Riff on This

Where do the best ideas come from, and what are the conditions where the best ideas thrive?

In Group Genius, Keith Sawyer breaks down the myth of the lone genius and shows us how environments of collaboration are more conducive to idea-generation. He points to the worlds of jazz and improvisation as examples of how great ideas come about. Great jazz depends on each band member listening to their band mates and building off of each other. A common term in jazz improvisation is “riffing”, where a soloist takes a melody from another song or band member’s previous solo, and builds on it to develop their own solo. 

This is a great metaphor for the best idea-generating conversations and meetings. One person suggests an idea, another builds on it, which sparks another idea, which gets changed and “riffed  on” until an even better idea emerges. 

In an atmosphere of pride and selfishness, this process breaks down. I don’t want you to riff on my idea because it’s my idea, and I want credit for it! But if I hang on too tightly to any one spark of insight, that spark won’t grow. And worse, I’m unlikely to be able to listen to what others are saying, unable to continue the riff and build on it as it progresses.

Riffing requires a fundamental change in mindset, from patent-hoarding, credit-seeking idea production to a collaborative, infinite game mentality, which doesn’t come easily. It’s a shift from a winner-takes-all worldview to a belief that an open environment will make us all better

Social media channels, in their purest form, are a beautiful display of this kind of collaboration. People share blog posts, photos, videos, works in progress and partially-formed ideas for others to mash up, remix, build on and adapt for their own purposes.

Will this open environment make the world better, or be taken advantage of by a few greedy players? Time will tell, but I know which game I’d rather be playing.