Let’s say you have a sticky wicket problem – you’ve tried everything you can think of and those wickets are still sticky. You and your team have been wracking your brains trying to fix the wickets and at this point, you might be tempted to either hand it off to someone else….preferably someone who OWES you something, OR punt and develop some kind of work around. Buy new wickets maybe. Don’t do that – Do this. Walk away, get some air… and consider another, maybe better, certainly more interesting…option.
HBR, June 2015 cites new research on the value of Analogous Field Thinking. Essentially, it’s the art of opening the problem up to input from unexpected sources – expertise from fields you might never have associated with sticky wickets. Let’s throw three of them out there: landscaper, historian – circus aerialist.
Analogous Field Thinking requires these steps:
1. Get to the Essence of the problem
2. Articulate that essence in a broad and general way; Get “Fuzzy”
3. Climb the Pyramid – Seek out the experts, creatives, Big thinkers
4. Beyond Brainstorming – Promote Interaction
5. Prepare to be Surprised!
Your first task will be to clarify the problem and describe it in a way that people who do not possess your content expertise can understand. This can be harder than it appears. Not everyone has your grasp of the nuance of wickets.
Here’s where we get “Fuzzy”. Ordinarily, of course, we shy away from the “Fuzzy”. We aim for clarity and concise specificity, but if you can articulate the problem in a more general sense, for example: “How can we maintain our infrastructure elements to reduce friction?” – experts in diverse fields will be better able to help you, because you have defined this issue in a way that leaves it open to interpretation. The landscaper for example, might question you about environmental factors that may impact wicket function – seasonal elements like dust, pollen, humidity. It’s possible you’ve already considered these elements, but it’s just as likely that you did not; you work in an enclosed environment, with the only “problematic environmental elements” being Laura’s donut crumbs and Joe’s loud cellphone conversations. But… oh yeah, the windows were open on that floor all spring….. and there might have been some pollen coming in. The historian might pipe in with a classic WWI cure for wicket stickiness: white vinegar – and far less expensive than the industrial version of WD-40. And the aerialist? It so happens there are clips on her lines that provide a similar function as your wickets – circus stage hands store them in corn starch to prevent stickiness.
Climb the Pyramid Let’s say you’ve read this far and you are open to the idea of exploring an Analogous Field – Where can you quickly find the expertise you need? This is especially important if your problem is larger than wickets and has significantly more impact on your business. A researcher at the Copenhagen Business School – Marion Poetz – and Reinhard Prugl of Zeppelin University, have looked into best practices with analogous fields, and have been working with the idea of a pyramid search. This technique was originally developed by MIT researcher Eric von Hippel and his team. Essentially, you identify experts in a given field and ask them who else might be even more of an expert than they are. These questions and contacts bring you to the top of the expertise pyramid. The reason you want to connect with these people is not so much due to how much they know, but because they are, most likely, highly curious individuals connected with experts at a similar level in a variety of fields. It’s also an efficient way of using and further developing your own social capital. Of course, you can always just google “sticky wickets”, but then you might miss out on the quality of these interactive connections.
You deepen those connections by actively promoting interaction: Brainstorming squared really, because you have gotten a high caliber group of experts into conversation on your problem. The pyramid could also be within your own company, if it is vast enough, and may reap benefits in reducing the “silo” effect.
Prepare to be surprised! Take a deep breath and stay open to what your experts come up with, understand there may be totally unworkable ideas and off-the-wall suggestions and that is a necessary part of teasing out that slippery innovative answer.
Learning and exploring a problem this way has benefits beyond information; you can refine and redefine the problem as you go, you can hear about a wide variety of expert experiences and how they adapted in similar – or radically different – circumstances.
Beyond Brainstorming: The Wright Brothers Institute (yes – THOSE Wright Bros.) have programs called Divergent Collaboration initiatives. These efforts are intentionally created to work with the innovation problems of their clients but Wright Bros. modus operandi is connecting people from a wide variety of fields to focus on a single problem. In other words, here is a firm that utilizes analogous field thinking as a best practice in expanding their innovation capacity.
But you don’t have to hire them, unless of course, you want to and have the requisite budget. I’m more interested in how you can nurture the habits of innovation in yourself, and in your immediate team through analogous field thinking.
Interested in other techniques for sparking innovation? Check out Shift/POV, my group facilitation tool for getting teams off the fence, over the hump and into collaborative innovation!