This post originally appeared on Forbes.com
Our imaginations are limited by our experience, our routine and our habitual ways of working, thinking and dreaming. This isn’t intended to be dispiriting news. But it is weighty news worth serious consideration. Because the ability to think beyond one’s know-how, to make new connections, to imagine untried ideas and newfound solutions, this is the stuff innovation and progress are made of.
So the question is: To what extent is your team constrained, even blinded, by routine? And more importantly, how do you rattle the cage of sameness and inspire fresh thinking and new solutions?
Consider Yulan Wang. In 1988, Wang had just graduated with a doctorate in electrical engineering with an expertise in computer-aided robotics. Perhaps he’d go to work in Detroit, integrating robotics into manufacturing lines. Or he’d find opportunities with the military, designing applications for minesweepers, bomb defusing units or surveillance robots. But with growth slowing down in the big military and industrial sectors in the early ’90s, Wang was forced to cast his net a bit wider, and began reaching out to doctors in the medical community.
One of those interviews led him to surgeon Jim Lattimer and a conversation that would change the trajectory of both their careers. Lattimer was discouraged with the limitations of endoscopic surgery at the time — the fact that a tiny laparoscopic camera inserted in an incision was handheld by a surgical assistant, and then moved manually according to the surgeon’s commands. Working at such microscopic scale, even minor tremors of an assistant’s hands were seismic and disruptive.
Latimer underscored, “If I could have direct control of the camera, that would be very helpful for me.” And there it was: The “aha” moment, wherein Wang’s imagination opened beyond his habitual ways of thinking and the concept of AESOP, the world’s first surgical robot, was born.
Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and a leading researcher on creativity and innovation, talks about this encounter.
“Lattimer couldn’t have thought of the idea by himself because he was unfamiliar with robotics technology. Wang couldn’t have thought of it either because he knew little about surgery. Together in conversation, they devised a way of improving health care for thousands of patients.”
Is innovation and problem-solving really as simple as having conversations with people outside your inner circle who know little to nothing about your particular work discipline? Yes, resoundingly. Because those people will help you make new connections and consider new possibilities you could have never realized on your own. And the farther they are from being familiar with your particular line of work, the better.
Harvard professor Karim Lakhani studies problem-solving effectiveness. In a paper on InnoCentive — an open innovation company that commissions anyone anywhere to solve problems for businesses — Lakhani explains, “We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise. The farther the problem was from their specialized knowledge, the more likely it was to be solved.”
So if you find your people are beholden to their habitual ways of working and thinking; if you want to make the next evolutionary improvement in a process, project or service, don’t just encourage your people to think outside the box, more importantly, encourage them to talk outside the box. Do so with people in other departments, colleagues at other companies, mentors, educators, friends and so on.
Create a work environment where your people can get ideas beyond the limits of routine and, in so doing, bring to you the kind of intelligence that can help your team improve and grow.
All it takes is conversations with people you and your team would normally never talk to.
David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on Twitter @david_sturt or visit www.greatwork.com.