Borrowing Brilliance: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 17th, 2011 by bobmorris

Borrowing Brilliance: The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others
David Kord Murray
Gotham Books/The Penguin Group (2009)

A rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the evolution of a creative idea

Others have their own reasons for praising this book. Here are two of mine. First, David Kord Murray immediately states his core thesis and then develops it with original (rather than borrowed) brilliance throughout the narrative that follows. Here it is, in composite form: “Ideas are constructed out of other ideas, there are no original thoughts, you can’t make something out of nothing, you have to make it out of something else. It’s the law of cerebral physics. Ideas are born of other ideas, built in and out of the ideas that came before. That’s why I say that brilliance is borrowed…An idea is like a house or a building. Your business problem is the foundation of that house. In other words, you build your idea on a foundation of well-defined problems. Once defined, you borrow ideas from places with a comparable problem…Then, you take these borrowed ideas and start combining them to form the overall structure of your house, to form the structure of your new solution.”

I also admire the scope and depth of primary and secondary sources that Murray cites within the framework of the six steps to innovation. For example, Step One involves defining the problem to be solved. Murray advises that the foundation for solving the problem be on “solid ground” and that the problem is viewed in context (e.g. scope) rather than in isolation. His sources include Sergey Brin and Larry Page (“the Google Guys”,) Isaac Newton, and James Maxwell. If you have a search problem, as Brin and Page once did, ask “Who else has a search problem?” The answer probably includes librarians, rescue teams, sailors, hunters, archeologists, and explorers.

Step Two involves borrowing ideas from wherever there is or has been a similar problem: “borrowing brilliance is the search for ideas” and what Murray calls “creative combinations” are the result of borrowing from competitors, observations, other people, while traveling away from home, from what Murray calls “the opposite place” (i.e. the opposite of what is popular), a similar place, and/or a distant place (e.g. ancient Rome). His sources include Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and John Nash. They and others used one or more existing idea as material to construct a new idea, one that would then become a new (for now) “creative combination.” That is what Johannes Gutenberg did in the 1440s when he combined materials that already existed: a wine press, an adjustable undertable, movable typeface of lead-based alloy, a matrix (i.e. hand mould), and oil-based ink.

Murray also provides a convincing reassurance to all who claim they are “not creative” that innovation is a never-ending process that, over extended time, it may involve thousands (millions?) of individuals who “build on the ideas of others,” some of whom – many centuries ago — also built on the ideas of others who preceded them. Almost anyone is capable of making a valuable contribution to this process on continuous improvement. The value of some contributions will be greater than others, obviously, but all are essential.

The best recently published account of this process, at least that I am aware of, is provided by William Rosen in his book about the development of steam-driven power, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, published by Random House (2010).


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