Innovation Springs from the Unexpected Meeting of Minds16 March, 2016 / Articles
Looking for the next breakthrough? Be willing to cross over.
Crossovers are what happen when an invention, idea, or body of knowledge in one field jumps into another — and the result is a quantum leap of progress. Sometimes the people and the pieces we need to put together to get the job done come from the unlikeliest of places:
- The space suits worn by the Apollo astronauts were made not by aerospace contractor Hamilton Standard, as NASA originally intended, but by the seamstresses at ILC Dover, better known as Playtex. It turned out that knowing about couture, the art of constructing garments perfectly fitted to the body, was more important to helping humans survive the vacuum of space than the aerospace engineers initially understood.
- The first pacemaker was conceived not in a lab but at a chance meeting in a Cornell dining hall between two visiting cardiologists and an electrical engineering student. GPS was created over a long lunch at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
- Recent developments in medicine have come from computer games. In just three weeks, the players of Foldit, which simulates protein folding, deciphered a part of the molecular structure of HIV/AIDS that had eluded medical researchers for over a decade.
- By bringing the rhythms and attitude of hip-hop to a historical biography of Alexander Hamilton, composer, lyricist, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda created a “crossover” moment in the form of Hamilton, the hit musical that won the 2016 Grammy award for Best Musical Theater Album.
The lesson: if you’re not making room for the unexpected meeting of minds, you could be missing out on the next big breakthrough. Visionary leaders understand this. They set up the creative, collaborative environments that foster crossovers and the innovations that come from them. Research has validated this approach. A study by Martin Ruef, a professor at Duke University, found that horizontal networks of individuals with a diversity of expertise were three times more likely to innovate than uniform vertical networks.
At GE, we are trying to do more with horizontal structures, encouraging people to identify new patterns, mix up parts, and mash up partners in a holistic way. We even named it: the “GE Store.” It is our way of bringing together inventions from all our businesses in one place. When our customers and employees go to the “Store,” they can do their own mixing and matching to fashion whatever specific solutions they need. For example, medical ultrasound technology helps remotely monitor oil pipelines for leaks and jet engine parts for fatigue. And R&D scientists who invented a new method to 3D print high-heat materials were inspired by processes they observed in handcrafted jewelry. (I was so inspired, I asked them to print me a pair of titanium earrings in a shape that can’t be handcrafted.)
I’ve spent a lot of time in my career “connecting the dots,” seeing connections between seemingly unlike things, learning from people with experiences very different from my own, and putting together elements in unexpected ways to make something new.
Here’s an exercise for you: Challenge yourself. Next time you’re in the airport newsstand, pick up an obscure magazine and connect a new idea or theme to something you know. It’s what our brand team did recently when they were inspired by great BBQ recipes to launch a series about how brain waves change when you eat BBQ. They even developed the algorithm (i.e., formula) for a really good BBQ recipe.
The takeaway from all this? Abandon hierarchies where everybody conforms, and embrace more horizontal, collaborative networks where people are free to come together as chance and need dictate. And make sure to add a few people with unusual experience into the mix. The result isn’t just quicker innovation, but a workplace where people will learn more and have a lot more fun.