Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “Find the ‘Idea Spaces’ that Drive Fundamental Economic Expansion”

January 01, 2015

Most business failures result from leadership blindness. The inability to understand and adapt to the current reality, or to imagine the future, seals the leader’s fate. This is true in a world in which shorter product cycles, increasing regulations, globalization of costs and rapid technological advancement affect every industry.

As business gurus Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan say, “Some people try to fend off disruptive forces of change by denouncing them or ignoring them. But in this new environment, confronting reality has to become the leadership priority of the highest order.”

My search to understand how leaders can “see around corners” and generate breakthrough ideas led me to Richard Ogle’s book, “Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas,” in which he discusses the concept of “idea spaces” that can do the thinking.

‘Idea spaces’ assistance

Many scientists, psychologists and philosophers now believe a person’s mind extends into the world. To solve problems, it’s not a matter of relying solely upon the brain, but on accessing a wide range of external “idea spaces” in the physical and cultural environments that are rich with embedded intelligence and make living easier. One simple example is how people now navigate almost exclusively with GPS devices — using environmental intelligence to succeed with less intelligence.

Ogle shares Stanford economist Paul Romer’s theory that there are no limits to future economic growth, because as society moved from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, ideas — not material resources — became the fundamental drivers of economic expansion.

An idea economy is capable of producing sustained, potentially exponential growth, simply because the supply of ideas will never run out. If one thinks of an idea as a connection or link made between different things, the number of different ways to connect or link will always exceed the number of things themselves.

Where do ideas come from?

The rational brain looks backward to understand past experiences one step at a time and thus can be blind to new situations. This analytical reasoning is nothing like the extraordinary mental processes of imagination, intuition and insight that underlie creative thinking.

Brain scientists have identified a second mode of thinking — analogical reasoning. Man’s imaginations are, in fact, capable of looking forward. Guided by pattern-recognizing powers of intuition, man is capable of transferring patterns of knowledge from one idea space to another. Together, the powers of intuition and imagination give rise to insight — the “light bulb” experience of discovering a new idea. The next step is to use the imagination to escape the current reality to play with and try out new ideas.

How can we find these ideas?

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and other innovative products, says, “I don’t have to invent anything … It’s out there somewhere; if I can just find it and integrate it.”

Ogle suggests that leaders must “read the world” to keep from being surprised by unanticipated changes and to identify emerging opportunities.

Always assume that the mind is blind to numerous opportunities and threats, and aggressively seek to discover things unknown — even when there is no realization of what they are.