Diversify Your Network to Make Your Green Biz Ideas Work

December 6, 2010
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See an animated video of Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From at www.stevenberlinjohnson.com.

How do we change from doing business focused in one area, say home electronics or audio/video or solar installations, and move toward something like selling and installing energy management and green technologies?

You can get some valuable ideas and encouragement from Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson, the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, explores the ways great ideas come into being. Rarely, he writes, is there a Eureka! moment, but rather a lengthy process by which an inventor or entrepreneur assimilates information and ideas and makes the vital connections that allow something new and valuable to come into being.

So what does that mean for making the leap from what you are doing today to selling and installing, say, energy management systems?

Plenty. Here are a few of the concepts detailed in Where Good Ideas Come From, and what they mean for selling green technology:

Look to the Adjacent Possible

You shouldn’t have to re-invent your business—or be overwhelmed by researching “all that there is to be green.” You don’t have time for that. Instead, look to see what you can do that’s already related to what you are doing today. This, Johnson says, is the adjacent possible, and it has been pretty much responsible for every development throughout evolution.

  • If you’re solely a home theater specialist, are there ways you can help some clients save energy on their home theater lighting or vampire power loads?
  • If you do home control or solar or high-voltage electrical, can you add energy monitoring to the mix?
  • If you do light commercial A/V for conference rooms, can you add telepresence systems and add efficient lighting so videoconferencing will look its best?

Broaden Your Network

Don’t limit yourself to working in just one area, like audio and video. You may be an expert there, but your own entrepreneurial resources are severely restricted by limiting your available network. Many great ideas and businesses, especially today, are borne from ideas flowing freely from others, who may have nothing to do with your area or expertise.

Johannes Gutenberg, for example, invented the printing press and changed the world forever by modeling his invention after a wine press. And Gutenberg was a metallurgist by trade, with only ties to the wine industry. This process of “borrowing” from existing technologies is called exaption.

“A new technology developed in one idea-space can migrate over to another idea-space through these long distant connections … or trigger a connection that leads to a breakthrough,” Johnson writes.

So look to people outside of your field, like architects and designers and IT people, and you may find ways to take an energy management system from one company and tweak it into an offering that makes your services unique.

Martin Ruef, a Stanford Business School professor, found that diverse, horizontal social networks—such as those of many acquaintances from different disciplines—were three times more innovative than uniform, vertical networks from one discipline. This has also been detailed in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, The Tipping Point.

Exchange Ideas Freely

Too often, we want to hold onto our best ideas, so no one will steal them. But more often, we can improve upon them by sharing with others—or we can find an idea to borrow and improve upon ourselves. That’s why you should get involved with a local green building council, or start one. And network with builders, business owners, Facebook and Linked-In groups, local Chambers of Commerce, anyone who will listen to your thoughts.

Johnson notes that Nike, in collaboration with Creative Commons and Best Buy, has started a web-placed marketplace called GreenXchange, and has publicly released 400 of its patents that involve eco-friendly materials or technologies. “Nike was widening its network of minds who were actively thinking about how to make its ideas more useful, without putting anyone else on its payroll,” Johnson writes.

Chance, the author says, favors the connected mind.

Use Existing Platforms

Widely popular Internet sites like Twitter and YouTube weren’t invented by one guy working in his garage. They were cobbled together—and quickly—by using and keeping in mind other technologies and protocols, such as the Web and the SMS Mobile Communications Platform for Twitter and Flash and Java for YouTube. By contrast, Johnson notes, it took experts from the consumer electronics industry the better part of two decades to create HDTV.

We’re already seeing energy monitoring available on the web, via Google and its PowerMeter software, on iPhone apps and more. We will soon start to see energy management via energy monitoring and home control systems set to shut devices off automatically. We’re seeing social psychology being used to encourage people to be more energy efficient. We’re seeing energy monitoring and management being paired with other functions. We’re seeing smart grid trials using energy monitoring and energy efficiency programs from electric utilities. And all of these are coming together. Start thinking how you can benefit from them, or get them to work together for your company. Even more importantly, get your more diversified, horizontal network thinking about these issues.

One moral of these points: “In open environments … patterns of innovation can easily take hold and multiply,” Johnson writes. Just don’t be too concerned with how messy and convoluted that process seems. “Build a tangled bank.”

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