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Crossing Boundaries is the Key to Fresh Ideas

October 15, 2013, 1:46 PM

One of the keys in innovation is to make sure you’re looking at a wide enough space.  A lot of scholars who study innovation talk about it as a search over a rough terrain.  So the key question is "Am I conducting a broad enough search?"  

Am I getting an injection of ideas from lots of different angles, from lots of new sources because a lot of innovation is about remixing those ideas. 

If we look at some of the recent major revolutions that have really transformed our life, the Human Genome Project is a great example of remixing across boundaries.  A lot of that work was done in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area but when the Human Genome Project got launched people, particularly at MIT, recognized that, "Gee, what we really have to do is take molecular biologists and geneticists and chemists and electrical engineers and software engineers and chemical engineers" – and all that mixing of ideas from different fields was really fundamental to some of the developments that came out of that field.

Cross boundary mixing of ideas is really important.  I had a guy who worked for me when I was at Kodak who made the fundamental discovery on organic electroluminescence.  His job actually was to make organic solar cells – light in, electricity out.  He screwed up.  He got it backwards.  He had electricity come in, light come out.  Now that organic electroluminescence was actually the foundation of what are called OLED displays.  You see them in a lot of the smartphones that are coming out of Asia right now, some of the hottest displays.  

One of the things he told me is he said, “Well, the way I made this discovery was one day I walked into a lab in another department and I saw all these bottles of chemicals on the shelves." I asked him what’s in these bottles.  And they said "well take some."  He said "Okay, I’m gonna take some of these and I’m gonna try them.”  That was the key to him coming up with this discovery. One of the things he told me is that if you stay inside your silo, every morning when you go to work everything looks the same.  But if you go into somebody else’s silo, everything looks new. 

And I think crossing boundaries is one of the keys to coming up with fresh ideas.  Everybody knows how to stay inside their silo.  It takes the courageous soul to cross those boundaries. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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