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Stop Searching for Eureka Moments

History tells us that real breakthroughs come from collaborative, targeted thinking.

Steven Johnson | Bestselling Author

The stereotypical view of innovation is that transformative ideas come from a singular eureka moment. This, however, is a myth.

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Innovative ideas usually start as a hunch or inquisitive question.

Innovative ideas usually start as a hunch or inquisitive question. In some cases, innovators ponder their hunches for months or even years before they develop actionable ideas. As we pursue innovative ideas, we should remember to cultivate hunches rather than purely seek out eureka moments.

Frederic Tudor, who developed the first cold chain in the 1800s, is a great example of the power of gradual problem-solving. As a young man, Tudor visited the Caribbean and the southern United States with his brother. Tudor wondered if he could ship ice from his home in New England to these warm regions.

For nearly six years, Tudor researched and experimented with preserving ice during long-distance journeys. He successfully transported ice to the Caribbean, but the islanders there had no idea what to do with it, and the cargo melted.

After this failure, Tudor was thrown into debtors’ prison. But that wasn’t the end of his story.

Tudor educated markets about the value of ice, further improved his supply chain, built a booming ice trade and eventually saw his wealth reach $500 million. Thanks to his persistence, ice became the second largest U.S. export of his time. Tudor shipped ice to destinations as far away as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Bombay, India.

[Also on Longitudes: Why Everyone Thinks Edison Invented the Lightbulb]

Avoiding blind spots

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Innovators often fall victim to blind spots.

Innovators often fall victim to blind spots. A good example is Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. In 1853, he patented a device to record audio — almost a generation before Thomas Edison.

Scott was infatuated with automating dictation, and he thought people would learn to read the sound waves captured by his phonautograph. As a result, he didn’t include an audio playback mechanism in his invention. And nobody adopted it.

Scott was hindered by working alone. Had he partnered with a musician, for example, he may have recognized the need for a playback mechanism.

To avoid blind spots, innovators need broad, diverse collaborative networks that bring different perspectives, tools and suggestions to the table.

Liquid networks and eclectic ideas

In the 18th century, coffeehouses became networking centers, serving as the seat of the Enlightenment. As ideas flowed, serendipitous connections were established.

Lloyd’s of London, for example, began in Lloyd’s Coffee House. Ben Franklin also spent considerable time at The London Coffeehouse, sharing ideas with others.

Coffeehouses operated as liquid networks for two reasons: It was the first time coffee and tea were consumed widely. The caffeine, quite the stimulant, helped patrons discover new energy and ideas. More importantly, coffeehouses became multidisciplinary spaces where eclectic interests and passions came together.

Diversity sparks innovation

When organizations unite people with diverse professional backgrounds, it spurs creativity. Professor Martin Ruef analyzed the networks of the most creative people. He found a clear pattern — innovators worked with a diverse range of vocations.

Diversity has driven innovation throughout history. In the early 1800s, Benjamin Waterhouse, a Harvard professor, obtained samples of the smallpox vaccine from Edward Jenner. He tested the vaccine by inoculating his own family and sent the results out to his network.

A curious amateur scientist in Virginia asked Waterhouse if he could test the vaccine. This first drug trial was conducted by a scientist you may know: eventual U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.

The Founding Fathers’ eclectic passions were a huge part of their intellectual skills, illustrating the value of looking at the world through multiple lenses.

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New platforms make the impossible possible

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Chance favors the connected mind.

When new platforms emerge, unpredictable things happen in unexpected fields.

Until around 1880, every town in the United States had its own time zone. This was an invisible, unnoticed problem until the introduction of railroad transportation, when a universal platform was needed to standardize time.

Finalizing the four U.S. time zones took decades, but this standardization of time stimulated innovation in the 20th century.

Time zones unlocked limits on what is possible. They were crucial for radio and television in the 20th century. This synchronization of time zones also laid the foundation for the GPS navigation system and enabled development of highly accurate atomic clocks.

As companies in every industry push what’s possible, new platforms will unleash the innovations of tomorrow.

The keys to innovation, however, are rarely obvious. History shows that successful innovators doggedly pursue promising ideas and collaborate with individuals who have diverse viewpoints.

In other words, chance favors the connected mind. goldbrown2

This article was adapted from Johnson’s remarks at the 2015 UPS Healthcare Forum. 

Photograph: Image from the “Bell telephone magazine” (1922); used by permission, The Commons, Flickr.

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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of nine books on science, technology and history. He is also the host and co-creator of the Emmy-Award-winning PBS series, How We Got To Now. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Marin County, Calif., with his wife and three sons.

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