A few years ago, Kaggle, an online community of data scientists, posted a problem that was sponsored by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society. These agencies needed a new mathematical algorithm capable of parsing the distortions caused by dark matter in the photographic images of galaxies.
Just ten days after this problem was posted, Martin O’Leary, a Cambridge University Ph.D. student who had zero background in astronomy or space science, submitted an algorithm that turned out to be considerably more predictive than what was already in use. O’Leary was studying to be a glaciologist, and his formula was based on techniques developed to map glaciers from satellite images.
Shortly after O’Leary’s posting a graduate student in computer vision, again with absolutely no astronomical background, posted a different algorithm that boosted accuracy even more. And almost simultaneously after this a mostly non-astronomical university team from Australia and Qatar improved on the algorithm again.
As the Kaggle website says, this process was “illustrative of why competitions are successful: They encourage people who would normally focus on specific problems in one field to apply their techniques to analogous problems in new fields.”
Competitions like this take advantage of what is probably the single most important ingredient of creativity – the “secret sauce” that powers nearly all innovation: diverse perspectives. Whenever you have a creative idea yourself, it’s almost always the result of combining multiple perspectives in your own mind. Something that makes sense in one area is applied or tweaked until it makes sense in another area, as well.
A great deal of individual creativity is fueled through social connections, because the more diverse your connections with other people are, the more likely you are to encounter those “Eureka!” moments. People who are connected to diverse groups of others often seem to be teeming with creative new ideas, in fact. But, as Clay Shirky put it in his book Here Comes Everybody,
This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability. It is creativity as an import-export business.
Exactly. Creativity is an exercise in the import and export of perspectives, from one venue or domain to another. Over and over.
Indeed, the fact that computer technology connects us all so much more efficiently today means that we have much more latent creativity to be harnessed. We can combine and compare our different individual points of view and frames of reference more efficiently than ever. And this, of course, fuels the accelerating pace of technological change, which means that creativity and innovation become even more crucial.
So if your company needs to break out of its old ways of thinking, if you simply your people to be more creative and innovative, the fastest route to this result is to set up situations where employees can tap the combined creative powers of other employees, customers, and people.
You need to create a culture of innovation that thrives on dissent, contrary points of view, connections made with diverse perspectives, and respectful disagreement. Employees must trust each other to the extent they feel free to disagree, but they do so respectfully. It’s the only way to ensure that the pace of innovation at your firm keeps you ahead of the pack, supplying your company with more useful innovations, faster, than your R&D department would be able to manage by itself.
It won’t be easy, but the alternative is obsolescence, which these days will sneak up on you faster than you can text “OMG.”