The Goal of Collaboration: Navigating the Network of Idea Spaces

Take a moment and look around your personal office space. Now look at your computer and notice what your desktop icons are and what programs you have open. According to Richard Ogle, the books, documents, computer programs, and other work aids are parts of our extended mind. We create documents, spreadsheets, whatever to offload our intellectual task load so that we can function better in our tasks.

In doing so we have made our tools more intelligent so that they could do some thinking on their own. Think of a spreadsheet you created. Building it took concentrated intellectual effort on your part. But now, you just open the spreadsheet, enter a few numbers, and it does the thinking for you. The spreadsheet has embedded intelligence. Embedded intelligence can also exist in organizational procedures, processes, documents, and even culture. Put enough of these embedded intelligences together and you have an Idea Space.

So what does this have to do with innovation? It is through exploring different Idea Spaces and using analogical thinking that many innovation breakthroughs were achieved. Ogle gives the example of Frances and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. Frances and Crick succeeded where other researchers failed because they were able to apply concepts from other fields and applied it to their problem. Instead of analytical thinking where they reduced the problem to its component parts they used analogies to view their problem from different perspectives and discover a solution.

This happens all of the time. You are working on a problem and then you think of something similar you did on another project. You apply the solution you created before and, with a little tinkering, it works just as well for the new problem. Real innovation occurs when you can apply a seemingly dissimilar analogy and make a truly creative breakthrough.

What all this means for you and your agency is that Idea Spaces follow the common laws of networks. Richard Ogle posits nine such laws such as the “fit get fitter” and “tipping points.” These laws boil down to two: Idea Spaces self-organize into networks and creative leaps occur by connecting Idea Spaces through analogical thinking.

Go look at your colleagues offices. What is their extended mind like? Think of your agency procedures and practices. What Idea Spaces exist there? How would you characterize the network of Idea Spaces? Is it easy to navigate? Can your apply analogical thinking from your colleagues’ Idea Spaces? What barriers exist in agency policies that prevent navigation and analogical thinking?

Nick Charney wrote in a recent blog posting about what is the goal of collaboration. He is correct in that just getting together to talk is not enough. I suggest that the goal of collaboration is to share our Idea Spaces and help others navigate the Idea Spaces so that we can apply analogical thinking to solve our collective problems. We should map our Idea Spaces, help the network of Idea Spaces grow, and clear away the underbrush and barriers to navigation. That is the return on investing in collaboration.

This is why Gov 2.0 and Open Gov are so important. They are not ends in themselves but they make the Idea Spaces network stronger and easier to navigate because the Gov 2.0 tools make it easier to embed intelligence while Open Gov encourages more collaboration. As you go about your work try to see your agency as a collection of Idea Spaces. Is the network strong or does it need help? What barriers are preventing you from applying analogical thinking in your work? Can Gov 2.0 and Open Gov help your agency create a better Idea Spaces network?


Ogle, R. (2007). Smart world: Breakthrough creativity and the new science of ideas. Harvard Business School Press.

Appendix A – Formal Definition of Idea Space: “a domain or world viewed from the perspective of the intelligence embedded in it, intelligence that we can use – consciously or not – both to solve our everyday problems and to make the creative leaps that lead to breakthrough” (p. 13).

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

I was talking to a colleague at lunch about this posting and he suggested that instead of concentrating on the physical workspace, you should ask your coworker what online tools they use. He then whipped out his Android phone and stated that you could learn more about the person’s Idea Space by the apps they have on their smart phone.

David Kuehn

I appreciate the comments on idea spaces. We are pushing the use of idea spaces for accelerating research. Idea Spaces can be real or virtual, asynchronic or not. We not only need to use a variety of formats (media) and connect ideas across media.

Nicholas Charney

Bill – new vernacular for me -> “Idea Spaces” . It seems to dispel some of the “magic” of collaboration: it’s not magic its overlay one map a top another to see where the zones of agreement and disagreement are, then proceeding to build on successes or try to cross chasms.

Ps – Thanks for the note and mention.


Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Nicholas – Exactly! And where Ogle takes it further is his argument that Idea Spaces follow the common laws of all networks. Understanding those laws helps to maximize the benefits we gain from collaboration.

This is also why people should try to be interdisciplinary. Every summer, I try to read a few books in a totally different area from what I usually work with. One summer I decided to study opera and learned some fascinating facts and lessons that I could apply to project management. Learning how stagehands and performers manage to put on elaborate operas with split-second timing helped me understand how break down tasks better and schedule work more effectively. You never know where you might learn something. 🙂

By the way: I highly recommend Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle. This is just an hour long and is a great glimpse into how a major production comes into being on time and every night for months. Lots of lessons for project managers.