How are good ideas created? Are they built from the ground up, on firm foundations, like buildings? Woven with great care like fine Navajo rugs? When we think about how good ideas come about, we might have a tendency to think of them as if they were manufactured things. But ideas aren't manufactured things. If we use a mental model for the creation of ideas that parallels how we manufacture things, odds are we'll eventually get into trouble.
That can be expensive for project teams in dynamic problem-solving organizations, because ideas, and especially the creation of new ideas, are the fuel the organization uses to push forward the edge of the unknown, to compete in the global marketplace.
If we trace the origins of most innovations, we find earlier forms that differ in some ways from the idea that was ultimately successful. The differences are often significant, and with hindsight, we can sometimes see how the earlier ideas failed. They failed, but the experience of those failures seems to have led in the end to a successful form.
This essay is about unworkable ideas, and about their role in helping us create new ideas, both workable and not.
How they get trees
If you've ever been inside a mature hardwood forest, you know that it has trees of all ages. Some are mature, some are young saplings, and some are seedlings. The forest floor is littered with leaves, fallen branches, acorns or other seeds, and even fallen trees. It's a spongy mass of organic material. It's what trees are made of — but it isn't wood.
To make a tree, Nature starts with things that are most definitely not trees. The debris on the forest floor consists of dead tree parts, air, water, microbial life, sunlight, rocks, insects, dirt, seeds. And in the forest are birds, flying insects, all kinds of animals and other plants. None of these things are trees in themselves. But without all of them, we would have no trees and no forest.
A forest is a system. Just as the matrix of organic material on the forest floor provides the ingredients that the trees need to live and to grow, the trees, in turn, provide things that the floor needs. They provide root systems that penetrate and grip the ground, so that even on rocky slopes, the soil isn't washed away in rainstorms. The trees provide shade and protection from sunlight, which lowers evaporation rates, ensuring enough water in the soil for the microbes that help decompose dead wood and other material. And the trees provide themselves when they die.
If you step back far enough, it's difficult to tell whether the forest floor serves the trees, or the trees serve the forest floor. We can think of the material on the forest floor as providing ingredients for trees, but the trees just as certainly provide many things needed to keep the forest floor healthy, too. And just as the composition of the forest floor influences the variety and health of the trees, the trees affect what's happening on the forest floor. Trees influence the environment that brings them about. A Strange Loop.
The forest of ideas: a strange loop
As with trees, so it is with good ideas. Good ideas start from things that are most definitely not good ideas, and from them, we make good ideas. Sometimes, the ingredients of a good idea can only be described as wacky — they can be unworkable fantasies that might not even be internally consistent. But they get us thinking in a direction that eventually leads to what we're looking for.
All the ingredients of good ideas are found on the floor of the Forest of Ideas. Among these ingredients are Unworkable Ideas. Without unworkable ideas, there would be no good ideas — we can think of them as the seeds of good ideas. But good ideas, like trees, require much more than seeds to come into being and mature. Just as the floor of a forest is a complex system of many interacting components, all of which are necessary to support the creation of new trees, so in the Forest of Ideas, the "floor" has many interacting components. And they're all necessary for the creation of good ideas.
As we've seen, some of the things a forest needs to produce trees are trees. So it is in the Forest of Ideas. In a healthy idea forest, some of the essential components for creating new workable ideas are old workable ideas. The ideas we have affect themselves, through us. A Strange Loop.
Two other components needed for health of the forest of ideas are material infrastructure and unworkable ideas. Material infrastructure includes such things as a library, perhaps, or a connection to the Internet. Unworkable ideas are necessary, too. They give us ways to try things out, to experiment, to juxtapose. and to fantasize.
These components are perhaps more obvious than some others — the components that live within us — our attitudes, our skills, our blocks, our talents, our abilities to work with each other. Together — ideas, material infrastructure, unworkable ideas, and our selves — we have everything we need for the health of the Forest of Ideas.
If we can learn how to work with unworkable ideas, how to manage the ecology of an idea forest, we can create healthy forests of ideas. And ideas are the inventory of dynamic problem-solving organizations.
Linear and organic models
How do we work with ideas? What tools do we use? What are our shared mental models of how good ideas come about? When a group of people is working on developing a concept, say for a solution to a problem, where do you believe the final concept comes from?
Many of us share a mental model of this process that's similar to the explanations we hear every day for all kinds of phenomena, but especially mechanical things, which are the most concrete elements of our environment. The basic structure of explanations for how mechanical systems work includes some fundamental working principles, then some elements that use those principles, and finally a description of how the elements interact with each other, usually in some chronological sequence.
For example, if you ask someone how a chain-drive bicycle works, you might hear something like this:
You sit on the seat, and push the pedals to go forward. If you want to steer, you turn the wheel in the direction you want to go. Pushing the pedals turns the sprocket, which pulls on the chain that goes over the rear wheel sprocket, which turns the rear wheel and makes the bike go forward.
