I recently read this blog entry by Paul Taylor, which I very much enjoyed, and it got me thinking about the process by which new ideas are generated:


I think a route cause of problems with creativity and generating new ideas (ideation) is confusion about the ideation process, which is often attributed to the wrong factors. Commonly these incorrect attributes are:

  • Really “creative types”. Often the thought is that by getting more creative types into our organisations, we will have more ideas to develop. In reality, one of the worst things you can do with a creative thinker is put them in an organisation that is not set up to generate and develop ideas because they will get frustrated very quickly.
  •  Getting as many perspectives as possible on a problem. This sounds like a good idea but often the input is too diverse to be useful, or we gather the people who we think have the most knowledge of (or even influence over) the problem for a brainstorming session, which inevitably just produces variations of the ideas they have had already.
  •  Getting in “experts” to examine a problem. This is the classic silver bullet fallacy, that there is a solution that somebody with more specific knowledge of the problem will be able to come up with. This is often an expensive mistake.

For me, the combination of two unrelated knowledge domains is the common aspect to ideation whether, applied to an individual or group. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests when an individual comes up with a new idea, they are cross referencing two different areas (or domains) of personal knowledge in their own mind. Think of those times when you see somebody doing something unrelated to your business and have a flash of inspiration “we could do something like that here”; you are actually cross referencing the activity that you’ve seen with your knowledge of your own work, which generates the new idea. This mental cross referencing is often subtler, but the underlying process is the same.

Combining two knowledge domains is a fundamental principal of events like hackathons where teams are made up of occupational experts (such as nurses, housing professionals or social workers) and tech experts to rapidly design new solutions. There are two ways to boost ideation through this targeted combination of knowledge domains.

Firstly, the structure of an organisation can facilitate regular contact between staff with knowledge in different domains, such as customer advisers and finance staff, or communications professionals and support staff. Another way is to deliberately combine teams for specific projects, more like a hackathon, but to include them on a project team or board. The most important thing is to understand the knowledge domains that need to be cross referenced, rather than think about the widest possible input.

Here’s a challenge: why don’t you experiment with this method? Hold a “cross team meeting” with two teams that otherwise wouldn’t normally work together. Get them to talk about their biggest challenges and the solutions that they have been working on and see what ideas come out of the meeting. At the end of the meeting, ask those in attendance to take some time out over the next week to think about what they heard from the other team and send in any other ideas they come up with by email (not everyone wants to contribute in a meeting!).

It’s a low risk way of trying to generate some new ideas. If you try this approach, it would be great if you could share the results in the comments below.

Combining knowledge domains is one aspect of The Improvement Agency’s Innovation Upgrade diagnostic, which you can read more about here:


Image attribution: http://freebie.photography/concept/slides/idea_concept.htm