Filmmaker Wim Wenders, 70, is an industry legend for films like "Wings of Desire" and "Buena Vista Social Club." But he recently made news for a late-life career switch: Next June, at the Berlin State Opera, he'll direct "The Pearl Fishers," an opera by the French composer Bizet, who is famous for "Carmen." 

You might be wondering what this news has to do with you, if you're an entrepreneur or founder. As it happens, you can learn a lot about creativity from Wenders' dive into opera. In the world of business, there are examples aplenty of entrepreneurs whose groundbreaking insights came from their exposure to new and different fields, outside of their traditional comfort zones. 

The most cited example is, of course, Steve Jobs, who once took a course in calligraphy. Surely, the skeptic in you might think the connection between Apple's long-term design brilliance and Jobs' long-ago exposure to fancy handwriting is too storybook to be believed. But Jobs skillfully applied calligraphy's design and visual tenets to the then-clunky world of computers--a pre-Macintosh world in dire need of aesthetic principles.

"Some of the most significant ideas come about when someone sees a problem in a new way--often by combining disparate elements that initially seemed unrelated," writes marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark in her 2015 book, "Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It." 

Harvard Medical School professor Albert Rothenberg dubbed this process "Janusian Thinking." Janus, as you may recall from your dusty mythology paperbacks, was a Roman god with two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. For Rothenberg, notes creativity researcher Michael Michalko, the two faces of Janus symbolized a state of mind that often yields creative insights: The ability to simultaneously conceive of an idea and its opposite. 

So the question becomes: In your search for groundbreaking ideas, how do you tap into your own version of Janusian thinking? Applying a fresh perspective from a different profession or discipline can stimulate creative breakthroughs. Jobs' marriage of the seemingly disparate fields of calligraphy and computers is but one example.

Eric Schadt, a well-regarded thought leader in genomics, began his career as a mathematician. The math background "was perfect training for his eventual role disrupting the field of biology," Clark writes. Here's why: In the late 90s, technology emerged enabling researchers to rapidly sequence RNA and DNA--giving them the ability to isolate and record the activity of single genes. To Schadt's math-trained perspective, there was one obvious ramification: biology was going to change from a qualitative to a highly quantitative discipline. 

Today, awash in the analytics era, this insight doesn't seem shocking. But in the late 90s, most biologists were "ill-equipped to deal with vast amounts of data," Clark notes. Schadt was prepared, thanks to his background in a seemingly unrelated field.

Clark's book is full of stories like Schadt's. Taken together, they essentially form a thought leader's playbook: Apply your expertise in one field to a different field in the quest to create novel, useful insights. Schadt applied mathematics to biology; Eric Ries applied lean manufacturing to startups; Paco Underhill applied urban planning to retail settings; Nate Silver applied economics to baseball. Now you can add Wenders to the list. You can bet his opera will be visually innovative and distinct--in a way that only an accomplished filmmaker could pull off. 

At this point you might be telling yourself: "Sounds good. The only problem is, I have no area of expertise that I can potentially apply to a disparate field." That's where you're wrong. Remember: It's not the calligraphy itself. It's about the insight you can gain by applying calligraphy's principles to a field--computers in the early 80s--that badly needed them.

This sort of thing happens everyday at companies, on teams consisting of different personality types. For example, Kate Dill, Airbnb's head of experience design, believes that designers and MBAs make perfect power combos on a team. Another vaunted combination is what Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull calls champions and challengers. What he means is, Pixar's ballyhooed Braintrust idea meetings boast a mixture of champion storytellers like John Lasseter, the director of the first two Toy Story films--and a whole bunch of employees unafraid to challenge him, even though he's the John Lasseter.

Another power combo is diplomats and troublemakers. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk, an expert on creative combinations (specifically, creative pairings), believes the Beatles' John Lennon (troublemaker) and Paul McCartney (diplomat) excelled as a tandem precisely because of how complementary their skills were. Here's how Geoff Emerick, the principal engineer for many major Beatles records, describes it:

Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a right loudmouth and quite rude. Paul was willing to put in long hours to get a part right; John was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing.

Tellingly, Lennon and McCartney also embody some other disparate attributes. For instance, McCartney was organized, logging his lyrics and chord changes in a notebook; Lennon was always searching for scrap paper.

You might not have the creative chops of a Lennon or McCartney. But you likely incline toward some of their work habits or traits: diplomatic or agitating, neat or messy. If you expose yourself to teammates--or experiences--full of opposite traits, creative results are likely to follow.

Published on: May 12, 2016