Does Innovation Need Outsiders?

Why Innovation Needs Outsiders, an article by David Burkus, is on the right track. Yes, innovation can thrive with disruptive thinking. A long history of solving problems in the same way can make it very difficult to think outside the box, and many techniques attempt to open up fresh possibilities. In the article the term ‘outsiders’ is used as if it requires someone outside of your own organisation, as in the example of Fuse Corps.

In most large organisations the diversity of background and thinking style already exists somewhere else. It is usually referred to as a silo, and barriers can be broken down in various ways. That is not to say that the best innovation requires external input from an outsider, it may in fact be an ‘insider’ that provides the best (and most disruptive) solution. The key distinction here is that you don’t actually need an outsider, just someone who isn’t too experienced in that particular field.

The other tempting assumption is that the outsider must be inexperienced, as is mostly the case with Fuse Corps. What government couldn’t do with a dose of innovation from a top-level executive? Describing the outsider position as an ‘internship’ would narrow the field of potential candidates significantly. The key here is that the outsider (or insider) is inexperienced in solving particular types of problems. They may indeed have a wealth of experience solving problems in their own field of expertise. There is an inherent advantage to being completely inexperienced – the ability to challenge everything in the name of personal learning. It makes more sense to find someone who is not afraid to learn something new, but finds the right time and place to integrate their existing expertise. If you can find such a person.

… generating breakthroughs involves not just coming up with ideas, but choosing which ideas to test.

Being stuck in the same thought pattern is often considered as a lack of creativity, rather than a misguided filter process. Does the outsider (or insider) need to be involved in both the expansion and filtering of new ideas? It can’t hurt, and that’s what crowdsourcing is all about. It is probably just as important for the crowd to contribute new ideas as it is for them to refine existing ones. People will have a natural tendency to do either one or the other, but that’s why it only works with a critical mass or participants.