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To Innovate Better, Find Divergent Thinkers

"Often the best ideas come from “analogous fields."

Here’s an experiment that speaks volumes about why you should tap innovative ideas from outside your area of expertise: When researchers asked carpenters, roofers, and in-line skaters how to improve safety gear for all three activities, each group turned out to be significantly better at thinking of novel solutions for the fields other than its own. In fact, the greater the conceptual distance from the problem, the more novel the solutions. For example, skaters were better than roofers at coming up with ideas for improving the comfort and convenience of carpenters’ safety gear.

Studies demonstrating the value of accessing expertise from “analogous fields”— areas that seem different on the surface but are similar on a deep structural level—are helping companies find new ways to come up with breakthrough ideas. This method, which, like crowdsourcing, falls within the broad discipline of distributed problem solving, helped an escalator company figure out how to install its products in the upper stories of buildings, a warehouse-management software firm improve its parts tracking, and a food service supplier create a better chicken fryer.

The research not only provides a solid rationale for why you should venture into distant fields, but also shows how. That’s critical, because without a system for finding far-flung experts, managers who want to tap analogous fields are usually stuck talking to people close to home—their own companies’ R&D, marketing, and design specialists, or their customers and suppliers.

Marion Poetz, of Copenhagen Business School—one of the researchers behind the carpenters-roofers-skaters study—has investigated ways to search for analogous fields. She and Reinhard Prügl, of Germany’s Zeppelin University, have demonstrated the value of “pyramid searches,” an idea pioneered by MIT’s Eric von Hippel and others. To conduct a pyramid search, begin by identifying people who are well-informed about the topic you’re interested in and asking them who in their field has even more expertise than they do—in other words, who is at the top of the subject-area “pyramid.” Often those at the peak are the kinds of highly curious, knowledgeable people who can refer you to experts in analogous fields. Then work your way to the top of the next knowledge pyramid and so on, ultimately assembling a panel of insightful people from diverse fields.

Poetz and colleagues used the pyramid method to find analogous expertise for a fork- lift maker that needed a better way to mount and unmount forklifts from trucks. They brainstormed starting points, identifying a logistics-firm owner who was a heavy user of truck-mounted forklifts. That led them to a maker of machinery-mounting systems for farm tractors and eventually to someone in the entertainment-events industry with extensive experience quickly mounting stage equipment at concert venues. It turned out that the concert expert’s insights were directly applicable to the forklift problem and provided an innovative solution.

There are other ways to search for analogous expertise, such as conducting a “broadcast search” (putting a problem out there and hoping to attract potential solvers), but Poetz and Prügl have found that pyramid searches have an important advantage: You are constantly learning as you go. You can adapt, refine, and even replace your original question as you get feedback from experts in new areas of knowledge.

The Wright Brothers Institute, in Dayton, Ohio, takes a similar approach when seeking participants for its Divergent Collaboration initiatives. These are workshops designed to solve clients’ innovation problems, and they operate on the theory that the best ideas are obtained by connecting people from a wide range of backgrounds. Finding the right people is a challenge: Participants need to be knowledgeable about subject areas that are different from yet relevant to the matter at hand. “We break the problem down functionally to understand the essence of the challenge and then determine which occupations deal with similar functional issues,” says Bart Barthelemy, the director of the institute’s IDEA Lab.

Here’s an example from a recent two-day workshop, which an HBR editor observed. The client—someone in a branch of the U.S. military—was interested in finding ways to pluck crucial data points from a stream of confusing information. The participants included a police detective, a fire chief, a stockbroker, a novelist, an air-crash investigator, a historian, and a major-league base- ball scout, all of whom described how they gather information and separate important data from noise. The flow of ideas from left field—literally, in the case of the baseball scout—was impressive. The experiences of Poetz and her col- leagues and the Wright Brothers Institute suggest several guidelines for seeking and using insights from diverse experts:

Articulate the essence. Before beginning a search, clear away the nonessential details so that you can clearly see the deep structural elements of the problem. Then figure out how to describe the problem in such a way that people in distant subject areas can understand it. For example, a traffic flow issue might be boiled down to the need to “coordinate a smooth flow of elements in a complex system”—something physicians and circulatory-system researchers might have in- sights into. And be clear about your goals: Are you seeking radical solutions, or is the emphasis on practicality? If the latter, use the knowledge you gain primarily as a starting point for the further development of ideas.

Look for creatives. Search for thinkers who display a high degree of creativity or whose leading-edge needs drive them to solve similar problems in their own subject areas. A novelist who participated in the Divergent Collaboration workshop provided trenchant insights about how he interprets clues to people’s motives and thinking.

Love the fuzzy. A key element of the Divergent Collaboration method is that the participants often don’t know until the very end who the client is or even exactly what the problem is. Barthelemy explains that this helps them thoroughly explore the “fuzzy front end” of the problem. He wants them to be unconstrained in offering their perspectives; it’s up to the client to turn their insights into solutions.

Foster interaction. As you might expect, analogous-field solutions are sometimes less immediately useful than ones derived directly from the target market. So it can help if at some point during the process, you have analogous-field thinkers interact with problem solvers from the target market to familiarize themselves with the problem. You’ll still get radical innovation, but the ideas will be tempered by the experts’ knowledge of the specifics of the problem.

Seek high-stakes fields. Aim for fields that are more advanced than your own—more technologically sophisticated or with higher stakes. They are likelier than other fields to offer a rich array of well-tested ideas. A safety- gear manufacturer might solicit ideas from doctors who treat patients with brittle-bone disease, for example.

If you venture into analogous fields, expect to find the unexpected—and to adjust some of your preconceived notions.

*ABOUT THE RESEARCH “Integrating Problem Solvers from Analogous Markets in New Product Ideation,” by Nikolaus Franke, Marion K. Poetz, and Martin Schreier

*Disclaimer from Lucid360: This articles is shared for informational purposes only. We do not take any credit for its creation.

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