The first time I heard about “cross-pollination” as a discipline was when I was reading the book the 10 Faces of Innovation (a great book, and definitely worth reading if you, or your team, want to be a bit more innovative).
The book defines cross-pollinators as the following:
“The Cross-Pollinator draws associations and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts to break new ground. Armed with a wide set of interests, an avid curiosity, and an aptitude for learning and teaching, the Cross-Pollinator brings in big ideas from the outside world to enliven their organization. People in this role can often be identified by their open mindedness, diligent note-taking, tendency to think in metaphors, and ability to reap inspiration from constraints.”
About a year after I read that book, I was studying more ways “to be smarter”. During that research I came across even more examples of how cross-pollination can lead to great ideas.
For example, the story about James Dyson and the vacuum cleaner he created after a visit to a sawmill where he observed the workers using a cyclone to collect the sawdust generated from cutting the wood. He was inspired by the technology, and saw the possibilities for an idea to work outside the context it was already working in – and he turned that inspiration into a hugely successful company.
Intuitively, when I read that story and others like it, I knew that cross-pollination was valuable, but I wasn’t immediately sure how to apply these ideas to my own work.
Where do great ideas come from?
I decided to take inventory of my ideas. Where am I when I come up with good ideas? What am I doing? What is my train of thoughts?
I started taking notes, not just to note down my good ideas, but also to keep track of the context in which they came to me.
During that time my good ideas came to me in the following places:
- Taking a shower (x6)
- Conversations with other people (x4)
- Driving by myself (x4)
- Listening to work-related audiobooks (x2)
I was surprised none of them were at my computer or when I was “working”. For me, I am most innovative when I am not focused on work. In fact, most of my good ideas came during times when I was exploring different paths – either by letting my own mind wander, or through the dialog and questions from other people. In that way, my mind was able to recall and apply information in a useful way; in other words, I was cross-pollinating already, without even realizing it.
To be good at cross-pollination implies that you are able to compare, and recall information out of the context in which you learned it. Applying knowledge in unusual ways requires out-of-the-box thinking.
Our minds work in contexts (for example, when we are in the kitchen we think about food). However, you can learn to break your mind out of these contexts, and recall and apply knowledge more readily with practice.
Honing your cross-pollination skills
There are lots of ways to improve your ability recall and apply knowledge; I have summarized four of my favorite methods below that I have found particularly useful.
#1. Think in analogies
If you think about things you see and read in terms of relationships or connections, it helps you draw on that information in multiple different ways, increasing your ability to recall it when you need it.
In other words, don’t just read the words in front of you. Read them with an eye open for how they may connect with something else going on in your life or work. In that way, you’ll be more ready and likely to see connections when they exist.
You can also reframe your problems or situations into different guises. To do this, instead of focusing on the details of a problem at hand, distill it down to its essence.
If you are trying to redesign a teapot, for example, you could rephrase your problem to finding a new way to heat water. Or in the case of me writing this lesson, it isn’t as much about tell you about cross-pollination, as it is sharing actionable ideas to help you be better.
My brain is freed from the context of “writing about cross-pollination” to start thinking about learning and actionable ideas, opening my mind up to explore other concepts.
A great tool for practicing this type of thinking is examining proverbs. Take a list of proverbs and go through them, asking yourself what each one really means. By taking these abstract ideas and distilling them into their meanings, it helps your mind learn to break things down see things in different contexts.
#2 Pay attention
How closely do you notice details? I am always amazed when I read stories like Sherlock Holmes, or tales of spies and assassins. They are able to draw so many conclusions about people from the little things they say and do. Learning to pay attention to details can help you understand the “why” behind how things work (including people).
I am also amazed at the amount of little things I notice in product designs (like the no-slip rubber on the bottom of my oxo mixing bowl) or in customer service (the special little notes that come packaged with my receipt) that I then find ways to apply to my own work.
As you go through your life make notes of the little details. What experiences impress you? What little details delight you? You would be amazed at how those little things can give you inspiration to do your own impressive little things.
#3 Seek out great ideas in other industries
Gaining knowledge can just happen to you, but it can happen much faster if you’re proactively trying to find it. Once a week, spend 10 minutes reading about innovations in other fields or disciplines. Put it on your calendar so you actually do it.
You can even assign a topic to each appointment (or create a list so you can just reference it then). How to pick topics? Well that is easy – learning about innovations can be as simple as learning how things work.
- Do you know how refrigerators stay cold? Really know, in lots of detail. Can you recite all 20 steps in the process?
- How about radios? How does the sound come out of the speakers?
- How does fruit make it to the supermarket? What innovations have they created to keep things ripe? Which fruits will ripen after being picked?
- Think about the things around you – how did it get there? What was involved in creating it? What improvements have been made over time?
Learning about the process, construction, and workings of things can help you make connections and cross-pollinate ideas into your own work. It also makes it easier to come up with future topics to learn about!
#4 Take notes
Or if you don’t like to take notes, do whatever you need to do to commit things to memory. What’s important here is making an effort to remember the things you see and learn.
If you don’t try to recap or remember all the great things you learn and see, how can you ever expect to recall them when those ideas will be useful?
Develop a system that works for you and stick with it.
Putting it into practice
What can you do to improve your cross-pollination skills? This week try to adapt at least one of the 4 suggestions into your flow.
Want more tips and ideas? Check out these other resources:
- The Secret to Creativity
- Lawrence Lessig: Laws that choke creativity (TED talk)
- How To Make Innovative Ideas Happen
- Book: Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques