Why Startups Should Steal Ideas and Hire Weirdos
We rely so much on our ability to learn from the ideas that surround us that some psychologists refer to humans as Homo imitans.
- BY ALEX PENTLAND
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty, because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” — Steve Jobs
The most consistently creative and insightful people are explorers. They spend an enormous amount of time seeking out new people and different ideas, without necessarily trying very hard to find the “best” people or “best” ideas.
Instead, they seek out people with different views and different ideas.
Along with their continuous search for new ideas, these explorers do another interesting thing: They engage with others in order to winnow down their most recently discovered ideas to the best ones. They accomplish this through their habit of bouncing them off everyone they meet — and they meet many different sorts of people. The ideas that provoke reactions of surprise or interest from a wide range of people are the keepers. These are the ideas that are harvested, assembled into a new story about the world, and used to guide actions and decisions.
Idea flow is the spreading of ideas, whether by example or story, through a social network — be it a company, a family, or a city. Being part of this flow of ideas allows people to learn new behaviors, without the dangers or risks of individual experimentation, and to acquire large integrated patterns of behavior, without having to form them gradually by laborious experimentation.
In fact, humans rely so much on our ability to learn from the ideas that surround us that some psychologists refer to us as Homo imitans. The collective intelligence of a community comes from idea flow; we learn from the ideas that surround us, and others learn from us. Over time, a community with members who actively engage with each other creates a group with shared, integrated habits and beliefs. Idea flow depends upon social learning, and indeed, this is the basis of social physics: Our behavior can be predicted from our exposure to the example behaviors of other people.
Because “idea flow” takes into account the variables of a social network structure, the strength of social influence between people, and individual susceptibilities to new ideas, it also serves another vital role: It gives a reliable, mathematical prediction of how changing any of these variables will change the performance of all the people in the network. Thus, the mathematical framework of idea flow allows us to tune social networks in order to make better decisions and achieve better results.
For example, what can be done when the flow of ideas becomes either too sparse and slow or too dense and fast? How does the “exploration” process — using social networks to search for ideas and then winnow them down to just a few good ones — result in a harvest of ideas that produces good decisions?
Is this just a random recombination of ideas with little contribution from our individual intelligences, or are there strategies that are critical to successful exploration?
The mathematics of social physics lets us answer these questions. The exploration process is fundamentally a search for new ideas within one’s social network, so to understand how to find the best ideas I launched two big data studies that contain almost two million hours of interaction data covering everyone within two communities for a total of over two years. These studies allowed us to build quantitative, predictive models of how we humans find and incorporate new ideas into our decisions.
The studies paint a picture of humans as sailors. We all sail in a stream of ideas, ideas that are the examples and stories of the peers who surround us; exposure to this stream shapes our habits and beliefs. We can resist the flow if we try, and even choose to row to another stream, but most of our behavior is shaped by the ideas we are exposed to. The idea flow within these streams binds us together into a sort of collective intelligence, one comprised of the shared learning of our peers.
The continual exploratory behavior of humans is a quick learning process that is guided by apparent popularity among peers. In contrast, adoption of habits and preferences is a slow process that requires repeated exposure and perceptual validation within a community of peers. Our social world consists of the rush and excitement of new ideas harvested through exploration, and then the quieter and slower process of engaging with peers in order to winnow through those ideas, to determine which should be converted into personal habits and social norms.
How Can We Harvest the Best Ideas?
I like to think of organizations as a group of people sailing in a stream of ideas. Sometimes they are sailing in swift, clear streams where the ideas are abundant, but sometimes they are in stagnant pools or terrifying whirlpools. At other times, one person’s idea stream forks off, splitting them apart from other people and taking them in a new direction. To me, this is the real story of community and culture; the rest is just surface appearance and illusion.
When the flow of ideas incorporates a constant stream of outside ideas as well, then the individuals in the community make better decisions than they could on their own. Diversity of viewpoint and experience is an important success factor when harvesting innovative ideas. To bring new ideas into a work group or community, however, there are three key things to remember.
Social Learning Is Critical
Copying other people’s successes, when combined with individual learning, is dramatically better than individual learning alone. When your individual information is unclear, rely more on social learning; when your individual information is strong, rely less on social learning.
One disturbing implication of these findings is that our hyperconnected world may be moving toward a state in which there is too much idea flow. In a world of echo chambers, fads and panics are the norm — and so it is much harder to make good decisions. We need to pay much more attention to whereour ideas are coming from, and we should actively discount common opinions and keep track of the contrarian ideas. (We can build software tools to help us do this automatically, but to do so we have to keep track of the provenance of ideas.)
Contrarians Are Important
When people are behaving independently of their social learning, it’s likely that they have independent information and that they believe in that information enough to fight the effects of social influence. Find as many of these “wise guys” as possible … and learn from them.
Such contrarians sometimes have the best ideas, but sometimes they’re just oddballs. How can you know which is which? If you can find many such independent thinkers and discover that there is a consensus among a large subset of them, then a really good strategy is to follow the “contrarian consensus”.
Diversity Is Important
When everyone is going in the same direction, then it’s a good bet that there isn’t enough diversity in your information and idea sources, and you should explore further. A big danger of social learning is groupthink. To avoid groupthink and echo chambers, you have to compare what the social learning suggests with what isolated individuals (who have only external information sources) are doing. If the so-called common sense from social learning is just an overconfident version of what isolated people think, then you’re likely in a groupthink or echo chamber situation. In this case, a surprisingly good strategy is to bet against the common sense.
But it is also important to diversify by considering more than one strategy at a time, because as our environment changes, the old strategies stop working and new strategies take the lead. Therefore, it’s not the strategies that have been most successful that you want to follow; it’s the strategies that will bemost successful that you have to find.
Since predicting the future is hard, diversification of social learning is important.
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To summarize: People act like idea-processing machines combining individual thinking and social learning from the experiences of others. Success depends greatly on the quality of exploration and that, in turn, relies on the diversity and independence of our information and idea sources.
By harvesting from the parts of our social network that touch other streams — that is, by crossing what sociologist Ron Burt called the “structural holes” within the fabric of society — we can create innovation. When we choose to dip into a different stream, we bring up new habits and beliefs, and it is these innovations that help us make better decisions, and help our community to thrive.
Adapted and excerpted from Social Physics by Alex Pentland. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Alex Pentland, 2014.
Named by Forbes one of the seven most powerful data scientists in the world, Alex “Sandy” Pentland directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, which have spun off more than 30 companies to date. He also co-leads the World Economic Forum Big Data and Personal Data initiatives and is a founding member of the Advisory Boards for Nissan, Motorola Mobility, and a variety of startups. Pentland also helped create and direct MIT’s Media Laboratory, the Media Lab Asia laboratories at the Indian Institutes of Technology, and Strong Hospital’s Center for Future Health.
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