A soccer coach can learn a lot about winning games by watching basketball. That's the philosophy that drives Gareth Southgate, the coach for England's World Cup team. By combining ideas from different fields--literally--Southgate has helped England advance to the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990. 

An article in the Wall Street Journal revealed Southgate's strategy. What the article didn't mention is that the formula is a time-tested and scientifically proven hack that geniuses use to come up with creative ideas. It worked for Steve Jobs. First, let's talk about the strategy. 

Rip ideas from the NBA playbook.

The article begins with Southgate sitting courtside at an NBA game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The coach was curious about how NBA players created space around the basket, thinking he could "steal" ideas for set-plays on a soccer field like corner kicks and free kicks.

As it turned out, Southgate did find a similarity, and his strategy paid off in England's World Cup victories against Panama and Sweden. In a visual sequence of plays, the article describes step-by-step how the English soccer team "used a strategy ripped straight from a basketball playbook" to notch its most impressive wins. 

None of this would surprise psychologists who study creativity and genius. Creative ideas rarely come out of nowhere. More often than not, creative leaders combine ideas from different fields and apply them to the task or problem they're attempting to solve. Some researchers call it "association," the ability to connect ideas from unrelated fields. Steve Jobs simply called it "connecting things." 

Look outside your field for inspiration.

Jobs once said, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." He was right. He didn't mean "steal" in the literal sense. Instead, Jobs believed entrepreneurs should look outside their field for inspiration.

While researching a book about the Apple store several years ago, I learned nearly all of the ideas that made the Apple store the most profitable retailer on the planet were inspired by five-star hotel brands like The Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons. For example, the Genius Bar was pulled right out of a hotel playbook. Instead of a lobby bar dispensing alcohol, it would dispense advice. Even the customer-service steps Apple employees are trained to follow are ripped right out of the famous Ritz-Carlton steps of service. Yes, great artists steal ideas from different fields. 

In 2015, a group of European research scientists performed a remarkable experiment. They interviewed hundreds of roofers, carpenters, and in-line skaters. The three categories were chosen because, while they are completely different fields, they share an analogous problem: how to encourage people to use safety gear to prevent injuries. 

The study found people who are more receptive to looking outside of their field for creative solutions come up with better ideas. In fact, staying stuck in your domain or area of expertise actually blocks the creative process. Great leaders are great because they come up with novel solutions to stubborn problems. And novel solutions are often found in areas that are similar, but different, from the one you're working in.

In the same way, Steve Jobs found analogous ideas in different fields---like combining calligraphy and computing to create the Macintosh. Gareth Southgate found a similar or "analogous" situation between corner kicks in soccer and the pick-and-roll in basketball. By adopting ideas from outside his field, Southgate was able to create an opportunity for the English national team to be more successful than they've been in decades. 

Epiphanies or "eureka" moments don't happen by thinking harder about a problem; they happen by completely rethinking the problem. The next time you're facing a vexing problem, don't copy what another person or company is doing in your industry. Instead, steal ideas from outside of your field. 

Published on: Jul 10, 2018