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Thinking Outside the Sphere

Friday, June 1, 2012 - 12:27

Having trouble solving a problem at work? You're not alone - and plenty of people are turning to unexpected sources for answers, writes Amy Birchall

'If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." When Sir Isaac Newton wrote these words in 1676 he was not just referring to physicists. In the past few years respect for the "renaissance man" appears to have waned.

But searching for solutions outside of your professional sphere can yield surprising results. Recently, a scientific journal article about freezing sperm helped to solve one of the biggest challenges faced by Massachusetts-based ceramic composites firm CPS.

The company, regarded as one of the most innovative in its field, was struggling to find a solution to prevent ice crystals forming in ceramic slurries (a liquid mixture that later hardens like concrete) and weakening the final product.

A CPS engineer stumbled across the solution after reading a paper about artificial insemination.

He discovered biologists routinely faced a similar problem, but had figured out how to resolve it. CPS contacted the biologists and incorporated the procedure into its manufacturing process.

Research by leading University of Chicago academic Ron Burt also suggests people with a broad network of contacts outside of their own organisation consistently generate more highly valued ideas.

In Jeff Dyer's The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Burt says "people with connections across structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations, which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing and developing good ideas."

Bridge the knowing-doing gap

Harvard Business School (HBS) Dean Nitin Nohria says managers at the start of their careers often struggle to apply management theories in real-life situations. He argues their bosses could benefit from learning from senior people in the medical profession.

"I keep in mind how well the medical profession supervises its trainees, giving them enough autonomy to learn while minimising the chance they might harm patients," Nohria says.

"The clinical experience gained by fledgling doctors is an ideal example of how professional schools address the 'knowing-doing' gap [the gap between knowing about a topic and being able to put that knowledge into practice].

"Business students can only imagine how they'd tackle a managerial problem, whereas medical residents are facing real-life health concerns."

Under Nohria's guidance, HBS this year introduced a compulsory course for all first-year MBA students in which they are sent overseas to develop a business project - an attempt to bridge the knowing-doing gap in a similar way to the medical profession.

If you're sceptical about what you can learn from people outside of your professional sphere, a quick look at the Business and Management section of your local bookstore may change your mind.

Shelf space is increasingly occupied by management how-to guides authored by former drug dealers (Wayne Perry's The Working Class Entrepreneur), ex mafia bosses (Louis Ferrante's Mob Rules: What the Mafia Can Teach the Legitimate Businessman) and con artists (Frank W. Abagnale's The Art of the Steal). One of the top management books is arguably the Michael Lewis-authored Moneyball, released in 2003, which showed how a new approach could drastically change a national pastime.

This is not to suggest managers have to follow sports or should resort to criminal tactics. But making contacts outside of your industry can create new opportunities, solve business problems and foster innovation.

New perspectives, new ideas

Business etiquette and mentoring specialist at Next Business Leaders, Lady Danielle Di-Masi says people are often hesitant to learn from people in other fields. But she says the benefits outweigh the risks.

"Lots of people think taking advice from someone in a different field isn't the best way forward. They can freak out," she says.

"It's actually the perfect way to make sure you don't become too dependent on a mentor.

"Taking advice from someone in another industry means you avoid a situation where they say, 'I've done this before, so you'll need to do A, B and C to succeed'. They're able to offer more general pointers."

Another tip is to subscribe to a journal or magazine outside of your area of expertise to stay on top of developments that might be relevant to your industry.

Learn from others' mistakes

Smart businesses and individuals also learn from what other industries or businesses are doing wrong. Manufacturers worldwide are scrambling to alter their operations in light of Toyota and Nissan's difficulties with supply chains and risk management after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

These car companies have been forced to re-evaluate their strategies in the hope they will cope better with natural disasters in the future.

As a result, processes are more efficient, cost-effective and more likely to withstand freak events. It is probable these changes will be adopted by other global manufacturers in the coming months, regardless of what items they produce.

Making connections

There are plenty of ways to identify and get in touch with people outside of your professional sphere. Di-Masi recommends using LinkedIn and other social media sites as a starting point.

"LinkedIn is great for finding people outside of your industry. It's easy to search for people within other professional areas, and you're able to connect straight away," she says.

Since networking from your desk can only take you so far, Di-Masi also suggests attending various networking events and considering mentoring programs.

"Many mentoring programs partner you up with someone in another industry, so it's a great opportunity to learn."