Where Good Ideas Come From - Book Notes


Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is chock-full of good lessons for product development people. Here are some quick and dirty notes about — you guessed it — where good ideas come from.


A lot of good ideas come from error. Making a mistake is a fantastic and rather common way to stumble upon a new idea or a new way of looking at something.

Wedding Crashers was a funny movie. https://giphy.com/search/erroneous

The problem I’ve found with this principle is that it’s hard to teach. Nobody tries to make mistakes. “Try to be less careful” will typically lead to more mistakes, but that’s not exactly good advice.

The better advice: don’t be an asshole when someone does make a mistake. Try to create an environment where mistakes are OK. Celebrate error. Spend time talking about mistakes in a positive manner — learning lessons and asking questions, rather than shaking your head and being a jerk.


I had never heard of this word before reading the book. It’s a term in biology that refers to a feature developing for one purpose being then adapted to another purpose.

For example, one theory is that birds developed feathers for warmth, but then ended up exapting them for flight.

(I always thought birds where mini-dinosaurs or something, so while this book helped me understand exaptation better, I feel like I’m more confused than ever about birds and bird origins.)

Back to the book. Johnson talks about how Gutenberg invented the printing press using a screw technology stolen from wine pressing. “He took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned it into an engine for mass communication.” Pretty awesome invention, and a great example of exaptation.

But exaptation isn’t just about re-purposing machine parts. What you also want to do is exapt ideas.

Taking an idea from one thing and applying it to another is extremely effective for creating wholly new concepts, ideas, and innovations. People do it all the time. “This is the uber of dog walking.” “This is the stitch-fix of dog stuff.” “This is facebook for dogs.” (I made that one up.)

This is not an advertisement; it’s the idea for UBER being exapted to dog walking. I don’t endorse this company but I do endorse walking your dog or hiring others to walk your dog.

There is no shortage of good ideas and elegant solutions out there. Expose yourself to these ideas through reading, exploring similar industries, monitoring patents and academic research, and cross-pollinating with other teams.

Survival of the Fittest

You don’t need to read this book to understand the concept of survival of the fittest.

Biological Survival of the Fittest: Mutations + Environment = Evolution

Obligatory picture of animals to portray the concept of survival of the fittest. Cheetahs are awesome. Picture source.

What Johnson does that is pretty insightful is to draw many parallels between this biological mechanism and the way that ideas (or products) evolve. The product analogy is:

Product Survival of the Fittest: Prototypes + Testing = Learning

When you think of prototyping as micro-generations of products, it becomes clear just how valuable iteration velocity is. The more generations, the better.

Prototyping is not only an effective way to drive your product forward, it should also be a source of new ideas. If you’re not finding yourself coming out of a prototype test with news ideas, you should consider getting closer to the action, or getting a better “view” of your customers.

That’s it for now. Lot’s of other good stuff in this book. I definitely recommend it.