product of their environment and culture, the idea’s roots can be traced back even further. From this perspective, we developed a series of graphical models that attempt to give a new viewpoint of what an idea is exactly.

You might read this and say "So what? You came up with an abstract way of visualizing ideas. Big deal", and perhaps you're right. However, what these graphical models convey to me is that an idea is more than a novel connection of insights and existing ideas, as recent books on the topic have conveyed. While that concept is accurate, I believe that it makes the process sound more random than it really is. What are graphical models began to convey is that an idea is a set of connections resulting from a filtered version of the stored knowledge of its originator (person or people). Furthermore, the idea is instigated and tightly filtered by intention or circumstances that led to it. This is particularly interesting when you consider that the originator itself is essentially a filtered version of its environment. In other words, the development of ideas mimics a "Russian Doll" paradigm, which I believe has major implications on the development of new ideas

The Importance of Culture
If an idea's elements are a sub-set of its creator's knowledge, and that creator's knowledge is a sub-set of its environment, then by association, the quantity (and therefore, quality) of ideas is greatly influenced by the creator's ability to increase their knowledge from their environment. Of course, there also has to be a culture in place that promotes not only the increase of this knowledge but the experimentation of the ideas that it can produce. Beyond just isolated knowledge increase (e.g. reading a book), you can see the combinatorial benefits of a culture that promotes communication and sharing of knowledge. In other words, a culture of learning, communication, and experimentation is the fundamental to the creation of great ideas. Think of a brainstorm. It's essentially the repeated process of people creating random combinations based on elements from their collective knowledge bases. Of course, the importance of culture on creativity is common sense to anyone who has worked in an innovative environment, but it's nice to see the graphical models re-affirm it.

From Circumstances Comes Intent
As I mentioned, an idea is instigated and filtered by the intent and circumstances of its originator. Let me give a concrete example of what I mean. Say you step out of work to discover that it is pouring rain, you don't have an umbrella, you don't want to get wet, and you have to walk a mile to the subway. These circumstances immediately create an intent for you to minimize how wet you get from the rain. You react to your environment immediately based on your experience in the world and make the knee-jerk decision to look for something to block your head from the rain. You quickly think of all the items in your bag, ruling out some and considering others. You then reach into your bag, grab a newspaper and hold it over your head, shielding off some of the rain.

This was the formation of an idea. It's certainly not an original idea, but it follow the process by which ideas are created. Circumstances led to Intent, Intent led to a filtering of choices and exploration of possible combinations, and finally, a single idea was selected. An important takeaway from this example is that the idea did not just spring from thin air. The process to create an idea was quickly instigated and executed due to the tension or constraints presented by the environment.  Without it, the idea never would have been formed. This example of an idea is trivial of course, but many aren't, and they are formed (or not formed) and essentially the same manner.

Next time you have an idea, give a good hard look at it...I bet you'll recognize where it came from.

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