One of the things I often hear from people I meet is "Stan, you do know a lot of useless information!" It’s true, I do have an interest in just about everything and anything I encounter in life, and be it how Elon Musk plans to go to Mars or how buttons are manufactured, I find it all fascinating. I have never seen this as a bad thing and now I am going to explain how this helps me to be a better innovator.
We live in a world of specialisation. We all play a part in keeping society running and interact with other specialists in virtually everything we do. Our local domain knowledge is usually very strong but our understanding of what other specialists do, well, isn’t quite as good. Of course there are many specialisations we never interact with and are completely in the dark about. I had no knowledge on how to fish for Alaskan king crab for example, but I learned a little bit by watching quite a few episodes of the TV show Deadliest Catch. There are thousands upon thousands of deep specialisations we know nothing about. Each one of these has developed very effective ways of addressing their own problems and maybe some of those solutions are transferable.
When we are trying to find great solutions we are often encouraged to think ‘outside the box’. We are told to ignore the constraints and the limitations of our current way of thinking and spread our minds further. But what is ‘the box’? It’s our current thinking and there is a key word there and that ‘our’. The captain of that Alaskan king crab fishing boat has quite a different ‘box’ than I do. Being asked to think outside the box is pretty hard because we are moving into uncharted territory and it’s all a bit confusing. So why not just look into other people’s boxes? Their box is filled with some great ways of solving their problems which will often be quite alien to our way of thinking and thus, a fantastic opportunity to see something different we could use to solve our problems.
IDEO uses this mechanism with their Mash-Up ideation method where they randomly match unrelated problems and industries to see if anything in their ‘box’ could expose a better way of working. It’s also a pretty fun way to look for new ideas. They also have ‘tech boxes’ full of a collection of diverse gadgets and products that are intended to inspire innovators to take ideas that have solved one problem and see if they could be used to assist in today's challenge. The Innovator’s DNA by Dyer by Gregersen and Christensen, highlights the benefits of attending TED conferences. There, a massive variety of subjects are discussed which could allow a specialist to see something of value in other people’s areas of expertise. They also suggest attending at least one conference a year on something quite outside your own industry to broaden your vision. Most of us know how the design of the Apple Mac was significantly influenced by Steve Job’s visit to the Xerox Palo Alto labs where he first saw icons, drop down menus and windows, but did you also know he credited a course he did at college on calligraphy as a significant contributor to the design?
So looking into other industries and seeing how they solve their problems can have real merit. It’s certainly the main reason I watch ‘How it’s Made’ or maybe ‘Megastructures’ and it has nothing to do with how amazingly interesting it is. Watch some TED talks on YouTube, talk to people from different industries about their problems and how they solve them, maybe even attend that unrelated conference once in a while.
It’s all about becoming T-shaped. T-shaped people have a broad understanding of many things, and expert knowledge in one or more disciplines. This helps thinking to cross many boundaries resulting in more ideas. It’s something that’s mentioned positively by many influential groups such as McKinsey and IDEO and is a great asset in Agile teams. Looking up from the detail once in a while will help broaden the horizons.
So if you want to innovate better, diversify your thinking and maybe even try to get into the mind of Andy Hillstrand, captain of the king crab fishing boat Time Bandit. You are not guaranteed to have a thinking breakthrough, but I do promise you that the world inside other peoples ‘boxes’ is a truly fascinating place.