Where Innovative Business Leaders Look For Creative Ideas


In his new book about Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson compares his subject to another artist he once wrote about: Steve Jobs. Although the two men lived hundreds of years apart and found their success in different categories of work, both men had discovered the secret to creativity. Leonardo and Steve Jobs connected ideas from different fields to arrive at novel ideas. It’s a lesson all business leaders should learn if they want to move their companies forward.

Walter Isaacson writes that at the time Leonardo da Vinci lived in Florence, Italy, the “Mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled.” Isaacson says the blend of creative minds allowed people to combine ideas from “disparate disciplines.” The result was a stunning tide of innovation coming out of a small region.

“Creativity is connecting things,” Jobs once said. Nearly every major innovation that Steve Jobs developed at Apple came after studying other fields. Jobs spent a lifetime exploring new and unrelated things and seeking out diverse experiences. Jobs hired people from outside the computing profession; studied the art of calligraphy in college (a study that found its way into the first Macintosh); meditated in an Indian ashram; and studied the finer detail of a Mercedes-Benz and European-made washer-dryers for product ideas. Here’s how Jobs described the team that worked on the first Macintosh: “Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, and poets, and artists, and zoologists, and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

Jobs once said that creativity comes down to “exposing yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing.” Researchers say that Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci had nailed it. The secret to creativity is to look outside your field for inspiration.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, a group of European research professors who had studied innovation for years revealed a remarkable discovery. “We’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level,” they concluded. The scientists recruited hundreds of professionals who work in what are called ‘analogous fields.’ These are fields that are completely different from one another—roofers, carpenters, in-line skaters—but share a common problem. In this case, the problem is encouraging people in those fields to use safety gear to prevent injuries.

The researchers conducted hundreds of interviews with each person to solicit ideas on how to solve the problem—both in their profession and for the other professions. A group of safety experts were recruited to evaluate the effectiveness of their ideas. The research found that “each group was significantly better at thinking of novel solutions for the other fields than for its own.” The researchers conclude that if you’re looking for an innovative solution to business challenges, it’s best to hire people from outside the industry or study solutions in fields outside of your domain. “Look for creative people who aren’t constrained by the assumed limitations and mental schemas of your own professional world.”

The study reminds me of a true story I heard while conducting research on a book about the Apple retail store. Steve Jobs and his team wanted to elevate the customer experience in computer stores which, in 2001, were not known for exceptional customer service. For inspiration, they decided to look outside the field. The Apple team visited the local Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, premier brands in the area of service. They returned with two innovative ideas: 1. There would be no cashiers; customers would be greeted by a concierge and 2. A bar would be placed at the back of the store; the bar would dispense advice instead of alcohol. They called it the “Genius Bar.”

Now that Black Friday and Small Business Saturday are over, what ideas are you pursuing to attract customers for the other 363 days of the year? Looking for new experiences or hiring people with different backgrounds than you have on your current team can help unleash creative breakthroughs. Bombard your brain with experiences: Read books, attend a trade show or conference outside your industry or seek out advice from people in different fields who may face ‘analogous problems.’ Break out of the familiar to find uncommon breakthroughs.

Carmine Gallo is a keynote speaker, communication advisor and bestselling author of The Storyteller’s Secret, now available in paperback. Sign up for his newsletter at carminegallo.com.

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