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Cross-Pollination of Ideas: The Case for Being Curious in Business and in Life

Ori Steinitz
January 4, 2022
“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” 

— Leonardo Da Vinci

I’ve always thought I’m too curious for my own good. Even as a child, my intrinsic curiosity seemed to get me in trouble, from taking apart small electronic devices at home (reverse-engineering!) to following ants back to their ant-hill (immersive biology research!).  While I should’ve been studying for my history test, I was instead studying the smart engineering and carpentry of my childhood desk. 

It is only in the past few years that I’ve come to realize 3 very reassuring facts:

  1. Many historic inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs have this “condition”
  2. There’s a name for this type of person - a Polymath
  3. In today’s world, this trait could actually be quite useful; it could be considered an advantage, not a weakness.

Go Wide, Not Only Deep 

For some professions, having a depth of knowledge is crucial. You wouldn’t want to get open-heart surgery from a doctor who spends two-thirds of his time building violins and training iguanas, or get on a plane that was built by an engineering team whose main focus was growing heirloom tomatoes.

And even in business and science, incremental progress and optimization is usually achieved through meticulous research, domain expertise, and years of focused work. Keyword: incremental progress.

But for innovators, creators, business leaders and builders of revolutionary products and ideas, especially in today’s knowledge economy, having a breadth of knowledge is at least as important as having a depth of knowledge.  “The revolution will not be optimized.”  Many of history’s most influential innovators were known Polymaths - from Newton, DaVinci and Darwin to the more contemporary Feynman, Jobs and Musk.

If “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail,” I would suggest that “A person with a crayon, a shoelace, 2 avocados and a snorkel can create really cool things.”

In his 2013 meta-study, “Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact”, Brian Uzzi and his team analyzed 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields to reveal that,
“The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations. Papers of this type were twice as likely to be highly cited works.”

In other words,  when you mix a weird combination of minds together, you’re more likely to get a high-impact outcome.  

There’s something about mixing-and-matching fields of interests, references and bits of knowledge that births marvelous and novel revelations, ideas and breakthroughs.  Referencing botany, this is sometimes known as “cross-pollination of ideas.”

Why Should I Aim to Be a Polymath?

There are several reasons why having a wider field of vision can lead to more personal success, financial results and even self-actualization.

Firstly, the world is really interesting.  

In the words of the late, great Richard Feynman, “Everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”. By asking questions, studying and having a bit of understanding in several fields,  you become a much more interesting person, and as a result, the people you talk to magically become much more interesting. You can have a decent conversation with a person who studies solar electricity, a neighbor who’s working on improving his vegetable garden and be genuinely intrigued by a random stranger who strikes up a conversation comparing the Beatles’ rooftop concert to Banksy’s shredded artwork at a Sotheby's auction.

Secondly, getting to be in the top 0.1% of any one field is really hard. I often reference (quote and think of ) the words of the cartoonist Scott Adams about how mixing several of his “above-average” traits lead him to become the best in his narrow niche (business-art-humor). He’s not a great artist, nor is he the funniest comedian in the world nor the most successful business person, but by combining these skills, he became the most well-known business-cartoonist.

On the other hand,  being at the top 10% of any field is really easy. Just think of all the things you know more about than 90% of all the people in the world (not just the people in your professional circle). You could probably be more knowledgeable than 90% of the population in most fields, just by spending 3 hours on YouTube.

Find how you can mix up 3 fields you’re at the top 10%, and *poof* you’ve just made it to the top 0.1% of knowing about a, b, AND c.

How to Create the Ideal Conditions for Cross-Pollination of Ideas

One overarching theme is to get genuinely curious about everything.

There’s something to explore, question and learn about (nearly) everything. Be it the educational system in Finland, the daily routine of your local bus driver or how flushing a toilet works. It could take you as little as 5 minutes to dig below the surface and now that new piece of knowledge is  with you for life.

We all know that the answer to any question known by humankind can be found in a small electronic device in your pocket, but an even more interesting and memorable method is to be curious about the people you talk to.

Beyond questioning ideas and people, you can further widen your knowledge and perspective by DOING things that you’re not used to.  Sign up for a short carpentry course. Join a friend who spends their Saturday mornings cooking for the entire week. Try to fix a leaky pipe yourself by watching a video. Volunteer at an animal shelter for a day. Say yes to more things outside of your comfort zone. You’ve likely heard it before, but “No growth comes from comfort zones.”

Be a tourist: your goal should not be to master everything, but rather enjoy the tasting menu of what the world has to offer. Be more playful with your activities and allow yourself to be a novice without being ashamed.

A Look at Cross-Pollination in Business 

Why and how to mix ideas at work

These two points might be convincing enough on a personal level, but where it gets really impactful is in terms of business, innovation and problem-solving. These are the fields where multiplying several seemingly-unconnected ideas can have an exponential ROI. Solving problems by learning from outside of the company’s narrow domain has led to some of history’s most remarkable breakthroughs. 

Let’s consider this recent example:  A company called Sharklet has created surfaces used within the medical industry to inhibit bacterial growth without use of chemicals. They accomplished this through engraving micro-patterns on the surfaces that reduce contamination and make it difficult for bacterias to attach. Where’d they come up with this special pattern? 

By mimicking the form and function of shark skin. These micro-patterns on the skin of sharks make it impossible for algae to attach themselves to their skin.  

In today’s increasingly complex business landscape, another way to nurture cross-pollination is to combine people from different backgrounds. In other words, you can create interdisciplinary teams, where each team member can bring their own perspective, ideas and experience to the table to solve complex problems. Complex problems can arise from several interdependent sources, and more often than not, a single perspective is not enough in order to see the full picture. Sometimes the solution is not only a “marketing-solution” or an “engineering-solution” or a “design-solution,” but rather the solution spans across different departments and disciplines. 

Being Interdisciplinary is not only beneficial for large organizations

Furthermore, in an environment of scarce resources, both in nature and business, creating these “idea-cocktails” could turn out to be crucial.

For example, a small company, on the same playing field as established, multi-million dollar organizations, would benefit even more by deploying innovative initiatives to stand out and garner attention. These original ideas or  “hacks” can’t use the same conventional methods that rely on large budgets and armies of employees in order to be heard. They MUST be different.

The quickest way to create a new “aha” moment - be it an idea, marketing plan, product or experience is by combining multiple thoughts from different domains. 

How to Make Cross-Pollination Work at Work 

Besides becoming a Polymath on your own terms, when it comes to a work setting, there are few practical ways to nurture creativity and cross-pollination of ideas.  One obvious method is to create ad-hoc and multi-functional teams to solve a specific problem, each bringing their own flavor to the table. Another way to solve complex problems is to zoom out of the problem and see external effects. By looking at the problem through a wider perspective, you’ll begin to see relationships and causes outside your narrow, default way of thinking. Also, since you’re already on your way to becoming a polymath, you can try to think about how this problem may have appeared (and been resolved) in another, unrelated field.

These tips resemble how we operate at Q Behavioral Thinking. Q is a team of interdisciplinary members solving problems across industries. And, the beauty within these tailored teams is that they all are built with individuals who are experts in their respective fields.  Although the team members' expertise is diverse, they all have one thing in common: insatiable curiosity.

Today, a few decades after that history test I should have been studying for, I’ve come to love my weird treasure chest of random knowledge and skills. While the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” may seem derogatory, a true polymath would know the phrase has been cut short by a few words - the complete quote is actually:

“A jack of all trades is a master of none,
but oftentimes better than a master of one."

“In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again.”

— Yuval Noah Harari

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