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Book review: Why 'Eureka!' is a myth

Good ideas come from long-lived hunches, not sudden moments of clarity.

The concept of the eureka moment is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it has become a cliche. In one forehead-slapping instant of clarity, the scientist in white lab coat, alone in front of bubbling test tubes, stumbles onto the discovery that has eluded her for ages. It’s a classic bit of imagery, informing and reflecting how we think about the genesis of great ideas. It’s also an almost complete lie.

In the early 1990s, a McGill University psychologist named Kevin Dunbar set out to capture the eureka moment in the wild. Instead of studying scientists’ accounts of how their breakthroughs came to them, he set up cameras in their laboratories and watched them work.

Observing four of the world’s top molecular biology labs, Dunbar tracked the scientists’ actions and interactions, and conducted extensive interviews with the scientists throughout the study to overcome people’s tendency to condense the origins of their best ideas into pat little stories. Eureka moments were thin on the ground; Dunbar instead discovered that great ideas are born of something more complex.

“A gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition” is how American author Steven Johnson describes our idea of the eureka moment. In volumes like Everything Bad is Good For You and The Invention of Air, Johnson established himself as a compelling and unconventional thinker about thinking. He’s further exploring that space in his newest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead). By studying the context from which good ideas have come, Johnson has identified seven “patterns” that recur in especially fertile environments for ideas. “The more we embrace these patterns — in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools — the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.”

Among the patterns Johnson numbers are the importance of serendipity and the power of error, as well as the value of “liquid networks,” where a clusters of people share ideas, intentionally or not, in what economists call “information spillover.” All the patterns are interrelated, and he maps them with anecdotes.

In so doing, he borrows often from natural systems and sciences. “Exaptation” is one of the patterns he identifies as key to innovation. It’s a term from evolutionary biology that describes the borrowing of a trait for a purpose completely different than the one for which it’s optimized. Bird feathers, for example, are believed to have first appeared on the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period to help insulate them against the cold. But when archaeopteryx, the first bird to appear in the fossil record, started experimenting with flight, feathers turned out to be a useful tool for controlling the flow of air over the wing.

In a similar way, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press was “more bricolage than breakthrough.” The screw press had been used to press grapes and make wine since ancient Greece. The technology had spread across Europe, and been refined and adapted. But Gutenberg’s exaptation of it for an entirely other purpose — the construction of the first printing press — represented a crucial breakthrough.

That breakthrough may not have come in a lightning strike, however. More likely it was the result of Gutenberg’s cultivating what Johnson calls a “slow hunch.” These start with “a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength.” In this way, Johnson says, ideas mature by stealth, slowly coming into view.

Slow or otherwise, the question is how to cultivate and nurture these ideas. For all of Johnson’s digressions and his skill as a storyteller, he’s short on prescriptive suggestions. Fair enough: it’s a big-picture book. Even so, there are concrete bits of advice in its pages.

In Johnson’s assessment, the structure of the environment — office, lab, social, or behavioural — is perhaps most crucial to nurturing innovation. “The secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine,” he writes.

In Dunbar’s study of how molecular biologists produced ideas, relatively few actually emerged in the lab. Instead, most important ideas were generated during the regular lab meetings that brought together a dozen researchers working in different aspects of the field to informally present their latest work. These meetings “helped recontextualize problems, as questions from colleagues forced researchers to think about their experiments on a different scale or level.” The interactions between people working in different specialized fields allowed new combinations of ideas, increasing for each researcher what Johnson calls the “adjacent possible.” They also decreased the chances of useful errors being dismissed out of hand. The perspective of those who didn’t know what was supposed to be the “correct” outcome of a colleague’s work allowed the conceptualization of scenarios where those errors “might actually be meaningful.”

To be clear, Johnson isn’t advocating brainstorming sessions, which recent studies have suggested are less effective than they could be, in part because they are “finite in time and space,” and don’t let ideas come together in a way that’s consistently productive. “The secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine,” he writes. Brainstorming needs to be something “that is constantly running in the background, throughout the organization.” An open database of hunches is one suggestion as to how to create the connections that good ideas require, making “a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts.”

Executive summaries

Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers (Douglas & McIntyre)
Deborah Cadbury

She’s an award-winning documentarian and author, but yes, she’s one of those Cadburys. Her forebear, John, was a 19th-century Birmingham draper before founding what would become one of the world’s largest confectionery companies, playing a huge role in chocolate’s evolution from a liquid upper-crust treat to a mass-market staple. This history of the industry traces the competition among the Quaker families that founded the English chocolate industry — the Cadburys, Rowntrees and Frys — and with the great continental and American houses, Lindt and Nestle, Hershey and Mars.

Earlier this year, Cadbury was taken over by Kraft Foods in a deal worth US$18.9 billion that raised more than the usual outcry in the United Kingdom. Beyond concern about the foreign takeover, there was dismay born of nostalgia, as people feared for the quality of the chocolate they enjoyed as children. It’s impossible to read this book without sensing that same nostalgia, this time for a brand of “Quaker capitalism” that advocated wealth creation for the benefit of the workers and community, not just the owners, and that disdained “reckless or irresponsible debt.” Kraft borrowed almost $12 billion to finance the takeover. You can infer the author’s feelings about the deal.

When the Headline Is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media (Jossey-Bass)
Jeff Ansell with Jeffrey Leeson

To communicate a clear corporate message, it’s important to scratch your “but.” It sounds funny, but as Jeff Ansell notes, the word “negates the goodwill that preceded it,” and “signals that an excuse is following.”

Not all his lessons are so comical. A former investigative journalist and PR firm vice-president, now a communications consultant, Jeff Ansell offers lessons from the front line — he’s seen CEOs argue with old ladies on camera, and watched politicians reflect on the death of other still-living leaders — doing so with compassion for both the question asker and answerer.

The book is written as a guide for those who deal with the media, but the ability to address difficult questions can help any business person communicate. The same skills that can help a spokesperson or executive survive a difficult interview with a journalist can build trust in a client meeting. Ansell recommends taking deep breaths and speaking slowly. Talking with your hands looks natural, and can help release anxiety, but head nodding and swallowing sends the signal the speaker is nervous or stressed. And, of course, preparation is essential. Saying your messages aloud to ensure they’re conversational and quotable can help convince both journalists and skeptics in the boardroom. – Jacqueline Nelson

Everything That Follows Is Based On Real-Life Experience That Has Been Proven to Work: Professional Survival Solutions (Penguin)
James Shepherd-Barron

Not solutions to “professional” situations, per se — you’ll find no advice here on passing the bar exam, or making the big presentation to a skeptical client. Shepherd-Barron has spent most of the past quarter-century as a British military peacekeeper and international aid worker, a career path that has taken him from Bosnia to Sudan to Pakistan.

But the advice he’s compiled isn’t necessarily just for aid workers, either. Anybody working abroad, especially in the less-developed parts of the world, will find a wealth of useful knowledge in this volume. The extreme situations will be the first to catch your attention; though with luck, you’ll never need to tend to severed limbs, prepare an emergency airplane landing strip, or survive a biological, chemical, or radiological attack. That said, kidnapping, death threats and recurring bouts of “the ‘runs'” are facts of life for some businesses and entrepreneurs, and the advice offered here is serious and practical. Less extreme, though no less useful, are sections on dealing with securing your data abroad, dealing with foreign media and local authorities, and hiring and firing local staff in a region to which you’re not native.