Saturday, March 24, 2012

Creative gifts from unlikely places

I LOVE the story below.  I have always believed that creative solutions to problems often come from the most unlikely sources.  People with little or no experience in a particular area can often see innovative ways to solve problems.  And of course, the first response from the person with the problem is “Oh don’t be silly – that would never work”. 
But it often does.  And I know I have conversations with people in other fields where I mention a problem that is puzzling me about a mosaic work in progress, and they often make suggestions that are helpful, but I would never have thought up on my own.  I hate to admit it – I’m always a little surprised, but I try to treat it as the gift that it is.
I have quoted from Justine Musk’s blog before – if you find this interesting be sure to subscribe to her blog.  Wonderful epiphanies all over the place there.
[In] Jonah Lehrer’s new book IMAGINE: How Creativity Works…the outsider perspective might sometimes be the superior perspective.
Lerner refers to a man named Alpheus Bingham, a vice president at Eli Lilly (one of the biggest drug companies on the globe). He was in charge of research strategy, managing countless scientists working on countless technical problems, and he was increasingly concerned.
For all the money the company was throwing at these problems, hoping and expecting to come up with the next Prozac, they were getting crappy results.
“And that’s when I started to wonder if all these supposedly impossible technical issues were really impossible. Maybe we just had the wrong people working on them?….I always assumed that you hire the best resume and give the problem to the guy with the most technical experience. But maybe that was a big mistake?”
What Bingham did next was pretty radical.
Although companies like Lilly believed in deep secrecy – guarding against the possibility that competitors might steal their ideas – Bingham decided (and I am paraphrasing here): Fuck it.
He launched a website called Innocentive. He took the company’s hardest scientific problems and threw them out to the public. He posted them on the site and offered a financial reward to anyone who came up with a solution.
He didn’t expect many of them to get solved.
He was wrong.
“The answers just started pouring in,” he says. “We got these great ideas from researchers we’d never heard of, pursuing angles that had never occurred to us. The creativity was simply astonishing.”
The secret to this success, says Lerner, is outsider thinking.
The people deep inside a domain – the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem – suffered from a kind of intellectual handicap. They were working with the same sets of ideas within the same categories and boundaries. They were living in the same intellectual grooves. As a result, the impossible problems stayed impossible.
The actual solutions to these problems came from people who were working at the very edges of their fields.
Chemists were solving molecular biology problems; molecular biologists were solving chemistry problems.
When solvers “rated the problem as outside their own domain”, they were more likely to stumble upon solutions. They were “bridging knowledge fields” – taking ideas from one domain and introducing them into a different domain.
They reframed problems, combined and recombined ideas, and opened up new lines of thinking.

I want to make one little caveat here – I’m not suggesting that unqualified people be hired for jobs they can’t possibly even understand the scope of.  But some of those unqualified people might have an idea that can break a roadblock.
Next time you are struggling with an art project that has gone awry – go ask a mechanic how he would solve the problem.  Or a dentist.  Or the lunch lady.  You might be amazed.

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