This is an example of linear thinking. We understand the behavior of the system in a framework of cause-and-effect. The elements of the system interact in specified, limited ways. Everything proceeds from beginning to end.
While this way of thinking works fine for many things, including many mechanical systems, it's limited. Some systems are so complex, and include so much feedback within them, that cause and effect is essentially useless in understanding them.
For example, when you're engaged in conversation with someone, you're receiving information while you talk. You take in their body language and their facial expressions while you're talking, and this information can affect what you say and how you say it. In turn, your words affect your partner in conversation, which can sometimes appear as changes in their facial expression and how they position themselves, or how they move. All of these communications are happening while you're talking, and happening so rapidly and unconsciously that describing the process in terms of a linear dialog is extremely difficult. For most of us, the best we can do is describe the tone of the interaction — we're usually not even aware of all the fine details of the communication.
But conversation is the medium for exchange of views, feelings, and information — somehow all this happens out of the multitude of expressions and perceptions that can happen in even the briefest exchange.
Explaining how this happens is probably about as difficult as explaining how soil becomes a tree. The life of a conversation, like the life of a forest, is an organic process. If we want to understand how ideas emerge from a conversation, a brainstorming session, or a meeting or problem-solving session, we need an organic model. Linear models simply won't do. See [Weinberg 1986] (p.8 ff.) for more discussion of linear and organic models.
Organic models of reading, writing, and perceiving
Perhaps the simplest human system for generating ideas is a single person. Consider how we write compositions — essays, articles, even fiction — and try to remember how we were taught to write in grade school.
I, for one, was taught that writing is a linear process. You start with an outline (a very linear, hierarchical entity) and then you fill it in, starting at the beginning. For each paragraph, you being with a topic sentence, then write the middle, then the end. But this is a myth.
After we write, we revise. We go back over what we have written, and change it, add new parts, delete other parts, rearrange still others. What we have written makes us think of new things, leads us to new places, and sometimes those new ideas replace what we have written.
Perhaps the source of the linear mythology of writing is connected somehow to the linear mythology of reading. We were also taught to read linearly — you begin at the beginning and you read to the end. Of course, for really difficult material, we can't do that. We skip around, read ahead, and reread parts already read. On rereading, we get new meanings, because we have additional context from all that we have read since. Linear reading is also a myth.
When I see a film I like, I sometimes watch it again. And again. And sometimes I get more from the later viewings, because I know more context. When I view it again, the knowledge I have of the film changes the way I take it in. The version I have in my mind alters the way I see the version on the screen. And it can even alter the way I see the version in my mind.
In the same way, the act of writing about an idea changes the idea. When I began to write this section, it was about organic models of writing. As I worked on it, I learned that reading (and perceiving) are also organic processes. So the ideas I had for this section were incomplete, and I wrote and revised and rearranged and rephrased until I came to what you just read.
In the right environment, new ideas can emerge from whatever ideas we start with. The process of growing ideas is every bit as organic as the forest process. And it's also a Strange Loop.
The ecology of the forest of ideas
Just as the health of a bioforest depends on processes that produce new trees, so it is in the Forest of Ideas. Somehow, in dynamic problem-solving organizations, new ideas must come about — whether by the action of small groups or individuals. In (I suspect) relatively rare instances an organization finds a way to create a culture that itself helps bring about new ideas.
There are other processes — idea-limiting processes — that are just as important, and just as constructive, though we rarely think of them as such. In a bioforest, fire, plant and animal predatory behavior, drought, floods, and storms thin the forest, each in different ways, making room for new growth. These processes can also go too far — they can kill the forest, or render it dysfunctional. In the forest of ideas, budget cuts, obsolescence, competition, criticism, politics, misunderstanding, lying, malfeasance, and criminality all perform analogous "thinning" functions. By curtailing the use or development of some ideas, these processes make room for others.
Some of these processes have legitimate roles in an organization. For example, when too many new ideas arise, it may be helpful to select some for development, and let others die or be set aside, to enable the organization to focus on the most promising ones. Other processes change ideas as they're forming — review, dialog, or criticism, constructively employed, can shape an idea as it grows, ensuring that it takes on a useful form.
But just as in a bioforest, these processes can also go too far. Sometimes it can happen that an organization adopts behaviors at a cultural level that limit the production of any new ideas. For example, criticism of new thoughts at very early stages can kill them off, and can be an inhibiting factor for people considering whether or not to put an idea forward. This is the reason for the "no evaluation" rule for brainstorming. Limiting criticism ensures a rich mix, including unworkable ideas, which can sometimes lead to novel and useful concepts. Simple indifference can be another limiter. People who have ideas receive this as passive criticism. When the probability of active encouragement is low enough, innovative thinkers either give up or move on.
