The chaos and crises of the last two years have created all kinds of questions for leaders and organizations. One of the biggest questions is: Do we have new ideas about where to look for new ideas? When it comes to innovation and problem-solving, there will always be a place for old-fashioned, time-consuming R&D — research & development. Today, though, there is also a place for a different kind of R&D — rip off and duplicate. The fastest way for organizations to make sense of challenges they are seeing for the first time is to survey unrelated fields for ideas that have been working for a long time. Why gamble on untested strategies and insights if you can quickly apply strategies and insights that are already proven elsewhere? That’s how leaders can help their colleagues keep learning as fast as the world is changing.
A big challenge in times of disruption and uncertainty is for people and organizations to keep learning as fast as the world is changing — to analyze problems they haven’t encountered before, to make sense of opportunities they haven’t thought about before, to process emotions they haven’t experienced before.
That’s why leaders should encourage their colleagues to learn from experts in fields they haven’t worked in before. Practices that are routine in one industry can be revolutionary when they migrate to another industry, especially when they challenge conventional wisdom in that industry. What better way to fuel your company’s imagination than to look for inspiration outside your field? If you want to learn fast, learn from strangers.
In their well-researched guide to leadership and organizational learning, Christopher E. Bogan and Michael J. English share a case study from business history that illustrates how accepted ideas from one field can quickly transform another field. “In 1912, a curious Henry Ford watched men cut meat during a tour of a Chicago slaughterhouse,” Bogan and English write. “The carcasses were hanging on hooks mounted on a monorail. After each man performed his job, he would push the carcass to the next station. When the tour was over, the guide said, ‘Well, sir, what do you think?’ Mr. Ford turned to the man and said, ‘Thanks, son, I think you may have given me a real good idea.’ Less than six months later, the world’s first assembly line started producing magnetos in the Ford Highland Park Plant.”
Or consider a more timely case study: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal described how the chaplain of an overwhelmed hospital in Chicago helped nurses deal with the mental and emotional fallout of the early Covid-19 wave and the rise of the Omicron variant. This chaplain, who was also an Army veteran, “noticed that phrases nurses were using in conversation sounded like what he had heard from troops who had served in combat zones.” So he borrowed concepts and techniques developed by the Army to help troops deal with the trauma of war to create a program to help nurses stay strong as they waged war on the virus. “He could actually draw that parallel between us and people that have been veterans of war,” one nurse marveled about the chaplain and his program. “I never even made that connection because for me — I’ve been a nurse for 20 years on this unit — I’ve never seen this kind of trauma to our team ever. So when he made that connection, I was like, oh my gosh, how have I never realized that?”
Not all cases of learning from strangers can be this inspiring, but they can be just as effective. Several years ago, for example, London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, renowned for its cardiac care, was struggling with poorly designed “handoffs” when it transferred patients from one step of a complex medical procedure to the next. So Dr. Martin Elliot, head of cardiac surgery, and Dr. Allan Goldman, head of pediatric intensive care, studied high-powered professionals from a totally unrelated field who were better than anyone at organizing handoffs — the pit crew of Ferrari’s Formula One racing team.
The doctors and the pit crew worked together at the team’s racing center in Italy, at the British Grand Prix, and in the hospital’s operating room. Members of the pit crew were struck by how clumsy the hospital’s handoff process was, not to mention the fact that it often lacked a clear leader. (In Formula One races, a so-called “lollipop man” wields an easy-to-see paddle and calls the shots.) Moreover, they noted how noisy the process was. Ferrari pit crews operate largely in silence, despite (or because of) the roar of engines around them. Thanks to the techniques they learned from these outsiders — techniques that were accepted wisdom in racing circles — the hospital redesigned its handoff procedures and sharply reduced medical errors.
Learning from strangers doesn’t always have to be about dealing with an unfamiliar situation or solving a specific problem. Colonel Dean Esserman, during his transformational tenure as chief of police in Providence, Rhode Island, pushed his insular department to open itself up in general to original ideas, fresh perspectives, and new ways of thinking. One of his initiatives was a fabulously creative program called “Cops and Docs.” On a regular basis, Esserman’s detectives sat in with doctors at Brown University Medical School as they discussed tough cases. The detectives watched and listened as the doctors analyzed clues about a patient (symptoms), sorted through evidence (test results), and identified the culprit (disease).
In turn, doctors sat in on the police department’s command meeting to learn how cops dealt with conflicting and confusing information, ruled out suspects, and cracked their cases. Esserman’s goal was for his department to “become a place that embraces research, that figures out and spreads methodologies that work in ways that medical schools do.” For set-in-their-ways detectives to learn new perspectives on policing, their chief understood they had to learn from experts in a field unrelated to policing.
The chaos and crises of the last two years have created all kinds of questions for leaders and organizations. One of the biggest questions is: Do we have new ideas about where to look for new ideas? When it comes to innovation and problem-solving, there will always be a place for old-fashioned, time-consuming R&D — research & development.
Today, though, there is also a place for a different kind of R&D — rip off and duplicate. The fastest way for organizations to make sense of challenges they are seeing for the first time is to survey unrelated fields for ideas that have been working for a long time. Why gamble on untested strategies and insights if you can quickly apply strategies and insights that are already proven elsewhere? That’s how leaders can help their colleagues keep learning as fast as the world is changing.