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Brilliant People: Let's Talk Basketball

Malcolm Gladwell's latest article in the New Yorker is about ideas and inventions.

We tend to assume that these kinds of things arrive like bolts of lightning -- so randomly that it's not even worth waiting around for them. (With certain exceptions involving Michael J. Fox and a time machine.)

But Gladwell tells about former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold and his company, called Intellectual Ventures.

Instead of waiting around for brilliance to arrive, at Intellectual Ventures they put the smart people together in a room and pretty much instruct them to dream up important new things.

And guess what: it works!

Gladwell writes:

How useful is it to have a group of really smart people brainstorm for a day? When Myhrvold started out, his expectations were modest. Although he wanted insights like Alexander Graham Bell's, Bell was clearly one in a million, a genius who went on to have ideas in an extraordinary number of areas-sound recording, flight, lasers, tetrahedral construction, and hydrofoil boats, to name a few. The telephone was his obsession. He approached it from a unique perspective, that of a speech therapist. He had put in years of preparation before that moment by the Grand River, and it was impossible to know what unconscious associations triggered his great insight. Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination. How can you put that in a bottle?

But then, in August of 2003, I.V. held its first invention session, and it was a revelation. "Afterward, Nathan kept saying, 'There are so many inventions,' " Wood recalled. "He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, 'But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren't you expecting a multiplier effect?' And he said, 'Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.' Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like."

The original expectation was that I.V. would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it's filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. "So Edward took his people out, plus me," Wood said. "And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, 'Do you mind if I record the evening?' And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner."

And the kinds of ideas the group came up with weren't trivial. Intellectual Ventures just had a patent issued on automatic, battery-powered glasses, with a tiny video camera that reads the image off the retina and adjusts the fluid-filled lenses accordingly, up to ten times a second. It just licensed off a cluster of its patents, for eighty million dollars. It has invented new kinds of techniques for making microchips and improving jet engines; it has proposed a way to custom-tailor the mesh "sleeve" that neurosurgeons can use to repair aneurysms.

My first thought is: Wow, innovation is available practically whenever we want it. You just have to decide you want to innovate, and then get the smart people together with a tape recorder, food, and an aggressive lawyer. (Actually, read the whole article -- there's plenty more to it, but close enough.)

My second thought is: Basketball could use some innovation.

If I could put ten really smart people together in a room, a few things I'd want to put on the agenda:

  • Fans want to be close to athletes, and athletes want to have some kind of meaningful but finite relationship with fans. What technologies and techniques would best facilitate successful relations between individual athletes and their multiple fans?

  • What can we to improve the business decisions that basketball players make? So few stick with their first agents, for instance, as they become disillusioned. Many have money troubles.

  • What are some of the most efficient ways for celebrity athletes to use their limited free time and resourves to make a difference for various good causes?

  • Can the NBA rule book be made simpler without hurting the game?

  • What kind of revenue sharing makes the most sense?

  • What would happen if we got rid of the NBA draft?

  • What would happen if we got rid of referees?

  • Is there a better way to finance stadiums?

I'm sure there a million others. Fire away in the comments. Then maybe we should actually hold this brainstorming session.