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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

Innovation is a Collective Phenomenon

"Innovation is a collective phenomenon that happens between not within brains." Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works

In his book, How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley argues that innovation is a collective phenomenon, occurring at a more rapid pace when ideas have the chance to "meet and mate." He supports his argument by pointing out that throughout history, innovation has always thrived in areas with higher population densities. Conversely, isolated populations tend to have simpler technologies and lower rates of innovation. For a striking modern-day example of this, he contrasts Silicon Valley with the Andaman Islands.

While Ridley applies his idea to entire societies, it is equally interesting if you consider the applications on a more micro level—say, in your business or at your family dinner table. We tend to accept it as a truism that great communication is key to creating effective groups and organizations. But what is it exactly about communication that makes it so vital? It is because communication is the key to innovation. In short, innovation is the byproduct of a collaborative environment, one where ideas are openly exchanged, pressured, challenged, and relentlessly iterated upon.

Unfortunately, history convinces us that innovation is the result of some singular genius striking upon the proverbial eureka moment.

Thomas Edison and the light bulb.

Henry Ford and the automobile.

Benjamin Franklin and electricity.

All our lives, we have been pumped full of such stories. There's only one problem—the stories aren't true. The evidence, in fact, supports the contrary.

In reality, innovation is a slog. It is not the result of one brilliant leader suddenly discovering a breakthrough idea. Rather, it results from an open and ongoing exchange of ideas, from the continual iterative improvement that only comes from sharing our theories and allowing them to be challenged.

Innovation happens between brains, not within them. Repeat this mantra daily. As humans, we too easily fall in love with our own ideas. The next time you're struggling to innovate, ask yourself if you're doing enough to create a collaborative environment. Allow your ideas to be challenged. To be iterated upon. To be disproven. Because just like the isolated populations Ridley points out in his book, an isolated mind will never keep pace with the collective.

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