5 Types of Ideas

Over again at Strategic Development consultant Helene Finidori’s blog, Helene argued this month that new, creative ideas emerge out of the context of previous thought and activity, and that rather than there being radically new ideas departing from the old there tends to be instead essentially three kinds of ideas:

(i) The logical consequence of existing needs and trends, or knowledge and technology

(ii) The “now we’re ready” idea: already thought and discussed by many, but waiting for technology or market readiness to catch up

(iii) A bad idea no one believes in, killed along the way by smart people as infeasible.

Helene raises a very interesting question (one that I wrestled with during my Ph.D thesis): to what extent are breakthrough ideas truly revolutionary, a radical break from the past, and to what extent are they evolutionary, grounded in and defined in relation to work and ideas from the past? Looking at the creative work of figures such as Einstein for his special theory of relativity or Schroedinger for his contributions to Quantum Mechanics, it is clear that these radical contributions are in a sense deeply rooted in an evolutionary progression from previous work and contributions (see for example historian and philosopher of science Gerard Holton’s work in Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein; I have also covered this in some depth in a paper coming out of my Ph.D work, currently unpublished),

Helene’s typology of ideas brings to mind economist Charles P Kindleberger’s typology of ideas from his 1989 book chapter “How ideas spread amongst economists: examples from international economics.”

Kindleberger discussed 5 “life profiles of . . . economic ideas”, each with an illustration from then current international economics:

(i) The simple idea, largely ignored or rejected by the profession, which refuses to disappear and keeps making its way
(ii) The powerful idea, buttressed by a wealth of metaphor and widely accepted, that is on the whole misleading
(iii) A concept intuitively understood for years but slow in finding its way into standard analysis, which spreads rapidly once it has been formalised
(iv) The strongly held view, widely accepted, that is right for the wrong reason
(v) The temptation to choose a single horn of a dilemma and stick with it through thick and thin, when a more prudent analysis would call for frequent shifting of models

One Response to 5 Types of Ideas
  1. Helene
    March 18, 2007 | 5:09 PM

    Thank you for quoting my post Lauchlan. I sense your wrestles and questioning about which ideas were true breakthroughs in a few of your posts -top of mind from what I read last week: one of the HBR breakthrough ideas for 2007, and your review on the Tipping Point. This brings a couple of questions in the light of what I have exposed:
    1. Who is the actual owner of an idea: the one who initiated it –but can we actually trace back to the “actual” origin?-, the one who matured and relayed it through time, the one who brought it last under the spotlights, who tipped it over, i.e. brought it beyond the tipping point = point of diffusion, or the one who implemented it… Or is this more of a collective process: not one person here and now, but several people involved through time and locations? – …and isn’t this actually what Open Source is all about…
    2. Who is actually entitled to intellectual/industrial property? Knowing that ideas/innovations feed and mature one another, doesn’t a too rigid intellectual property law have an adverse effect on creation and innovation in the end?

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