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Innovation arises from the interaction of diverse agents

Stephen Billing, February 24, 2010

Entrepreneurship is often considered to involve the establishment of something new. So it is worth thinking about how new ideas come about in organisations.

It has long been thought that it takes a certain kind of person to come up with new ideas. The tortured artist mining the depths of an extraordinary imagination or artistic vision is one instance of this. Another is the model found in advertising agencies where the "creatives" are responsible for coming up with ideas according to the briefs developed and sold by the "suits".

So creative ideas have commonly been considered to be the domain of certain individuals who have a predisposition to creativity. For example, it is said that Einstein dreamt that he was riding a wave of light and this was a key part of his theory of relatively. Or Archimedes sitting in his bath shouting "eureka" when he realised his body mass was displacing the water. Or Newton coming up with the theory of gravity after being hit on the head while sitting under an apple tree.

While some individuals undoubtedly have greater facility for creativity than others, this does not reveal much about how it comes about that these new ideas are generated, apart from some mysterious faculty possessed by these creative people and not by others.

In studies of complexity, computer agents are programmed to interact with each other, over and over again. The computer can model countless iterations of populations of agents interacting with each other, which in the real world would take years or centuries to study. For example, patterns resembling the flocking of birds or the swarming of bees are able to be replicated, as are models of the rise and fall of populations of different species, as some species (i.e. types of agents) become populous and dominant for periods of time, often long periods of time, before they wane and die away. These patterns very much resemble the rise and fall of civilisations like the Greeks, Romans and even the British empire.

One of the most useful and interesting applications of this computer modeling of the complexity emerging from myriad interactions like this, is that the patterns that arise in the populations only change if the agents are different from each other. If the agents are the same, then the patterns repeat themselves. It is only if the agents are different from each other that new patterns emerge.

This is to suggest that it is from the interaction of diverse agents that novelty arises. Innovation or newness in these patterns, then, could be said to be a property of the interaction of diverse agents itself.

This provides an explanation for the innovative potential of multi-disciplinary teams, as long as the differences can be handled in ways that don’t blow the team apart through conflict.

This suggests that if you are an entrepreneur wanting to generate a new idea or establish or grow a business, you would do well to seek out interactions with others who are different from you in their backgrounds, professional history, experience, professional discipline, and approach. Seek mentors, directors and investors who think differently from you and have different world views. Seek employees who likewise have different backgrounds from you.

As an entrepreneur, it is from these multiple interactions and discussions you have with diverse others that you will generate new understanding and ideas that you can use to grow your business.


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