Ideas in Space

Ideas in Space (1) - a dimensional approach to innovation

For several years we've been working on what might be called a "dimensional" approach to innovation, in our work with clients.  Although it has many precedents, it is possible we've pursued it more literally and monomaniacally than most.

A previous post on Sternberg's Sternberg's  "propulsion model" of  leadership, suggested by Adam Hansen (@adhansen on Twitter) jogged my interest in exploring the concept more publicly.  I'm going to put together a series of posts over time, under the title of "Ideas in Space".

At its most basic, thinking of ideas (or thoughts or models or strategies) as dimensional simply means that we're placing them in a metaphorical space that can be measured in one or more dimensions.   We do it all the time ... an idea is "close" to another idea, or a possible solution is "a stretch" implying that it too far away from where we are currently located.

Mind-mapping adds at least one other dimension to a linear outline or list, implying a certain flexible kind of dimensionality. There are many forms of visualization and diagramming which use dimensionality to express relationships between concepts ... up, down, left, right, near, far, bigger, smaller.

Sternberg's model required a way of describing business strategies dimensionally, in terms of direction, movement and distance.  So do many other strategic analyses, including the popular "Blue Ocean Strategy" which advises looking "outside" of the red ocean (along some metaphorical dimension of differentiation) to find an area with no competition.

So the idea of ideas being in space is obvious, right?  Okay, but let's drill down a little more and see what are the implications of such an implied dimensionality.  Here are a few:

Distance = Differentiation

What we are mapping into the metaphorical space is some intuitive feeling for "how different" one idea is from another.  If Idea1 is similar to Idea2, it's close.  If it's very different, it's much farther away.  How are we "measuring" quantities of difference?  Is it possible to be objective or rigorous about such a metric?  What would we call a "unit of difference"?

Distance + Directionality

Different in what way?  Idea3 maybe the same distance away from Idea1 as Idea2, but in a different direction.  That is, the difference itself is different, a variation in some other component or characteristic.  How many dimensions of difference are possible?  Are ideas always located in an "n-dimensional" space?  Is it possible to be rigorous and objective about defining the dimensions?

Discovery vs. Creation

Here's a very tricky and perhaps non-obvious (but potentially profound) implication: if the ideas are in space, who put them there?  If I "come up" with an idea (generate it, create it, etc.) and then put it on a map, in between three or four other ideas which are similar but different, defined by those dimensions of differentiation, did I in fact create something, or was it ALREADY THERE?  If I invent a vehicle with three wheels, but on the map before me was a vehicle with four wheels and one with two wheels, wasn't the possibility of a three-wheeled vehicle already there, in between the other variations?  (Along with six, eight, and one-wheeled variations.)  And if all ideas are already implied as variations along a series of differentiated characteristics, are we really "generating" ideas (giving birth to them, with all the implications of genetics, parenting and identity) or are we "discovering" them by exploring an idea space and shining a light on regions previously unknown?


Ideas in Space (2) - creation or exploration?

 In Ideas in Space (1) we came to the conclusion that, using a dimensional approach to innovation, we might think of ideas as already existing in a metaphorical space, rather than being created or generated.  

Why is this useful?  It's obviously fun and satisfying in a brainstorming session (in a group or inside your own head) to feel that you're bubbling with ideas, that they're being born inside you and spilling out onto a whiteboard.  And that process and feeling is very valuable.  In the same way, it's valuable within an organization or community to encourage ideas to bubble up organically ( through crowdsourcing and social media, for example) and then collect and filter them for useful innovations.

Nevertheless, there might be some reasons for applying a different metaphor.  For example, we might particularly want to find less obvious and even hidden opportunities.  The creative process might uncover some of these, but it's unlikely to uncover all of them without rigorous and proactive guidance, because the "generative" faculties in all the participants are shaped by what they already know and feel.  Ideas that bubble up tend not to travel too far from their source.  Whoever you invite into the process will have their own existing framework.

Leveraging an “idea space” metaphor, for example, we might think of an “area of opportunity” as a large but bounded space that is filled with unknowns, a thickly forested territory that has many hidden features.  There are mountain ranges and steep valleys, fog-bound cliffs, caves and underground lakes.  Like Lewis and Clark, we want to traverse the space, but more than that, we want to rigorously explore the territory and uncover hidden opportunities, that is, ideas which have remained undiscovered because they have been blocked from view by assumptions, fears, unfamiliar and even alien qualities.

A linear journey across such a space is unlikely to show you everything ... what about all the features over the horizon to left and right of your route?  Starting your journey from your current position is also a handicap ... the other side of the space might be so distant that you'll never get there by walking step-by-step.  Instead, we might want to think of ways to ...

  • Helicopter to distant locations and start exploring from there (fictional scenarios)
  • Exit the area of opportunity entirely (seriously consider something entirely crazy) and re-enter the area from a different direction (outsider perspective)
  • Identify mountain ranges and drill through them (unpacking objections)
  • Climb to the top of a mountain and look around (high-level perspective)
  • Teleport to the opposite side of the territory (flip assumptions along a particular dimension)

Thinking of the challenge of coming up with new and unexpected ideas as "exploration" rather than "creation" prepares us for the inherent difficulty of the task and encourages us to invent new mental processes that will transport us to unknown territories.

