How strangers can help you innovate (a book excerpt)

By Dr. Alan Gregerman , written on September 19, 2013

From The News Desk

We all know that innovation is essential to the success of companies, organizations, and individuals. In order to grow and prosper, enterprises of all types and sizes must continually deliver even greater value to the people and businesses they have the privilege to serve. And they do this by innovating in order to:

  • Develop better products, services, and solutions.
  • Create more remarkable and more valuable customer experiences.
  • Improve the quality and efficiency of the ways they produce and distribute their offerings.
  • Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming less relevant.
Most companies and organizations seem to understand this—at least conceptually—because they spend an awful lot of time and energy talking about innovation and touting its importance in their board and shareholder meetings, and on their websites, marketing materials, business proposals, and job postings. Many have even put considerable resources behind their efforts to be more innovative by creating a more supportive business culture and mindset. They have made investments in research and development, created focused innovation initiatives and even innovation centers, provided training to employees at all levels, and tried to figure out what incentives will spark the new ideas that can drive improvements in top and bottom-line performance. They do this because they know that if they don’t figure out better ways of doing the things that matter most, and don’t build the right mindset to become more versatile and flexible they run the risk of becoming less relevant The same companies and organizations that need to innovate consistently also need employees who can drive, or at least, implement innovation. They need people who can provide them with new ways of thinking and help them take action.

Having said this, most of us are stuck with a very strange notion of how innovation happens which severely constrains our potential and our innate ability to be brilliant when it matters. It’s a notion that is built around the power of smart people putting their heads together. When you ask most companies and organizations how they innovate or come up with powerful new ideas, they quickly say that they spend a lot of time encouraging their sharpest minds to spend time “brainstorming,” and that brainstorming and innovative thinking are core competencies. They often add that they have created meeting places designed specifically for innovation, with floor to ceiling whiteboards and more flexible arrangements that enable people to stretch their thinking. They might also note that they regularly send teams to the best offsite “retreat” facilities where, freed from the constraints of day-to-day business and a boatload of limiting rules and requirements, they can let their imaginations and creativity run wild. Imaginations fueled by clever people working together and combining their expertise, experience, and insights.

Sounds like a winning combination doesn’t it?

If only it were so simple. What is emerging as common practice flies in the face of not only reality, but the entire history of innovation. A history built on the ability of people, working on their own and in groups, to get beyond the limits of their own expertise, experience, and insights and beyond what they know best. To get up off of their individual and collective bottoms in a search for new ideas, insights, and perspectives that can really spark their creativity. To leave the confines of even the hippest and best designed meeting room in order to engage the world head on with a compelling sense of openness, wonder, honesty, and possibilities. To seek inspiration by exploring the ideas and insights of others—around the corner and around the planet. To connect with strangers toiling in similar fields but in different ways and with strangers in different fields who know things they don’t know—so they can combine this new learning and, more importantly understanding, with the things they know best.

Innovation is a quest to be “different” in ways that matter, rather than a task to create a slightly newer version of what we already do.

But even our words give away our lack of understanding. Doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that we would have a “retreat” in order to innovate? Yet that is exactly what most companies and organizations decide to do when faced with the challenge of coming up with new ideas and better ways of thinking. They organize a retreat. Wouldn’t we get off to a much better start if we used words that connote progress instead of moving backwards and invited people to an “advance,” or a “forward,” or a fresh look “ahead,” or even a “happening?” But that’s only half of the problem because we often decide that a key to innovation is getting away from everything and finding a quiet and peaceful place where there won’t be any distractions. Even though innovation is all about being distracted—from the way we normally think about things. We’d actually be much better off if we held our advance, forward, ahead, or happening in the middle of big, bustling, and chaotic city in a world filled with possibilities.

Consider this fact. . .

99% of all new ideas are based on AN IDEA OR



If that isn’t a call to engage strangers, then I don’t know what is. Yet most of us, when challenged to think “outside-the-box” in order to solve a pressing problem or create an important new business opportunity, seem content to rack our brains trying to come up with our own original idea. Is it any wonder that most people don’t believe they are creative? Or that most organizations are convinced that there is a small subset of people in their ranks who are innovative by nature and uniquely qualified to come up with brilliant ideas? This kind of thinking allows the rest of us to simply plod along doing the best we can and absolves us of having to take initiative and make a difference. And it is not only limiting, it’s wrong.

We all have the potential to be innovative and brilliant. But not if we, and the places we work in, don’t change our mindset and our game. The good news is we can.

And strangers are the real key to our success.

This is an excerpt from "The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation and Success," by Alan Gregerman.