Enhance Productivity and Efficiency with Stephen’s Innovation Insights

Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Today we move to tip 5 from the book. People who know me, know I am a fan of open innovation and crowdsourcing – when it is done correctly. Today’s post shares why I am such a strong proponent…

Expertise can be the enemy of breakthrough thinking. The more you know about a particular topic, the more difficult it is for you to think about it in a different way. Your solutions will most likely be “been there, done that” ideas that are limited to your area of expertise. If you want breakthroughs, you need to bring together people from a wide range of disciplines, backgrounds, and experiences.

This idea was confirmed by research completed by Lee Fleming, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School. After analyzing 17,000 patents, he discovered that the breakthroughs that arise from multidisciplinary work “are frequently of unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.”

His research highlighted the pros and cons of each method. He learned that teams composed of people with similar backgrounds have a great number of successes, yet yield fewer breakthroughs. On the other hand, cross-disciplinary teams had a higher failure rate yet their innovations were more radical and had the potential to create incredible value.

Is there is a way to get all of the benefits associated with diversity without any of the negative effects?

Yes. It is called “open innovation.”

Open innovation is an innovation process where you engage people outside of your organization to help solve challenges. One common form of open innovation occurs when you post your challenges on a Web site and get responses from a diverse group of outside experts. Many organizations find that this is a useful tool for speeding up the innovation process because it taps into specializations that might not exist within your organization.

Back in 1989 the Exxon Valdez tanker crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska, dumping 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water. Although some of the oil was recovered, a large amount remained trapped under the ice. When teams tried to move the oil, the water/oil mixture froze.  Oil engineers worked on this challenge for twenty years without any viable solution until they discovered open innovation. They posted a well-formed challenge to the website of an intermediary, InnoCentive, a company which has a large network of experts from a wide range of disciplines who solve complex problems for a monetary prize.

A solution to the oil crisis was found very quickly.  Interestingly, the winning solution did not come from the oil industry. Instead, it came from someone in the construction industry who had a similar challenge with pouring wet cement; he needed to find a way of preventing it from hardening right away. This chemist developed a device that vibrates the molecules so that they flow continuously.  He figured that if vibrating could keep cement from hardening, then a similar concept could be adapted to keep the oil in the tanks from freezing.
Sometimes the best solutions come from outside your area of expertise and beyond the four walls of your organization. By the end, you might just find solutions to problems that have stumped the experts for years.

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I did a talk for NASA, and I made this point which illustrates it: If you are NASA and you have 100 aerospace engineers working on an aerospace engineering challenge, adding the 101st aerospace engineer may not help that much. But adding a physicist, a nanotechnologist, a chemist, a biologist, or even a musician may move your solutions in a completely new direction.

NOTE: These posts are summaries of each tip and represent less than 50% of the actual content

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