Ideas in Space (3) - lost ants & spider monkeys

 In working with our clients, we developed the concept of "search patterns" within a landscape of ideas.  

We initially considered a spiral search pattern.  It's an approach that makes sense if you have an initial idea of where to start within a landscape and believe that what you're looking for is a finite distance from that starting point (e.g. where a lost and possibly wandering human was last located).  It's been identified in the behavior of ants looking for their nest, and used in robotics and diving training and other applications.




A spiral search pattern has a lot of interesting parallels with the "spiral model" of software development.  From wikipedia:

The spiral model is a software development process combining elements of both design and prototyping-in-stages, in an effort to combine advantages of top-down and bottom-up concepts. Also known as the spiral lifecycle model (or spiral development), it is a systems development method (SDM) used in information technology (IT). This model of development combines the features of the prototyping model and the waterfall model. The spiral model is intended for large, expensive and complicated projects.

One reason the spiral pattern seems useful in a software development methodology is that you're starting from a single point (the original design concept, which is likely to be fairly general or at least not completely optimized for the real world) and "searching" around that point to discover a more specific or optimized design.

But the spiral pattern is less useful if you don't know where to start within the landscape.  If you're really trying to transcend assumptions, shouldn't you be throwing out any preconceptions about where the best idea(s) are likely to be located?  Therefore a completely random pattern would make sense, something like the Brownian motion of a molecule within a gas.  Yes, but ... there's actually an interesting model that combines randomness with the ability to discover things about the landscape as you move through it.  It's called a Levy walk or Levy flight, after a French mathematician who defined the algorithm as a variation on Brownian motion.  Again from wikipedia:

Lévy flight, named after the French mathematician Paul Pierre Lévy, is a type of random walk in which the increments are distributed according to a "heavy-tailedprobability distribution. Specifically, the distribution used is a power law of the form y = x  where 1 < α < 3 and therefore has an infinite variance.

A Levy walk looks peculiar when mapped; basically there are a number of long "flights" through the space; each long flight tends to be followed by several short flights, sometimes called a "cluster".  It turns out that, like the ant example above, this distribution can be found in animal and human behavior.  It has been mapped to ocean predators or plankton feeders, spider monkeys searching for food in a forest, and in humans walking within a built environment, such as a city.

Intuitively, it seems like this might be a good pattern for looking for ideas within an "area of opportunity", a landscape which we think might be full of hidden opportunities.  It encourages us to jump to completely different locations, taking a long flight more or less at random, and then to look around that location to see if any of the surrounding ideas seem promising.  If not, we take flight again, to another part of the forest.


Ideas in Space (4) - why it might be better to find than create


Thinking of ideas as being "in space" is certainly a visual metaphor, but we've been pushing the concept to see if it has solid operational value as part of an innovation methodology.  Now we're going to make an even more irritating claim: 

"Exploration" is a better metaphor for ideation than "creation", particularly in the context of a community or organization.

Here are some supporting points:

  1. "Creation" like every metaphor carries a certain set of metaphorical baggage, some useful and some not.  It tends to enhance the excitement and sense of satisfaction of people involved in the process.  It also means they are personally identified with the idea they "created".  That's not necessarily bad, but the next implication is not so helpful: they are very often protective of the idea in its original form, the one they first conceived.  Which is really bad, because the original idea is almost never exactly what ends up being implemented.  If instead people think of "finding" or "discovering" an idea within a continuum of possible ideas, they tend to be just as excited to continue the exploration and discover an even better idea a little farther along.
  2. A related problem: if we think of an idea as a "creation", we tend to think of it in bounded terms, as a finite organism which lives or dies, or as a work of art with limits in time and space.  But ideally we combine, mutate, cut, paste, mash up, explode, and diffuse ideas ... there is never a clear boundary or membrane between one idea and the next, or even a clear definition of what an idea is or is not.
  3. Putting undue emphasis on creation tends to denigrate the equally (and sometimes more) valuable process of imitation.  Imitating ideas, particularly those found in other fields or industries, is a great way to innovate.
  4. "Creation" is not in fact a very accurate way to describe the process of ideation or the results themselves.  We may create a painting, which is the expression of an idea.  But the idea itself exists in relationship to other ideas, some closer and some farther away, and the mental process of "coming up" with the idea often involves a conscious or unconscious combination of previous ideas, modification of some aspect of an existing idea, re-framing an idea in a different context, etc.  These mental operations (conscious or unconscious) do not all lend themselves to the "exploring a landscape" metaphor, but many do, and the results (the new ideas themselves) are very usefully mapped within a dimensional space.  One indication of this is the language of intellectual property (IP).  Copyright is the IP of creation: it protects the re-use of your unique image or sequence of words.  But patents are the IP of ideas: they use spatial language, like "broad" and "narrow", to describe the dimensions of a claim on a certain region of the infinite continuum of possibility.