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How Innovation Happens
Categories: Innovation

At the Women on Wall Street conference last night, Steven Berlin Johnson gave a keynote on how innovation happens. He has studied the history of breakthrough innovations and found a pattern: They are created not by “Eureka!” moments, but slow hunches that incubate, sometimes for decades, with diverse people collaborating to make unintended consequences.

Here are some of his riveting stories, which are from his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From:

Slow Hunches, not “Eureka Moments,” that Incubate Over Time

An Engineer started working at a new job and got overwhelmed with keeping track of projects, people, and documents. So he started trying to organize the data for himself and wrote some software.

He put it aside for awhile and tinkered with the code again a few years later. Then he got side-tracked and put it down again.

A while later, he realized it could help with a project they were working on. He built a prototype based on Hypertext called ENQUIRE. The Engineer was Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, and his vision became the World Wide Web. He had worked on it for ten years.

Unintended Consequences

Sputnik was launched on a Friday. Everyone was talking about it on Monday. At a cafeteria at the applied physics lab at Johns Hopkins two young guys said “has anyone tried to listen?” They picked up the signal (the Soviets made Sputnik easy to track so no one would thought it was a hoax). Then they start recording it with time stamps and noticed a variation in frequency. They realized there was a pattern to it. They got permission to use the UNIVAC computer for this side project. After 3 weeks they figured out the exact orbit.

Their boss says, “So, you figured out an unknown location of a satellite orbiting the planet from a known location on the ground. Could you go the other way?” And they did. (Turns out he wanted it to figure out how to send missiles from submarines to Moscow.) This side project turned into GPS, which originally was for the military, but then opened up and now it’s in your pocket!

The Side Project


Johnson said Google encourages its engineers to take 20% of work time to work on side projects. Yet they claim that 50% of their shipping products come from this time.

Collaborate with Diverse People

There was a study done following scientists to find out where their good ideas came, said Johnson. Rather than being the Eureka moment when they were looking through a microscope, it was at the weekly lab meeting when they were sharing notes and exchanging ideas. Sometimes a scientist would be stuck on a problem or share that he found a lot of noise. Another scientist would help and explain that it might be signal.

We now have an opportunity to find information from across our diverse social network. Get involved in conversations, find articles, stumble across things, Johnson exhorted.

His parting words: “chance favors the connected mind.”

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