Usually tales of great discovery begin with a flash of inspiration, like when Watson and Crick first imagined a double helix and then quickly realized that they had discovered the structure of DNA; or an accident, like when Alexander Fleming contaminated his bacteria culture and stumbled onto penicillin.
Yet those stories, while not apocryphal, are misleading. Watson and Crick had tried many possibilities before hitting on the double helix. As a soldier in World War I, Fleming was horrified by how many soldiers died of sepsis. He had been actively researching bacteria for years before he got lucky.
Inevitably, people who make great discoveries are looking for them. It’s just that they often happen to find them where they weren’t expected. Really hard problems don’t often succumb to linear solutions, but wait unnoticed off the beaten path. That’s why true breakthroughs are not found deep inside one field or another, but somewhere in the space in between.
Anatomy of a Breakthrough
Voltaire is said to have insisted, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms” and I think that’s especially important when it comes to innovation. The term has become so loaded that it’s hard to discuss it without first designating exactly what you mean.
In a general sense, innovation is simply how we find novel solutions to important problems, but that is somewhat ambiguous. As I explained in an article in Harvard Business Review, we encounter a wide range of problems and therefore must pursue varied strategies in order to solve them.
Some problems, like how to create more efficient cars or find evidence for the Higgs boson, are reasonably well defined and can be tackled within a particular field or industry. Others, however are bit more tricky and require the development of new paradigms. That’s why true breakthroughs require us to synthesize across domains.
Watson and Crick needed to apply concepts from physics, chemistry and biology in order to solve the DNA puzzle. Larry Page and Sergey Brin had to learn how to cater to the needs of marketers in order to make Google a profitable business. Breakthrough innovation, more often than not, requires combination.
The Fusion of Art and Science
Great innovators are not just smart, they are curious. They are rarely purists or polemicists, but are courageous enough to venture outside their domain. Vannevar Bush, who created the post-war architecture for scientific funding that made America an innovation superpower, warned against excessive focus on purely scientific pursuits:
But it is unfortunate when a brilliant and creative mind insists on living in a modern monastic cell… One most unfortunate product is the type of engineer who does not realize that in order to apply the fruits of science for the benefit of mankind, he must not only grasp the principles of science, but must also know the needs and aspirations, the possibilities and frailties, of those he would serve.
Bush was no idle dreamer. Besides being a successful engineer (he created one of the first useful computers) and a powerful government bureaucrat, he was also a successful entrepreneur, co-founding Raytheon in 1922. Yet he strongly advised scientists and engineers to look beyond their chosen fields.
One could argue that his support for liberal arts was a personal, rather than a professional, opinion. Yet many other eminent scientists and engineers found insights from them. Einstein credited the philosopher David Hume as an inspiration for relativity. Steve Jobs cited a calligraphy course as inspiration for the development of the Macintosh.
The reverse would also seem to be true. Picasso’s encounter with african art led to one of the most productive periods of his career. It’s hard to imagine that happening without the work of anthropologists If art is truth, where would it be without science?
As the legendary physicist (and amateur painter) Richard Feynman points out in this video, artists that deny science are missing much of the beauty that nature has to offer.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn explained that discrete fields are often poorly equipped to break new ground because they get caught up in paradigms designed to solve old problems. To tackle new challenges, they need to undergo a paradigm shift and that usually entails incorporating knowledge from a separate domain.
Unfortunately, we design our organizations to do just the opposite.
A Revolution that Could Have Died on the Vine
In the late 90’s, a young graduate student in theoretical and applied mechanics named Duncan Watts went to his advisor, Steven Strogatz, with an idea for a dissertation topic. Strogatz, a leader in the field of chaos theory, found the idea interesting, but said that he would allow Watts to work on it only if he wasn’t interested in an academic career.
The problem was that Watts’s topic did not conform to any well defined problem in mechanics, chaos theory or anything else for that matter. It was, in effect, something completely new and so would not be a basis for a successful career. In fact, pursuing the topic would most likely hinder any aspirations the young graduate student might have had.
Fortunately, Watts was no careerist and the model he created, along with Strogatz, spawned the new field of network science. Today, he’s recognized as a pioneer and the science he established has made important contributions to fields as wide ranging as counter-terrorism, law enforcement and medicine.
Watts now works at Microsoft Research, where he is expected to work intensely with people of varied backgrounds, training and expertise. But places like Microsoft Research are the exception, not the rule.
We Need to Change the Software in Our Organizations
Watts’s dilemma is not merely a problem for the academic world, but may in fact be even more pervasive in business life. Much like computers from the 1970’s, today’s corporations are designed to perform batches of rote tasks, rather than imagine new ones. Clearly, we need to change how our enterprises function.
Jobs never became a professional calligrapher. Feynman was an avid, but by no means an especially talented painter. Bush wrote influential essays on technology, like As We May Think, but would not be considered a serious man of letters. Nevertheless, their diverse interests were a crucial component of their outsized contributions.
Now, we consider these people geniuses, but at one time they were just starting out. If they were hired by a major enterprise today, what would be the chances that they would be encouraged to pursue interests outside their narrow job description? The answer is clear: very, very small.
Yet Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute suggests that over 2 billion of those jobs will not exist by 2030. Richard Foster at Yale University predicts that, by 2020, three quarters of the S&P 500 will be companies we’ve never heard of. So it is unlikely that we’ll find the next big thing in the same places we found the last big thing.
The truth is that we won’t find the next big thing in one of the existing disciplines that we encourage our bright young minds to pursue. The place to look for breakthrough innovations is not in one field or another, but where domains intersect in spaces we have not yet defined.
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Greg Satell is a US based business consultant. You can find his blog at Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.