May 03rd, 2020

Disruption, Innovation, Good Ideas and the Value of Books - Jon Harman


Jon Harman  | Global Account Manager - CORT



Judging by the ubiquity of conference sessions, industry webinars, and trade publication articles on the topic, it would appear that everyone in relocation is either fervently searching for mobility’s disruptive innovation or hiding in a corner hoping that it won’t put them out of business when it arrives.


For the few minutes it will take to read this article, let’s take a pause from our brainstorming session or step out from the corner in which we’ve been hiding and consider the notion of disruptive innovation more closely.


Let's define disruption as a large scale innovation. Doing so frees us from talking about disruption (yeah!) and allows us to simply consider innovation. An unfortunate side-effect of life in the age of devices is that we have come to associate innovation with digital technology. We seem to have forgotten that we don’t need to understand bit chain or have the ability to code our own video game in order to innovate. Innovation is all around us. A chimpanzee using a blade of grass to get ants out of an anthill is an innovation. We are looking for ways to make our business better, not a means to change the world. If we think of innovation as simply having a good idea, it suddenly becomes more attainable. 


In his brilliant and essential book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores seven patterns that have proven effective in fostering the generation of good ideas. One of these patterns, the adjacent possible, is a concept first defined by the scientist Stuart Kauffman as a means of describing the various possible molecular combinations in the primordial stew that was pre-biotic earth. Each time molecules bumped into each other and formed new combinations, the adjacent possible expanded. This process continued, the adjacent possible advancing at each new combination until that primordial stew was rich and diverse enough to include the possibility of life. The same principles were at play as life forms became more complex, expanding what was possible with each new adaptation.

A chimpanzee using a blade of grass to get ants out of an anthill is an innovation.

It may be easier to grasp the concept if we apply it to a more familiar environment. Each day when a resident of London steps out the door, she enters a diverse and changing world of possible encounters with people, businesses, fashion, entertainment, education, employment, transportation, architecture, music, art, culture, food, fitness and more.

The adjacent possible for our imaginary Londoner includes all of the potential futures that she might create by turning down that street or introducing herself to this person or accepting employment with that company or signing up for this cooking course. The possibilities inherent to city living are exponential. Not so in a small town.

How does all this talk of innovation, monkeys, primordial stew and big cities relate to reading? Consider the mind of the avid reader as a city and the mind of a non-reader as a small town. If a good idea is the collision of two previously unrelated concepts within a mind, then our ability to generate such ideas is constrained by our own mental adjacent possible. We cannot form an idea using knowledge that we do not already possess. How do we come to possess this adjacent possible expanding knowledge? I would argue that the best available tool for doing so is a book.

Technology has increased our available avenues to learning. We now have podcasts and TED Talks and online college courses, to name a few. But when it comes to absorbing new concepts in a way that truly expands our knowledge, reading has the upper hand. Reading a book allows us to spend an extended period of time with new concepts. This extended exposure makes it more likely that important information will find a home in our long term memory which is where it needs to be if it is to help us generate a good idea. Bill Gates does not publish an annual list of TED Talks to watch. He publishes a list of books to read.

I know, I know. None of us have time to read these days. Well, none of us except for Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, David Rubenstein, Barack Obama, Phil Knight, Elon Musk, Mark Cuban, Jay Z, Sheryl Sandberg, Steven Speilberg, Tony Hsieh, Richard Branson, Lebron James, Angela Merkel, Eric Schmidt, Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, and Michael Bloomberg, to name a few of the significant figures who promote the transformative power of habitual reading.

Bill Gates does not publish a list of TED Talks to watch. He publishes a list of books.

Just what is it that has us all so busy that we have decided that there is no time to read? To what degree have we allowed the trivial to overtake the essential in our daily lives? Put thirty minutes of reading on one side of the scale and thirty minutes of social media on the other. Which way does the scale tip?

At the risk of stating the obvious, we would all do well to read what interests us as opposed to what we "should" read. If we all read the same business books we are simply constructing similar mental landscapes constrained by similar boundaries. History, science, biography, the arts all have the power to expand our adjacent possible. Good ideas are out there and we are more likely to find them when we learn about what truly engages us.

As Johnson says in summarizing his chapter on the adjacent possible, “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.” When it comes to our mind, the parts on the table are best collected via a good old fashioned book.

Jon Harman, GMS

Global Account Manager

CORT, A Berkshire Hathaway Company

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