You should’ve been there.
A vast room abuzz with highly talented people. All listening, talking, pondering, considering.
All eager to learn, to share, to contribute.
No NDAs. No pitching. No ‘favor-for-a-favor’ nonsense.
Only passionate entrepreneurs talking about ideas and each other’s ventures. Anything from half-baked hunches to full-fledged businesses.
That’s where I’ve just had the honor of being: the Global Innovation Summit, situated in the heart of Silicon Valley.
No better setting than this to tell you about the next innovator’s skill: idea networking.
You see, great ideas aren’t born as a 0 or a 1. They’re halfway bridges.
Messy. Chaotic. Embryonic.
Most great ideas first take shape in a partial, incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person’s head.
– Steve Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From
Here’s how idea networking works.
You’re not looking for resources. You’re not gunning for an intro, VC capital, cofounders, talent or whatever.
You’re on the hunt for ideas that matter. Ideas that connect.
What does this look like, and why does it help?
Suppose your company specializes in finding patterns in the stock market. You have 14 days to find a pattern before a major event – say, an IPO of a hot tech startup. One problem: there’s way too much data. Algorithms aren’t good enough. You need human eyeballs.
You think you might be able to do it if you can get lots of temp workers to sift through the data.
But you don’t have enough time to find and train them.
Acting on a hunch, you introduce this idea to a scientist friend of yours. She tells you this problem reminds her of Stardust@Home. She then helps you develop your idea: when you have a lot of data that only humans can analyze, split the data into lots of super-simple problems, each requiring a human to make an snap judgement. Put the whole thing online and incentivize people to sign up.
You’ve just used idea networking – developing ideas with the help of other people. You thought you should hire people, but what you needed was citizen science applied to financial data.
But what is an idea, anyway?
Steve Johnson tells us that an idea is not really a single thing. It’s a network.
Plus, these networks circulate. And they can improve in random collisions with other ideas.
Ideas are not like solid, isolated atoms. They’re more like a set of interacting molecules.
In other words, ideas are like fluids.
So the basic concept is this: you want to keep them flowing.
Let me give you three things I’ve learned to help you do that.
(A little hint first though: you don’t need to be at some fancy networking event to bounce ideas off people. You can learn something interesting by talking to almost any individual.)
Seriously, press pause on the monologue running in your own head and really listen. Focus on exactly that one person you’re talking to at the time.
I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.
– Larry King
Amazingly, I saw a fair number of people who didn’t do this. Miraculously, their phones and laptops had front row seats in their minds.
Don’t be like them.
Think of it this way: if you listen, you effectively gain control of the situation. As the conversation goes on, you’ll earn the right to steer back into your world, if you even need to.
Go ahead and practice this today, or this week. Find someone who’s got a different perspective than you do. (Hint: This could be someone you work with, yes. But it could even be that homeless person down the street that you’ve been ignoring.)
Get into a conversation with them and ask them an open-ended question about their views on something that seems to matter to them. Then be quiet and *listen*, 100%.
You never know what you might learn when you truly listen.
You might be out there trying to get your own ideas developed.
But the real joy lies in soaking up whatever interesting ideas are currently in circulation and then introducing them to others.
If you get an interesting reaction, maybe even make an introduction.
What do you get out of this? Real human connections, at the very least.
You’re fundamentally showing that you’re there to help, not to pitch.
When it comes to conversation, genuine beats fake. Every time.
So before you introduce your own ideas, make sure you stay relevant.
What reactions are you getting? What metaphors seem to spark in people’s minds when you describe your idea? What do people connect with it?
The more distant the connection, the better. Why? Low-hanging fruit. Adjacent connections aren’t likely to be fruitful.
Okay– all the above is on stepping out of your bubble and using other people’s minds to help you generate and develop ideas.
But what if you’re working on the wrong problem in the first place?
More on that next time…
What do you think? Join the conversation on Twitter!