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4 Things I’ve Learned About Ideas

2023 June 18
by Greg Satell

I’ve always been inspired by ideas. Some, like Aristotle’s logic, shape the world for millennia. Others, like Einstein’s relativity, completely change our conceptions of what is possible. Still others, like mRNA vaccines, seem to emerge at just the right time. Ideas are what have marked humanity’s progress from living in caves to civilizations.

Yet bad ideas can destroy just as completely as good ideas can create. Fascism led Europe to effectively wipe itself out in little more than a decade. Communism relegated hundreds of millions of people to poverty and struggle. Corporate debacles like like Enron, WeWork and Theranos, have shown us that the wrong idea can cost billions.

We need to handle ideas with care, being open enough to new ones so that we don’t miss out on opportunities, but skeptical enough that we don’t get taken in by ones that do harm. What I’ve learned researching innovation and change is that creating, parsing and evaluating ideas is a skill that must be practiced and honed over time. Here are 4 things to keep in mind.

1. Ideas Can Come From Anywhere 

Albert Einstein was an outcast in the world of physics when he unleashed four papers on the world that would change the field forever. When Jim Allison discovered cancer immunotherapy, it took him three years to find anyone who would invest in it. Katalin Karikó was told to abandon her research into mRNA vaccines or be demoted.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, science historian Thomas Kuhn explained why breakthroughs so often happen this way. As the world changes and evolves, flaws in existing models become more evident, eventually becoming untenable. That’s what sets the stage for a paradigm shift. “Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones,” he wrote.

Yet new paradigms almost always need to be championed by outsiders or newcomers rather than acknowledged experts. As the physicist Max Planck put it “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

In Mapping Innovation, I showed how data and real-world experience bear this out. On the innovation platform Innocentive (now Wazoku Crowd), problems tend not to be solved within the domain in which they arose, but by a practitioner in an adjacent field. In fact, a study analyzing 17.9 million papers found the most highly cited work tended to come from highly specialized experts partnering with an outsider.

2. Ideas Need To Develop Over Time

In 1891, Dr. William Coley had an unusual idea. Inspired by an obscure case, in which a man who had contracted a severe infection was cured of cancer, the young doctor purposely infected a tumor on his patient’s neck with a heavy dose of bacteria. Miraculously, the tumor vanished and the patient remained cancer free even five years later.

It was a breakthrough, of sorts, but for more than a 100 years Coley’s work was viewed with skepticism and, in truth, there were serious problems with it. Coley couldn’t explain the underlying mechanism by which an infection could cure cancer and he couldn’t replicate his results with any consistency. When radiation therapy began showing success, most people forgot about Coley’s and his work.

Yet a small cadre of supporters kept the faith alive. His daughter, Helen Coley Nauts, would establish the Cancer Research Institute in 1953 to support immune-based approaches to cancer treatment. Over the next four decades, glimmers of hope would appear from time to time, but no one could make Dr. Coley’s idea work.

Then, in 1995 there was a breakthrough. Following a hunch, Jim Allison figured that maybe the problem wasn’t that our bodies couldn’t identify and fight cancer cells, but that something was switching the immune response off. If we could switch it back on, we would have a completely new tool to fight cancer. Allison would win the Nobel Prize for his work on the development of the first cancer immunotherapy drug in 2018.

Dr. Coley had the right idea from the start, but it wasn’t enough. It would take over a century to develop better understanding of cancer, genomics, as well as tools like recombinant DNA to make it work. Literally thousands of researchers worked around the globe for decades to make good on an initial insight.

3. Ideas Need Ecosystems

When Jim Allison was finishing up graduate school in the early 1970s, they had just discovered T cells and he was fascinated. He would later tell me how he was amazed about how all these things could be flying around our bodies killing things and somehow not hurt us. He decided to focus his career on figuring out how it all worked.

Over the next decade, Jim and his colleagues started piecing together a larger picture of how the immune system worked through a vast array of signals and receptors that regulate our immune response, triggering it to increase activity and to shut down once the threat has dissolved. A colleague had noticed that one of these molecules inhibited tumor growth.

Dr. Coley and Jim Allison occupied world’s. To Coley, the immune system was like an on/off switch and, triggering the immune system should lead directly to an immune response to fight cancer. Yet Allison was part of a much larger ecosystem that led to a different understanding that allowed him to target a specific receptor in the regulation system. That opened the floodgates and now cancer immunotherapy is a major field of its own.

The simple fact is that ideas need ecosystems. Look at any major technology and it’s not the initial invention that creates the impact, but the secondary and tertiary technologies. Electricity needed appliances to change the world. The internal combustion engine needed vehicles. Computers needed software and the Internet.

We can’t just look at nodes, but must consider networks. It’s through those connections that we create the combinations that can help us solve important problems.

4. You Need To Let The Muse Know You’re Serious

One of the toughest things about ideas is that they can only be validated forward, never backward. You never know if you have the right idea until it’s been tested in the real world and, even then, there could be some confounding factor you may be missing. As Kevin Ashton put it, “Creation is a long journey, where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead.”

That’s tough work. You can’t just expect lightning to strike. Truly creative people know you have to work at it every day. Sometimes it goes easier and sometimes it’s a bit tougher. There are constant disappointments and true epiphanies are rare. But if you keep with it you’ll find that most days you can come up with something, even if it’s something small.

Somebody told me once that you have to let the muse know that you’re serious. Producing ideas leads to more ideas, which allows you to start creating connections between them. The more you produce, the better the chances are that some of those connections will be novel and lead to something important. That’s how you produce an idea that matters.

But even then the work isn’t over, because the world your idea enters into keeps evolving and changing. That’s why you need to share it and encourage others to build on it so that it can grow and reach its true potential. Ideas must combine and recombine so that they can memetically evolve. For our ideas to succeed, we need to serve them well.

As Daniel Dennett put it, ““A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.”


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash

2 Responses leave one →
  1. June 19, 2023

    Outstanding. A very clear overview.

    And WAY too many people find ideas to be terrifying and change to be something to avoid. They are who they are and they will be what they are and that things, even those that do not work well, are okay because they were okay before.


    And education COULD play such a big role in helping ideas move forward. Too bad we are killing the creativity of so many of our schools.

    Keep sharing, Greg. Keep Pushing and Pulling!

  2. June 21, 2023

    Thanks so much Scott!

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