The birth of a thought and the life-times of a concept


I love thoughts, always have: How they come about, what lineage they follow etc.

The birth of a thought? (image credits: unclear)

The birth of a thought? (image credits: unclear)

Something as simple as a thought is somehow as thorny as impact and as untraceable as a travelling lighter:

Who came up with a thought first? The person that first talked about it? The person that promoted it? The person that applied it?

Can we actually come up with genuinely original ideas?

Are we not the product of a constant to-and-froing of ideas with others as shown on the illustration on the right?

Isn’t there also something to say about how we use our tacit knowledge (in Michael Polanyi’s sense, e.g. the insights we have but do not think about it any more because they are part of us, they have almost become  reflexes) to include streams of thoughts from the past too?

Are we not just the fruit of a long history of mingling with others’ minds?

We may have just made ours what others said and did in the past. We are “resting upon the shoulders of giants” – whether we like to recognise it or not.

So we might want to remember at all times that thoughts and ideas are: collective, iterative, multi-faceted, ever improvable (like a diamond asking to be ever more polished); that they benefit from slow simmering and from confrontation and combination with other ideas – whether from reading or talking with others. At any rate, time is an essential element in the creation of (good) ideas.

Steven Johnson’s video illustrates this very well.

There is some kind of a parallel here with the lifetime of concepts – the glorified generic thoughts that illustrate a category of things

I also love talking about concepts. And yet, that’s where problems start: we all have a different perspective, different glasses on, and every concept means something slightly different to each new person. When it means anything at all.

Sometimes, the concepts that matter to us are totally useless to others… and sometimes, we just don’t know that we don’t know something, like a concept. That’s the blind spot or the unknown of the Johari window.

This is really important for our use of concepts: It’s all in the timing. A concept is only really useful when people are aware of their need to get their head around that concept or – more likely – its practical application. A) Before that time, the concept is theoretical fluff – because people don’t know that they don’t know (or they don’t know that they might need this concept). If you invest a lot of efforts, you might convince them about that blind spot they have and about doing something to tackle it, but it’s a long way. B) Past that time of emerging or felt need, they might have embraced the concept and its practice so totally that it has become tacit knowledge (hello Michael Polanyi again!). It could also mean that the concept has gone mainstream to the extent that it’s old news that does not interest anyone any longer – as has been the case with storytelling for a long while for instance. It could also mean that the concept was not used at all and it was a missed opportunity – but there’s no point running after it.

The lifetime of a concept does not limit itself to one time and one space though: it goes through several of these stages of before-during-after. It gets discovered, applied, integrated, forgotten by different people at different times. It has different lifetimes, different iterations in which other people rediscover the power or relevance of that concept again and need to apply it in a different context. With a slightly different focus this time.

When we work on or with concepts, we might want to find out at what stage of discovery the concept is, at what iteration in its lifetime. This requires a bit of research. It might be annoying to look back and dig through the archives, but paying attention to history guarantees a better embedding of concepts in peoples’ practice.

An example? Knowledge management: yesterday it actually meant information management and it was a rage; then as KM initiatives promising the right information to the right people at the right time started to falter it became a plague and was abandoned by much of the corporate sector. Now it’s just yesterday’s news, a slightly embarrassing term. It is progressively upgraded to the much sexier and fresher ‘innovation’ – the new buzz in town – with the danger of getting rid of all the good lessons of the golden age of KM. The reality behind a certain conception of KM (the idea of connecting people and their knowledge) has never been more topical. And talking about KM is both highly desirable (in the knowledge age) and potentially very hazardous (because knowledge cannot be managed). How will these ideas unfold in the golden age of innovation?

At what iteration in its lifetime is KM in your context? Is it worth pursuing it or focusing on innovation like everyone else? How to avoid the ‘baby-out-with-the-bathwater’ syndrome? It might be difficult to tell, but it has perhaps never been more relevant to question this…

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