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Innovating at the Intersection of Ideas
It is a timeless question: how can I get my organization to produce more innovative ideas? While the first idea is rarely right, all things being equal, you would like to start in as strong a place as possible. Fortunately, following one simple piece of advice pays significant dividends: encourage intersections.
As discussed during the Innovation Summit, it's no surprise that Boeing's collaboration with a host of outside suppliers resulted in a highly innovative design for its 787 Dreamliner. It is just one example of the power of networked collaboration.
Any study of where great ideas come from inevitably involves intersections - where people with different backgrounds and different mindsets collide. Frans Johannsen memorably described this phenomenon in his book The Medici Effect, named after the 15th century Italian banking family that encouraged disciplines to interact in new ways, helping to usher in the Renaissance.
Similarly, consider research by British economist John Jewkes in the 1950s. Jewkes found that at least 46 of the 58 major inventions that had occurred to date in the 20th century occurred in the "wrong place"--in very small firms, by individuals, by people in "outgroups" in large companies, or in large companies in the wrong industry. For example, a Swiss watchmaker discovered the process for the continuous casting of steel.
One company that famously lives at the intersections is Apple. Co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs was fond of describing how his company marries technology and liberal arts. Jobs himself famously cross-pollinated ideas. For example, a calligraphy class at Reed College helped to inform the typography included in the original Macintosh computer.
There are three simple ways that organizations can encourage intersections. The first is to bring together different groups inside the company. This might involve functions that don't interact frequently, unusual business unit combinations, or bringing in perspectives from far-flung geographies. Modern collaboration tools can enable these kinds of intersections to happen at scale. For example, close to 50,000 Citigroup employees participated in a recent contest designed to identify innovative banking ideas.
A second approach is to interact with non-competitive companies. For example, a leading Singaporean company recently held its Board meeting in Silicon Valley. Even though the company has no U.S. operations, the meeting allowed leadership to visit dozens of startups working on technologies that could impact the industry. The first-hand exposure to the innovation energy in the Valley helped the team begin to re-frame the way that it thought about its own business.
Finally, consider involving customers or other outsiders in innovation activities. Eric von Hippel's research conclusively shows that in many industries customers innovate at a faster pace than companies. Consider all the post-sales modifications avid bikers do to their frames, or even recipes developed by inventive chefs. Procter & Gamble's well detailed Connect + Develop program has helped the company tap into the world's innovation energy, powering new ideas and substantial growth.
So, if you are looking for your next big idea, get to the intersections and stand ready for fresh insight.
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