Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry11 December, 2014 / Articles
It’s a strange thought, but the solution to your business’s innovation problem may be walking around in the head of someone who applies theatrical makeup for a living.
Or plays robot soccer. Or installs heavy machinery in mines. Or does something else that’s apparently unrelated to the problem you’ve been struggling with.
Over the course of years of studying innovation, we’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level. Such as makeup and surgical infections, surprisingly. Or inventory management and robot games. Or malls and mines.
Bringing in ideas from analogous fields turns out to be a potential source of radical innovation. When you’re working on a problem and you pool insights from analogous areas, you’re likely to get significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions, for two reasons: People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they’re not mentally constrained by existing, “known” solutions to the problem in the target field. The greater the distance between the problem and the analogous field, the greater the novelty of the solutions.
This is a finding that applies across a variety of contexts, and we’ve found that it has wide applicability in businesses.
To get a sense of the value of accessing and implementing knowledge from analogous fields, consider our recent study in which we recruited hundreds of roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters to contribute their insights to the problem of workers’ reluctance to use safety gear because of discomfort. We won’t go into the details about how we found all these people — suffice it to say that we now know a lot about the roofing and carpentry trades and about inline-skating clubs and competitions.
We conducted standardized interviews with the participants, presenting the problem of lack of safety-gear compliance as it pertains to each of the fields (essentially we asked how roofers’ safety belts, carpenters’ respirator masks, and skaters’ knee pads could be redesigned to increase their comfort and use). We gave the participants a few minutes to suggest solutions, collected the responses, then had a panel of experts evaluate the suggestions on novelty and usefulness.
Each group was significantly better at thinking of novel solutions for the other fields than for its own.