My Favorite TED Talks about Creativity*: Steven Johnson

Where good ideas come from

Many organizational leaders and managers want to know one very important thing: What are the environments that lead to uncanny levels of innovation and creativity?


Does it mean putting in ping pong tables and pool tables on each floor?  Does it mean painting the walls in neon green and hot pink?  Putting Xbox360's in employees' cubicles? Will these things foster an innovative culture and creativity-inducing work environment?

Perhaps, but these are only superficial components of a creative work environment.

Many companies turn to startup work environments for answers, and unfortunately, many companies implement ineffective work environment initiatives because they fail to realize that, as Steven Johnson shares with us, it all comes down to a few things:

Creating spaces for people with diverse expertise and experience to share ideas with one another.  

Creating an environment where one person's hunches can connect with another person's hunches.

Creating a context for people to make new, unpredictable connections and new neural configurations.

Creating an environment that facilitates the formation of new, interesting, relationships between people who may not have had the opportunity to otherwise.


My favorite parts of the talk:

"But the other thing that makes the coffeehouse important is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share. It was a space, as Matt Ridley talked about, where ideas could have sex. This was their conjugal bed, in a sense -- ideas would get together there. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story."

"All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it's something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.  But in fact, what I would argue and what you really need to kind of begin with is this idea that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea -- a new idea -- is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It's a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is: how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form? And it turns out that, in fact, the kind of network patterns of the outside world mimic a lot of the network patterns of the internal world of the human brain."

"When you build them [innovation spaces] right, they will be led to completely new directions that the creators never even dreamed of. I mean, here you have these guys who basically thought they were just following this hunch, this little passion that had developed, then they thought they were fighting the Cold War, and then it turns out they're just helping somebody find a soy latte."

Damn this is such a good talk with such important insights into facilitating creativity and innovation!  Yeah, I may be biased because my research centers around collaborative creativity and innovation social networks, but whatever.

Ok, here is the video now:


My main takeaways from this talk for unleashing creative potential:

  • If you want to boost your own creativity and the innovativeness of your work...

    • Get connected with others from different fields of expertise.  Try reaching out to others via LinkedIn using InMails.
    • Look for new opportunities to connect your hunches to the hunches of others working on similar problems but from different fields of expertise.
    • Create your own mental space for new neural configurations - schedule time into each day or week where you are allowed to play with combining seemingly different and unconnected ideas with one another. Give yourself a couple hours each week to learn new things and take the time to reflect on how they might connect with your own expertise and experience.  (It may help to clear your mind before these sessions - I suggest using mindfulness exercises)


  • If you are an organizational leader...

    • Create spaces and opportunities for employees of differing backgrounds and functions to meet, share with one another what they are working on and what challenges they are having, and allow time and resources for emergent, unplanned projects to develop.

Each week I will be sharing one of my favorite TED talks about creativity & innovation with you (until I run out of favorite videos).

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