Is There An Innovation Deficit For The Independent Worker? – A Question Prompted by Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From

Where do ideas come from? – cities, and the conference table, reading books;  and, oh yes, the long walk.  This is the inescapable message of the terrific book Where Good Ideas Come From:  The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson.  I think it may be the best book I’ve read this year.  (I may change my mind as I look back over the entire year).  Last night, I found this blog post by Seth Godin: Where do ideas come from? He doesn’t reference the book by Johnson, but there is a lot of agreement between the two.

Here’s a great quote from the book:

The ground zero of innovation is not the microscope.  It was the conference table…  The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.

As I read the book, I realized that the normal interaction between people, with as wide and diverse a circle as possible, with constant conversation and interaction, really does lead to the kinds of “slow hunches” that lead to great new ideas.

And therein lies the problem.

First, a personal comment.  Though I once worked selling clothing at a J. C. Penney store (in my college days), I have never worked in a large company.  I have taught at a few colleges, mainly in the Dallas Community College District.  But always as an adjunct, which means I arrive just in time to teach, and leave pretty quickly after that.  Which means that I have never had the opportunity to interact in the ways described in this book, within a big company.

Thus, I work, basically alone.  I have a home office, I read and think and write alone, and then go speak.  That’s about it.  The conference table is practically a foreign experience for me.  (I did spend more than a few years attending the equivalent of church board meetings – but they frequently felt like mild levels of inquisitions, not idea generating laboratories).

I suspect that I am not the only one.  The number of independent workers is growing.  And though we can network with gusto, attending networking events is not the same as the daily cross-pollination that is described in this book as so very valuable.

There is much being written about the USA slipping down the innovation rankings on the world stage.  “The United States is losing its distinction as an innovation leader,” was the conclusion in The Innovation Imperative in Manufacturing:  How the United States Can Restore Its Edge.  (read the report here).

And there is much being written about the increasing number of “independent workers.”  Here is an excerpt from Why Is Washington Ignoring the Freelance Economy?, from The Atlantic.  Here’s a key excerpt:

The data speak for itself: between 1995 and 2005 (i.e. before the recession), the number of independent workers in this country grew by 27 percent. In New York City alone, from 1975 to 2007 (again, pre-recession), 2/3 of job growth was due to self-employment. And let’s look at Nebraska: the state boasts among the lowest unemployment rates in the country (4.8%!) by retaining a diverse employment pool with significant numbers of independent workers.

Thus, more and more people are working alone.  And though there are many associated problems (health care; benefits…), there may be a “hidden” problem that is as great as any other.  Does the independent worker face an innovation deficit?

More people working alone.  Fewer conference tables.  A decline in innovation.  I wonder — is there a connection?


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