At the Intersection

One of the things I loved about teaching at a university was the interaction between people of very different fields. Sure, stovepipes exist between individual departments (and even between individuals), but at least you had opportunities to bring together some very different ways of thinking. I still remember a faculty Christmas party at Georgetown where I enjoyed an interesting conversation about some recent events in DC with an engineer, a historian, an anthropologist, and a neurobiologist. Our specialties did not necessarily give us insight into any unique facts about the events, but the different ways we all think in our work suggested different ways of thinking about what happened. I was introduced to some perspectives I really had not considered before.

So, can that happen in the business world, too? Of course it can. Does it? Well…

In The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson talks about “the intersection point.” He describes this as the point where different ways of thinking come together. The intersection point could be a point in time, when different ideas seem to converge, or it could be a physical place; a university could be one example, and Johansson discusses the Santa Fe Institute as another. The rise of incubators and co-working spaces in recent years offers more opportunities for people from different backgrounds with different perspectives to influence each other’s thinking and raise the overall creativity of an organization.

The idea here is that no specialized way of thinking has a monopoly on good ideas, and it can often help to evaluate problems through a different lens. An astronomer can suggest a different scale of vision to a biologist, a mathematician might see patterns in literature that escape the attention of an English professor, that sort of thing. I have enjoyed working at the intersection point on interdisciplinary research teams at universities, and it is a very, very useful thing.

In business, though, it gets harder. We tend to hire in accordance with our firm’s objectives and the specific tasks that need to be accomplished, and we do not always think about what other skill sets might broaden our view and help us achieve those objectives. For instance, the creative elements in advertising firms pretty much consist of copywriters and artists…so, is there a role for an international affairs specialist? A nurse? A chemical engineer? There might be, if we are trying to be creative and develop new ideas so we stand out from our competitors. It’s not that these particular backgrounds necessarily bring any specific information into the work, but that’s not the point. Instead, we try to make sure that advertising copy is not just written from the point of view of a copywriter, because frankly, there are a lot of other points of view out there among the potential customers. Some of the big consulting firms have seen the logic of this; in addition to hiring plenty of people with business backgrounds, they also hire doctors, designers, engineers, scientists, and others, and not simply to work with clients in those particular fields. They do it because it gives them a worldview much broader than what their competitors have.

If you are small, you may need to do this in baby steps. Perhaps, for specific projects, you could hire free agents from a variety of fields to work together. You could also consider crowdsourcing your work if that’s appropriate for your particular field. Whether you create a physical intersection point, or an online one, or simply a single moment in time when you bring different perspectives together, you will likely find new opportunities and approaches that would not have occurred to you otherwise, and that could be the key to differentiating you from your competitors.

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