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How To Drive Innovation from “Outsiders”

Sometimes the most remarkable innovations come from “outsiders.”

Why do people who aren’t experts in a given field sometimes have the greatest ideas? There are two potential reasons.

  1. Outsiders might bring knowledge and expertise from a different field.
  2. Outsiders might pay more attention to details that the experts take for granted.

Hang on. Recent research suggests that only one of these two things actually leads to successful outsider innovation.

How to drive innovation

To find out what drives innovation, the researchers looked at data from a “crowdsourcing” platform. The website’s customers challenge users to create specific solutions to a variety of problems, such as “harvesting the energy in buildings,” “maintenance-free filter system for an industrial vacuum cleaner,” or “empowering community college students.”

There are hundreds of problems to choose from. And importantly, the problem-solvers don’t need to be experts in a given area. They can be “outsiders.”

All that matters is whether they come up with the best solution for the problem.

Not too surprisingly, the people who came up with the most innovative solutions also put in the most effort. The outsiders came up with the most innovative solutions when they were intensely focused on the specifics of the problem. In other words, the “outsider advantage” comes from really concentrating on the fundamentals.

Experts don’t tend to focus as much on the fundamentals because they don’t have to. (But perhaps they would innovate more if they did.)

What about the ability to bring in knowledge or expertise from other fields? This didn’t seem to help the outsiders at all. Actually, the people who were already experts in a given area were the ones that made the best use of ideas from other fields. When you already have the basics down, you can devote more resources to “shopping around” for ideas. And it pays off.

The formula for driving innovation

The results of this research suggest that different strategies for driving are more likely to be successful for different people.

  • Outsiders (non-experts) should pay the most attention to the fundamental details. They may notice things that the experts take for granted.
  • Experts (assuming they already know the basics) should pay the most attention to relevant ideas from outside of their main field.