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.