"No person or company today can innovate fast enough or big enough by itself. Collaboration--externally with consumers and customers, suppliers and business partners, and internally across business and organizational boundaries--is critical." -- Alan George Lafley, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble.
Generating new and useful ideas typically entails taking risks: it takes time and resources to pursue ideas which may never pan out. Yet, you can generate novel and worthwhile ideas without risking your own resources; all it takes is knowing how to rely on external networks and the insights and perspectives they glean.
According to a study published first in 2015 by researchers at The University of Akron in Ohio: working with other, non-industry-specific partners (what researchers call the "external network") can lead to more insights without risking time or money.
Take a look at Nike, for example, whose CEO works with a diverse network of tattoo and graffiti artists, DJs, fashion designers, musicians, industrial designers, and others to help keep the Nike brand sharp and influential.
Relying on outside perspectives makes sense, of course, for innovation, because networked ideas are stronger ones. And your competitors are likely keeping their perspective on their own industry, rather than what's going on out in the external network.
As Steven Johnson writes in his book Where Good Ideas Come From:
"It's not that the network itself is smart; it's that the individuals get smarter because they're connected to the network...When nature finds itself in need of new ideas, it strives to connect, not protect."
To gain a creative advantage through external networks it's not enough to merely observe what other people are doing, but instead you must work to capture the network's interpretation, perspectives, and insights. It's through shared insights that the real sparks for ideas are to be found.
If you're looking to do what competitors (or even the outside networks) have done already, you're merely following their path. However, if you begin to understand their perspectives and insights, you can utilize that knowledge to make more educated and less-risky decisions of your own.
The real power of networked, successful, ideas isn't in their being, it's in what brought them about in the first place. Understand what led an idea to fruition and you understand what made it valuable in the first place.
So how do you go about utilizing external networks to learn about their perspectives?
Today it's easier than ever to learn from the external network: by reading blogs, skimming through research studies, or even following prominent thought-leaders on sites like Twitter, Medium, or Facebook. The world is sharing ideas and perspectives like never before, all you have to do is tune-in and listen to learn what most everyone else is learning.
You can also look toward conferences outside your realm of expertise, or art exhibits, award shows, and local gatherings or educational lectures.
Still, the absolute best way to gain insights and generate ideas inspired by the external network is the old fashioned way: grab lunch or coffee with the thought-leaders of the networks you admire.