The Power of Outsiders

A recent Art of Manliness podcast Doing More With Less, with guest Scott Sonenshein, talked about the difference between chasing and stretching. It’s a good discussion, with some great ideas throughout the 43 minutes. I’ve listened to it three times.

At 20m55s into the podcast, there’s an insightful exchange about outsiders. Some notes:

An outsider doesn’t know a lot about the problem domain in which they are asked to work in.
We assume that we should have the people who know the most on our team.
The research shows that the more someone knows in a given scientific domain, the less likely they are to be able to solve a problem.
e.g., a biologist is more likely to be able to solve a chemistry problem than a chemist, and vice versa.
When we have deep knowledge in an area, we focus and try to solve problems in traditional ways.
When we have less information, we tend to import different perspectives and not be blinded by expertise.
Breadth of experience is more important for complex problems.

Brett (the host) and Scott go on to talk about some of the approaches that can be used to get an outsider’s perspective.

This perspective is very similar to what Greg talked about in his recent Inc. article, We’re Entering a New Era of Mass Collaboration (emphasis added):

When Alph Bingham first began his career as a research scientist in the late 70s, he immediately realized it would be much different than graduate school. As a student, he and 20 others were working on the same problems and coming up with varied approaches, but as a professional scientist he was mostly on his own.

By the late 90s, the Internet was becoming a transformative force and Bingham, now a senior executive at Eli Lilly, saw an opportunity to do something new. He envisioned a platform that would work like “Linux with a bounty” by putting problems that his company had been unable to solve on the web and offering rewards to anyone who could come up with an answer.

The program, called InnoCentive, was an immediate success and Eli Lilly spun it out as an independent company. To date, it has solved hundreds of problems so difficult that many considered them to be unsolvable. In fact, one study found that about a third of the problems posted on Innocentive — many of which had been around for years or even decades — are solved.

The key to InnoCentive’s success has to do with an observation Bingham and his team noticed early on. The solutions almost never came from the field in which they arose. So, for example, chemistry problems were rarely solved by chemists. Yet by opening up the problem to others working in adjacent fields, such as biologists and physicists, they became more tractable.

Outsiders. Different perspectives. Better together. Complex problems. That’s a huge part of the why of collaboration.

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