It sounds counterintuitive, but reaching out to an industry expert may not always yield the most thoughtful and creative solutions for your company. According to new research, looking outside of your field can often produce more successful outcomes.

"We've found that there's great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level. Such as makeup and surgical infections, surprisingly. Or inventory management and robot games. Or malls and mines," a group of European business school professors write in Harvard Business Review.

The professors--Marion Poetz, Nikolaus Franke, and Martin Schreier--say that looking to analogous fields often leads to radical innovation that you wouldn't necessarily find sticking to your own field. People in analogous fields are drawing on a different wealth of knowledge and aren't biased by existing principles and ideas in your field. This allows them the freedom to come up with novel ideas.

The three professors surveyed a group of roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters to get their thoughts on the issue of workers being unwilling to use safety gear because of discomfort. The respondents were asked to come up with solutions for how to redesign roofers' safety belts, carpenters' respirator masks, and skaters' knee pads to increase their comfort and use. Every respondent had to come up with a solution for each industry, and as the professors expected, they were better at thinking of novel solutions for the fields outside their own.

Poetz, Franke, and Schreier also noted that their thesis has already played out in a number of real-life scenarios. For instance, one company developed a solution for preventing infections associated with surgery after speaking with a theatrical-makeup specialist. Another company that needed a solution for tracking inventory learned from the sensors on miniature robot soccer players. Similarly, an escalator company borrowed ideas from the mining industry when figuring out how to install escalators in shopping malls.

One of the challenges, though, is that it can often be difficult to pinpoint those appropriate fields. "To identify distant analogous fields, first carve out the deep-structure elements of your problem before starting your search," the professors write. "Clear away the details and ask yourself: What is the essence of the problem? Then describe it in such a way that potential solvers from analogous markets can connect their knowledge to it."

It's also a good idea to look to fields that are more advanced, technologically or in other ways. For instance, a firm in the inline-skating market looking for ideas for protective gear might want to look into reality-TV shows that feature extreme stunts.

Another tip for getting the best results is to pair thought leaders from analogous fields with experts in your field to ensure that the ideas are applicable. An expert in an analogous field might not be familiar enough with your field to come up with the most useful ideas, so pairing their creativity with seasoned experts can yield the best results. But whatever you do, it's important to look beyond the obvious experts.

"Look for creative people who aren't constrained by the assumed limitations and mental schemas of your own professional world," the researchers explain. "These are people who, although they know little of your field, may be more likely to come up with breakthrough thinking; indeed, they may be carrying around, in their heads, the germ of the solution you've been searching for all along."

Published on: Nov 24, 2014