Big Ideas Need to Date, Mate, & Procreate
By Richard Crespin
Sex makes evolution work. Each succeeding generation experiments with the best (or worst) of a pair of genes taken from the prior generation through the magic of procreation. What works for evolution can also work for ideas. In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley contends that human progress really took off when ideas started “having sex.” For really big leaps forward in human culture to occur, “…ideas needed to meet and mate… [because] exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.” When good ideas mate they create even better ideas.
Our own research on innovation shows that the best ideas rarely come from people steeped in one field, but rather between people from different fields. In fact, evolutionary biologists have shown that when communities of humans lose touch with other communities, their progress stagnates and even regresses. Over generations, the aboriginal tribes of Tasmania, after rising seas cut them off from mainland Australia, actually lost skills and technologies their ancestors brought with them to the island. In our increasingly specialized world, we run the risk of putting ourselves on social islands, cutting ourselves off from potential innovations.
That means we have to find new ways of bridging industries and sectors so ideas from one can “have sex” with ideas from another. Pro bono consulting and other forms of skills-based volunteering provide one such dating opportunity. Companies and NGOs, though, need to take these dates seriously by planning for them as more than just casual encounters. If you’re looking for that next big idea, it may not be – in fact it probably isn’t – at your next industry-specific trade show. It might, though, be at gatherings of academics, NGOs, or governments working in related fields.
When you’re ready to start “dating” across sectors to take on a big challenge or just looking for new sources of innovation, try the following practical steps:
- Find your friends of friends. Who do you know working in related fields? A quick Google search will turn up lists of recently published research, events, and other information, including who’s doing the work. Cross-reference that with your own network (real and social). Even if you don’t know the people involved, you may know people who know people. Then place yourself in the path of those organizations and individuals by attending their conferences, reaching out to them, or otherwise making it known that you want to collaborate.
- Take stock of your assets. What scarce resources do you bring to the table? People want what they can’t have. What valuable, hard-to-get things can you bring to a partnership and on what terms would you be willing to share them? Knowing what you can offer and what you’d expect in return can focus you and your potential partners.
- Be willing to compromise. What are you willing to give up? Setting up a cycle of reciprocity can form the foundation of a strong partnership. Your giving something creates the expectation on the part of the other party to give as well. It doesn’t even have to be something big (like one of your scarce resources). Even modest contributions or compromises can result in asymmetrical returns.
- When you’ve got it, flaunt it. Where do you have credible expertise to share? People want to work with people with credible authority and experience in a given field. In truly innovative collaborations, parties come to the table from completely different backgrounds, so that combining your steeped knowledge with the steeped knowledge of someone from a different field is where the “magic” of good ideas procreating to create better ideas really happens.
- Enjoy dating. What small experiments can you run together? Evolution works in small experiments. How can you test your ideas and see if they work? Establishing a set of hypotheses, test conditions, and measurements will let you see if the new idea you co- created can take off.
If you’re a regular reader of this publication you already know the COMMIT!Forum is coming up October 8-9 in New York City. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation will host its annual Corporate Citizenship Conference on September 8-10 in Washington, DC. Venues like these offer great opportunities to get your best ideas to date others. Eighty percent of life is just showing up, so definitely do show up at these kinds of events, but to get that other 20 percent, put the time in to really understand what you have to offer, what you hope to gain, and what it would take to get your great ideas to date, mate, and procreate with other great ideas.
Richard Crespin is the CEO of CollaborateUp, a senior fellow for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and the director of business outreach for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.