Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

We all probably have recollections of this kind of movie snippets: a dark saloon or tavern filled with smoke and locals. Doors open, enter the stranger. The silence and tension that follows can be cut with a knife… everybody is reaching for their gun… In contrast, in his book The Medici Effect, Johansson describes the convivial atmosphere in a tavern at the intersection of waterways bringing travelers from all over the world. They all share a common thing, they are all “strangers” eager to learn from the others’ and reveal their own diverse knowledge about new ways of doing things in distant lands. This reciprocal mental stimulation works as a great idea exchange. New ideas are afterward disseminated for implementation in faraway places.  What is different in the two settings and how do these examples relate to innovation?  

While there is a lot of current agreement that large, diverse groups are innovative, I did not find much said about the “stranger in a strange land” situation in relation to innovation. Maybe less striking, but equally disengaging can be an attempt to venture into unfamiliar intellectual territory, an area outside the boundaries for which one can offer widely accepted educational or professional credentials. This is especially hard when the person is a “lone stranger” facing a homogenous congregation, which shares an unlike professional past, or even just a different way of thinking. For instance, a previously well-recognized and respected expert can expect to receive mockery or total dismissal when offering an opinion in a gathering of specialists trained in a different discipline. Some of these “strangers” may be enthusiastic but inexperienced, yet others might be already recognized specialists in another field or corporation making a dramatic mid or late career change to join a long-established group. Their fresh perspectives are likely to be greeted with similar unwelcoming receptions. No wonder many people prefer to avoid stepping out of their comfort zone and they refrain from offering fresh perspectives.

What do we, the “natives”, stand to lose by not welcoming inputs from neophytes, is there a benefit to listening to someone who “does not have a clue”? Many!!! People who had different training and different experiences did not have a chance to learn about the “accepted” rules, hence they do not have preconceived ideas of what’s “right” or why “this would never work”. These people stun the domain experts by asking the question which we should all ask all the time: “Why not?!?”  Personally I like to call these people “fearless” and feel they deserve the kind of respect pioneers get.

My high opinion has been forged during the many years in which I have had the good fortune to work with bright people who were novices and/or came from very different backgrounds. Particularly fascinating for me was working with young engineers when tackling life science/medical problems (see article). These were obviously smart, well-educated people, but many could not even remember if they actually took biology back during high school, much like the saying: “engineers speak Greek, doctors speak Latin”. Yet, when presented with the request to solve a life science or medical problem, engineers turned in the most innovative solutions by applying their own style of thinking and tools (e.g., models and calculations using… yes, Greek symbols!), and by interjecting into the solution their previous, supposedly unrelated, knowledge. Efforts to engage engineers in medical innovation have been springing up everywhere, one I recently witnessed was The Ohio State Innaugural Engineering and Medicine Translational Symposium.

I decided it may be fitting to call someone an “alter-specialist”, as in the other specialist, while s/he engages in solving a problem normally considered outside her/his area of training/expertise. The alter-specialist did not have the chance to chose sides in following a camp of thought or another in the area of the problem (as the great majority of specialists trained in that field), thus can maintain an objective attitude toward facts found to relate to the problem’s subject matter. Furthermore, the alter-specialist has the capacity to access knowledge and processes that would not be applied to the problem at hand by the domain specialist. As soon as I had reassured them that it was not only completely safe, but actually preferable for them to do so, my young engineer collaborators would challenge my assumptions everyday. I also discovered it was important to immediately preface my interactions with the firm statement that there was “no such thing as a stupid question”, i.e., if a question can be formulated, then it just cannot be stupid ( as in “cogito, ergo sum”!).

The environment offered to the alter-specialist(s) is an essential feature enabling innovative problem solving. From problem formulation, to being able to guide the alter-specialists without imposing preconceived rules and ideas, with a constant attention to the mind-openness allowing to entertain what a domain expert could easily consider outlandish suggestions.

Importantly, I found many evidences that the apparently amazing success of the alter-specialist in providing innovative solutions is a reproducible event. For instance, I was pleased to read the data emerging from analyzing the success stories of the Innocentive platform.  Dr. Lakhani, who conducted the study, was cited by the New York Times to say that: “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”  A fine example of constructive interference! One could conclude that the alter-specialists were able to solve these though problems by using alternative approaches, naturally sheltered from the potential scrutiny of the domain specialist while working solo until the solution was crafted. More and more web based platforms seek to harness the power of “crowd-sourcing” for innovative problem solving and design.

Clearly, breakthrough innovation is generated by “strangers” willing to dive into solving somebody else’s problems. This, of course challenges the status quo in many ways, including how we normally accept input or recognize potential capabilities, the widely spread practice of recruiting people based on narrowly defined and accepted credentials, and is in turn calling for the innovation of such cookie-cutter worn-out processes.

Please DO interfere!

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