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Why the world's best innovations may come from the 'non-experts'

Why the world's best innovations may come from the 'non-experts'

Posting in Design

The age of cross-pollination: The most profound and disruptive innovations will likely come from those with different, outside perspectives.

Malcolm Gladwell famously posited that the world's greatest minds and talent get that way because they mastered their expertise through 10,000 hours of practice and experience. However, the world's greatest innovations in any particular field don't necessarily come from experts within narrow scopes of expertise, but, rather, people outside the field.

So it may not be necessary to do that 10,000 hours of practice to make a difference.

Naveen Jain, founder of the World Innovation Institute, writes in Forbes that "people who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world's biggest problems will NOT be experts in their fields. The real disruptors will be those individuals who are not steeped in one industry of choice, with those coveted 10,000 hours of experience, but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities."

Such is the reasoning behind the growth of the crowdsourcing phenomenon, in which organizations from NASA to Dell open their most perplexing problems to a wide, global network of experts from a wide array of disciplines.

Also, we see the rise of hackerspaces, fueled by 3D printing technology, that is creating a world of new products and innovations.

It's also worth mentioning that Apple founder Steve Jobs was not an engineer, but dabbled in philosophy in his younger days. Yet, his innovations have reshaped product design in the engineering and technical space.

Vinnie Mirchandani's book, The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations, suggests that cross-pollination of skills is now driving innovations across the corporate world. (Polymath is a Greek word for one who excels in many disciplines.) For example, professions such as information technology are expanding beyond the bounds of managing operating and storage systems, and now lays at the very core of many of the important changes now reshaping business and society. If Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin were alive today, they may have started out as IT pros, then applied their systematic knowledge and innovation spirit to new ventures advancing sustainability, cleantech, nanotech, medicine, and science.

With the multi-disciplinary talents they possessed, visionaries such as da Vinci, Franklin, and others reshaped the world. Now, the world demands new versatility. This versatility will not only come from inspired individuals, but entire companies as well.

Today's IT shop, for one, is at the cutting edge of a revolution reshaping business to the very core. IT managers and professionals are being called upon to be leaders, evangelists, and guides pointing business to the new way of competing in today's crazy global economy -- digitally, virtually, and analytically. And we are seeing IT innovators spread out to new realms to change the world -- from low-cost global communications to solar-powered bus stops.

Jain outlines two reasons why opportunities for disruptive change are coming from cross-pollination of expertise, versus single, narrow bands:

Experts in a given field are constrained by myopic thinking: There will always be a need for specialization, but Jain believes that the best ideas come from those not immersed in the details of a particular field. "Experts, far too often, engage in a kind of myopic thinking," he says. "Those who are down in the weeds are likely to miss the big picture. To my mind, an expert is in danger of becoming a robot, toiling ceaselessly toward a goal but not always seeing how to connect the dots."

Information in abundance across all fields: While I wouldn't want a surgeon querying Google to figure out what to do next, there's a lot to be said for the sharing and easy acquisition of knowledge that the Internet has enabled. The digital revolution "puts more power and knowledge into the hands of non-experts," Jain writes. "Open-source encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and search engines such as Google and Bing, which people can tap into anytime and anywhere via computers and smart phones, put a world of knowledge at our fingertips at a lower cost than ever before. Granted, they alone don't make us experts but they give us access to information in abundance, giving us a greater base from which to think big.

Jain cites the example of Elon Musk, a South African-born engineer and entrepreneur who "has never hesitated to venture into new waters where he had no industry expertise but felt he could make a difference. The former founder of PayPal, is now CEO and CTO of SpaceX, a private company sending cost-effective space launch vehicles and rockets into space, and is co-founder and head of product design at Tesla Motors, where he led development of the electric vehicle Tesla Roadster."

(Photo: NASA)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure