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Column: Why different viewpoints lead us to the best solutions

For many, innovation calls to mind images of mad scientists and genius engineers. The hyperspecialization they represent is, however, only part of the story. In fact, nurturing a broad range of perspectives is just as critical for progress as monolithic domain expertise.

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Bringing different points of view to the table turbocharges problem solving, as the results of science and innovation competitions attest. In these contests, organizations offer prizes to those who offer the best solution to an engineering or scientific problem. In a 2010 study of 166 science competitions, researchers Lars Bo Jeppesen and Karim R. Lakhani found that submissions were more likely to win when offered either by a woman or someone coming from a field different than the one at hand — yet another reason for business to embrace gender equality.

The success of these two overlapping groups suggested that a diversity of perspectives can generate better solutions, particularly if social or technical outsiders are included. (The authors consider women outsiders in this context because they are subject to “systematic social exclusion…in the natural sciences.”) Less constrained by the baggage of conventional thought within a domain, outsiders can offer novel ideas and independent assessments. Distance from an issue, it seems, is an asset, not a liability.

In the 18th century, the British government offered a large prize to anyone who could invent a technique for measuring longitude while at sea. Jeppesen and Lakhani point out that “Sir Isaac Newton, the principal scientific advisor on the Longitude Board, had boldly asserted that only astronomical solutions were possible and were anyway to be preferred.” But the winning answer came from a clockmaker, not an astronomer — a testament to how difficult it is to predict where progress will come from in advance.

We have seen a proliferation of innovation competitions supplying a wealth of similar stories. For instance, a marine scientist was able to fix a health shake company’s problem with the coloring of its product thanks to his experience working with seawater. In another example, a chemist with no experience in the petroleum industry proposed a novel solution to an oil spill cleanup. The answer came to him by serendipity, informed by his experience working a summer job in construction. As a research program manager from the Oil Spill Research Institute put it, “Within the oil-spill response industry, there are a limited number of people to work on these problems… I’m fascinated to see that our winning solution uses related technology found in the cement industry. We would never have found this through our regular process.”

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Outsiders solve problems by applying their unique points of view in unpredictable ways. And it’s not just disparate experts that can add value in this manner. Users are another vital source of independent perspective. In a 2012 study, the scholars Marion K. Poetz and Martin Schreier examined an Austrian company’s attempt to gather product ideas both from in-house experts and users. Judging the contributions blindly, the company’s executives found the users’ ideas to be both more novel and more beneficial to consumers than that of the professionals.

The creativity of amateurs is not particularly surprising: There are countless examples of innovations we take for granted coming from users. For instance, according to MIT Sloan’s Eric Von Hippel and two co-authors, “The skateboard was developed and built by children for their own use. They did it by taking apart a kind of roller skate that attached to shoes and hammering the skate wheels onto boards (thus, ‘skateboard’).” Or take Twitter, where users first adopted retweets, hashtags and @-replies as conventions before they were built into the architecture of the social network.

While having a wide range of viewpoints on a team is critical, it’s also extremely useful to have a breadth of perspective within each team member. Another competition study found that participants with experience in a range of domains were more likely to make substantial contributions. They were also more likely to help moderate discussion and provide feedback to their peers. As the authors put it, “Apparently, a broad stock of knowledge…helps participants understand the solutions provided by others, and so enables individuals to combine previous suggestions in a meaningful way.”

Breadth of communities complements a broad base of knowledge. Social scientists studying a music technology forum found that “people who spanned communities were confronted by other means of solving problems that spurred their ability to innovate and provoked the community members to think differently.” From their knowledge base to their social ties, individuals’ breadth can be just as important as breadth across a team.

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Recruiters of all stripes should keep this in mind when trying to find the elusive “perfect” match for an open position. Why not consider a less obvious candidate for a tough-to-fill position?  He or she might offer fresh perspectives, independent thinking and much-needed freedom from prevailing logic.

Because many innovations arise from combining distinct perspectives in unexpected ways, we should seek out those with viewpoints different from our own. Bottom line: In a world that prizes hyperspecialization above all else, the power of breadth can differentiate you from the crowd.

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