Commonplace Genius – Borrowing Ideas from Other Industries to Solve Business Challenges

Borrowing ideas from other industries and disciplines is one of the best ways to make breakthrough improvements at your own organization. It also makes you look like a genius.

Here are a few examples:

Henry Ford is hailed as an American hero for figuring out that dividing labor into small specialized tasks maximizes output and drives down production cost. This makes a good story, but it’s just not true.

Philip Danforth Armour revolutionized the process of mass production and (dis)assembly line techniques at his Armour and Swift meat packing plants in Chicago. Ford decided to use a moving assembly line to build cars only after he toured Amour’s plants.  Ford borrowed techniques commonplace in the meat packing industry and applied them to building cars.

In 1878 the death rate for babies born prematurely was extremely high. That same year, Parisian physician Etienne Stephane Tarnier conceived of a new style of infant incubator during a visit to the poultry incubator section of the Paris zoo. Within three years after the introduction of the Tarnier-Martin incubator at the Paris Maternity Hospital, the mortality rate among premature infants who weighed less than 2 kilograms decreased by 50 percent. Tarnier successfully used knowledge from the field of zoology in order to solve a problem in the field of medicine.

For thousands of years man has walked through weed fields and gotten burrs stuck to his clothing. An everyday, commonplace occurrence. Then one day in 1941 Swiss engineer George de Mestral pulled a burr off his dog’s fur and examined it under a microscope. Its structure was simple: thin, barbed strands topped off with a hook that catches on anything with a loop. De Mestral, taking his inspiration from nature, recognized the potential for a new, reusable fastener and started an industry.

All of these people took ideas from one environment and transported it to another. Were these strokes of creative genius; acts of stunning originality? Or are these simply cases of adopting a “best practice” to solve a challenge?

Running a company effectively requires the ability to look outside for solutions, ideas and best practices – ways to achieve maximum performance in any given area. To make it easier to discover creative solutions, follow these steps:

  1. Broadly define your challenge.
  2. Search out the various ways others have solved that broad challenge.
  3. One of those solutions may directly solve your specific challenge. Or you may have to use parts of several disparate ideas as building blocks for constructing a new solution to your unique situation.

Look at what your competitors are doing. Seek inspiration from other industries. Look for ideas that have proved successful in a hobby, the entertainment world, the scientific community or in nature.

Many strokes of genius are nothing more than recycled versions of commonplace ideas from outside your normal circle. Russian inventor Genrikh Altshuller suggests that 95% of ‘new problems’ have already been solved, probably many times over. And he comments further that you most likely will find the solution in industries and technologies which you do not have knowledge about.

The more varied your experience and exposure, the more sources from which you can draw, and the more connections you can make to solve problems and generate new ideas. Read about industries other than your own. Ask customers and suppliers for ideas. Look outside to innovate within.

Is adopting someone else’s best practice stealing? I think the answer depends upon whom you borrow from. Adopt a best practice from within your industry and you may be accused of industrial espionage.  Borrow from another industry and you are considered a creative genius.

Genius lies in taking ideas and repurposing them. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, just repurpose it. If someone else has a good solution, borrow it and make it your own. New ideas are often built from existing ideas.

In the words of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “It’s not where you take things from; it’s where you take them to.”

Bob Roitblat
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Bob Roitblat

Bob Roitblat is a Leadership Capabilities Expert and TEDx speaker. He helps organizations ignite creativity, overcome challenges and capitalize on opportunities. Bob is also the president of Mainsail Consulting Group, a business-advisory firm. Also connect with Bob on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

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Bob Roitblat
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