Monday, October 4, 2010

The Genius of the Tinkerer

I just got around to reading a riveting essay that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago titled "The Genius of the Tinkerer." 

The essay is adapted from author Steven Johnson's book "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" and expounds the notion that innovation, of all sizes and levels of impact, comes from tinkering with existing systems and platforms.  Or put another way: great ideas are usually not the result of eureka moments, but of recycling and combining old ideas.

Invention, innovation and, ultimately, change are based on "the adjacent possible",  a famous scientist's phrase that captures the essence of how ideas are intermingled to create great new things.

"The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.  The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven't visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn't have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you'll have built a palace."

The essay goes on to provide some familiar and not so familiar examples of great innovation such as the Gutenberg Press which co opted the technology of a wine-making press to bring the printed word to the masses and Willis Carrier's redesign of a heating system in the early 1900s to facilitate air conditioning.

In the present, there is no industry being more shaken to it's core by tinkerers exploring the adjacent possible than the media industry.   And judging from the chatter at the Annual Advertising Week conference in NY last week, the pace of change is increasing at such a rapid pace, media companies big and small, old and new,  have no idea what is coming next or which aspect of their business will be permanently altered by some new innovation tomorrow.

It was particularly fascinating to see the tinkerers and the incumbents on the same stage together.

One panel I sat through featured an investor in Twitter and a top exec from NBC jousting with each other and appearing in many ways to be from two different worlds.

When Twitter was conceived just a few years ago, did the founders imagine it would become the primary news and information source for a growing swath of the population, a role companies like NBC served for generations?

Google’s towering position over the advertising industry was evident throughout the conference, yet is now well known that Google had no plans for advertising in it’s initial business plan. 

Seems quite true, particularly in the media business, that boundaries grow as you explore them, but it creates one confusing landscape.