WSJ: The Genius of the Tinkerer

I remember reading once that an entrepreneur is simply someone that takes existing assets (or perhaps ideas) and reconfigures them into an arrangement that produces more value than in their present setup. It seemed such a dry description and lacked the sexy and exciting “invention out of thin air” that we have been trained to think is what happens in business.

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve come to realize this definition is pretty accurate—“bricolage” as Steven Johnson points out this fantastic WSJ piece:

But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

He then goes on to discuss Stuart Kauffman’s concept of “the adjacent possible” to describe those first order combinations that appear in nature.

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Finally, Johnson ties things back to modern “closed-door” corporate R&D:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas may seem logical enough, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas. Ironically, those walls have been erected with the explicit aim of encouraging innovation. They go by many names: intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology, top-secret R&D labs. But they share a founding assumption: that in the long run, innovation will increase if you put restrictions on the spread of new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards from their inventions. And those rewards will then attract other innovators to follow in their path.

He ends with one of my favorite scenes from Apollo 13 where the engineers have to design a carbon dioxide filter from miscellaneous items aboard the damaged spacecraft dumped on to the table (“We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this,” he says, and then points to the spare parts on the table, “using nothing but that”). (Source)

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

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