Assessing the treatment of unworkable ideas
Most new ideas are unworkable as conceived. They need nurturing if they are to grow into something useful. With care and support, a small fraction of new unworkable ideas reach useful maturity.
The treatment of unworkable ideas, and their authors, serves as an ecological health indicator for the forest of ideas in your organization. Here's a test of the health of your organization's forest of ideas. If you can answer in the affirmative any of the questions below, you might have an opportunity to improve your idea-generating capacity.
- Are new ideas presumed unworkable until proven otherwise?
- Are new ideas immediately criticized?
- Do you ever invest (or not invest) in an idea in large part because of the stature of its principal advocate?
- Do authors of new ideas compete aggressively with each other as individuals for scarce development funds?
- Do you keep track of who thought of what?
- Do you hear people say, "We tried that three years ago…it'll never work."?
- Do you hear people say, "Sounds good, but they'll never go for it"?
- Do you find people "gunning" for the new hire to "take her (or him) down a peg"?
- Are you spending nearly all of your discretionary funds on one or two "silver bullet" projects?
- Do you ever tax projects across the board to provide additional funding for a large project that's in trouble?
How many questions have a "Yes" answer? What meaning do you make of that number? Are there any "Yes" answers that you wish were "No"? How does your answer now compare with last year?
I won't pretend to know what a "good" number of "Yes" answers is — it probably depends on what business you're in. But you can try answering the questions again for an organization that you consider a competitor. Or ask colleagues to take it for their organizations. See what you think then.
The true value of unworkable ideas
One valuable thing we get from unworkable ideas is workable ideas. But if we assess the treatment of unworkable ideas, we get something even more valuable — a window into the idea-making process of an organization. If we can determine how productive of ideas an organization is, we know something about its adaptability, about its ability to respond to change in the external environment, and about its ability to compete with similar organizations in a dynamic marketplace.
The concept of Strange Loop is an invention of Douglas Hofstadter, who made them a theme of his master work, Gödel, Escher, Bach [Hofstadter 1989]. He says that a strange loop occurs "whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started."
In the forest (the biological one), if we start at the level of soil, water, and the debris on the forest floor, we can follow the path of this material as it's integrated with seeds, sunlight, air, and more water into a tree. And it stays in the tree for a very long time. Some of it falls back to the floor either as last year's leaves or as deadfall, until the tree dies and it, too, falls to the floor. And so we have returned to where we began.
This cycle supports a feedback loop. For example, if, over several years, the trees reproduce too rapidly, too much of the material of the forest will become tied up in young trees, which makes it difficult for trees to reproduce, thus regulating the population. But that feedback loop isn't a strange loop. What makes the cycle a strange loop is that the trees can influence the way the forest builds itself by communicating with their environment at a higher level. For instance, they can adjust the composition of the forest floor in ways that influence the composition of the tree population. This is how the resin and needle mass in the floor of a pine forest defends the territory of the pines, by preventing colonization by other varieties. In effect, the action of the pines adjusts their own environment to favor pines over other trees. This is what makes the material cycle of a forest system a Strange Loop.
In the Forest of Ideas, we begin with the pieces of thoughts, ideas, and feelings from which workable ideas are made. And we use those ideas for a long time, until they're outmoded, turned into history, by changes in the environment. But from those old ideas can come new thoughts, that will eventually find their way into new ideas, which in turn change our connections to the old ideas.
For example, some of you are reading this essay on a computer or mobile device. I've designed it so that it can be read just like printed matter, but if you're using a Web browser to read it, you can read it as hypertext. When you encounter a link to a concept, such as Forest of Ideas, you can jump there easily. Indeed, you may have come here through a link from there. The concept of hypertext grew out of a collection of ideas including the printed word and the GUI. Something new emerged — hypertext — and it led to changes in how we perceive and use the printed word. In this case, hypertext has changed they way I chose to write this piece — it's decidedly non-linear; not meant to be read from beginning to end. The new idea (hypertext) has come about from pieces of old ideas (the printed word; the GUI) and has resulted in changes in how I write (and you read) the printed word. A Strange Loop.
- Hofstadter 1989
- Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
- Weinberg 1986
- Weinberg, Gerald M. Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach. New York: Dorset House, 1986. Order from Amazon.com
Does your organization habitually kill ideas before they can mature? Through consulting, seminars, workshops, or coaching, I can help in a variety of ways, including:
- Assessing the ability of your organization to nurture new ideas to usability
- Creating a culture of support for new ideas and new thinking
- Developing new attitudes that lead to more generation of new ideas, both workable and not
- "Rick is a dynamic presenter who thinks on his feet to keep the material relevant to the
— Tina L. Lawson, Technical Project Manager, BankOne (now J.P. Morgan Chase)
- "Rick truly has his finger on the pulse of teams and their communication."
— Mark Middleton, Team Lead, SERS