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1 April 2013

Sexy ideas

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

We’ve been asked by a client to highlight some of our favourite TED talks every two or three weeks. Because right now a couple of us are reading Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we’ve been thinking about where ideas come from and how good ones happen. Pattern entrainment is what creates expertise—we see a set of conditions and we’re able to put them together to make sense of them based on our expertise. That’s fantastic, and it helps us be better leaders, coaches, writers, and partners. Unfortunately, it can also be innovation stifling as Dave Snowden points out. Snowden suggests that pattern entrainment is the enemy of innovation in complex settings because we simply can’t see past our expertise and into new possibilities.

This is where Steven Johnson helpfully takes us in his TED talk about where good ideas come from (click here to see it).

His sense that we need gathering places for ideas to bump up against one another builds on Taleb’s notion that putting experts together to magnify their expertise (common in the world of organisational silos) creates a weakness in the system. Some of that might be because there are no stressors in the system—so important for developing innovation. But some of that might also be because there is no possibility for the idea sex that Johnson talks about.

In any case, it seems important to wonder about where we each get access to new ideas that pull us out of our pattern entrainment and allow us to combine in new ways with different kinds of thinking and action. What will you do this week that will get you a perspective far out of your usual understanding? And perhaps more importantly—how will you listen to that perspective instead of writing it off as too different (too wrong/ignorant/misguided/etc)? How do we learn from difference rather than ignore it or coax it back into patterns we understand? Steven Johnson will help with that, and surely Taleb and his Black Swan or Antifragile books will stir your pot.

(The picture today is the Starbucks in Old Beijing. There’s a way that it is itself both an example of pattern entrainment–and the ways big corporates are taking over what used to be local gathering places–and it’s also oddly out of place in that cultural surround. It would have been a bad place to go to bump up against new ideas, though, because on the day I was there, it was totally empty.)

5 thoughts on “Sexy ideas”

  1. Susanne Cook says:

    Just wondering about another neologism “antifragile” that seems perhaps unnecessary. What does antifragile actually mean that is different from existing words: Resourceful, flexible, malleable, subtle, resilient, and especially break-resistant? I understand the need to stand out and new “sexy” terms sometimes create a buzz useful for marketing ideas and becoming known. Anybody else taking umbrage (being annoyed to say it more simply) at the proliferation of new words to be “different” ?

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hello Susann,
      Great question! Taleb writes that he searched dozens of languages for a word that meant what he was looking for. He didn’t want something like “resilient” or “break-resistant” because he was looking to name the opposite of fragile. If “fragile” means easily broken when shocked, Taleb wanted a word that meant improves when shocked. It has taken me many pages of his book to get my head around what it means to get better when shaken up. So I’m with you–I’d rather not see words invented when good words exist already (and English has SO many). But in this case, the concept of the word seems not to exist in our language–and sometimes is difficult for me to even have it in my head. For me that’s evidence of the way language and meaning create one another. But you’d know way more about that than me…

  2. Rachel says:

    Interesting! I worry a lot about about the lack of diversity of thinking that can happen within professions/groups with similar expertise. Will look out for that book 🙂

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hey Rachel,
      The book is super interesting but the author does think he has an inside track on the truth and most of us are morons. So a little warning there. And also as I read and see his very different way of thinking about the world I wonder if he’s right and I am a moron…

  3. Michael Shiner says:


    I’ve recently finished Taleb’s older book Black Swan and found his writing brilliant but also hard to take — as in inventing new words like antifragile when existing ones might serve, or, as Jennifer says, as in treating people who are not him as absolute morons. In fact, many of the things he says people never consider, I’ve heard many people consider thoughtfully in different contexts.

    On balance, I’m willing to concede his abundant noise for his exquisite thinking and insights. Look forward to reading antifragile, after time off from his sometimes-tiring style.

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