The Best Ideas Might Be Outside Your Industry

Even if you believe it makes sense to tap into your team and customers for innovative ideas, you might not be convinced to look further afield. After all, your team members work actively in the business every day, and customers already know a lot about your products and services. But you might think outsiders couldn’t possibly know anything useful that would help with your business innovation.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is this belief not true, it might be the exact opposite of the truth. Sometimes the best ideas come from outside your industry!

A team of Harvard researchers demonstrated this in a study of carpenters and their work practices (Look up the article “Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry”, published in the Harvard Business Review). Carpenters should protect their health and safety by wearing face masks while working, but many didn’t – because it was inconvenient, uncomfortable, or they just forgot. So the researchers recruited people from three different fields to suggest ideas to encourage carpenters to comply:

  • Carpenters themselves – who might have ideas for their colleagues
  • Roofing contractors – who work in a related field, so can draw on that experience
  • Inline skaters (rollerbladers) – a separate field with no real relationship to carpentry

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the roofing contractors did indeed have some novel and practical ideas for the carpenters. But you might be surprised to hear the most novel solutions came from the rollerbladers! Unconstrained by their assumptions about the other field, they suggested novel – and practical – ideas that made a difference.

And it wasn’t that rollerbladers as a group are any more creative than the others in the study. The researchers discovered the same effect in reverse – that is, carpenters had better ideas for rollerblading safety than the rollerbladers themselves. As the researchers said:

“When you’re working on a problem and you pool insights from analogous areas, you’re likely to get significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions, for two reasons: People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they’re not mentally constrained by existing, “known” solutions to the problem in the target field. The greater the distance between the problem and the analogous field, the greater the novelty of the solutions.”

With so much innovation happening in so many different fields, you have a rich and almost unlimited source of new ideas available to you. The best, most profitable, ideas for your business might already be in place – somewhere completely outside your field.

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