One of the best ways to solve problems is to look outside your sector

Written by
Victoria Harrison-Mirauer

30 Nov 2019

30 Nov 2019 • by Victoria Harrison-Mirauer

Collaborating with others and seeking answers from the outside world is the key to defying the gravity of modern problem solving, according to Victoria Harrison-Mirauer.

Whatever problems your organization faces, someone, somewhere has probably solved your innovation challenge.

It might be that they are operating in an entirely different sector or different geography, but the principles behind the problem at hand are the same. Organisations often fall into the trap of looking too closely within their own sector to seek out solutions.

Often, the answers with potential lie much further afield. Looking outside your sector offers three important opportunities: first, it opens your mind to new possibilities, taking you out of your ‘river of thinking’; second, gaining insight into how others are solving issues for the same principles helps you to think in new ways, and third, it creates the networking every innovative leader needs to collaborate in the new innovation ecosystem.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, senior leaders from an industrial manufacturing company visited a range of organisations to open their eyes to new ways of thinking and approaches to innovation, and to broaden the solution space as they consider their innovation challenges. One of the topics at hand was approaches to sustainability, so team members immersed themselves in ‘green and clean’ tech initiatives. They heard from start-ups working on waste management to cleaning our plastic-filled oceans, took part in sessions with leading academics and heard from government leaders and the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution about its global initiatives. They even ate Impossible Foods’ plant-grown burgers. This wasn’t about corporate tourism, but immersive experiences, curated conversations, knowledge exchange, peer-to-peer learning and networking.

When thinking about where to start with your own innovation challenge, start by identifying its principles, and then find related areas of work in that field of enquiry. A brilliant example was the renovation of New York’s JFK Airport Terminal 5. The principle challenge for architectural firm Rockwell Group, in designing a new airport terminal interior, was to rethink how people move through spaces, so they asked themselves “who else solves problems for the movement of groups of people?” That led them to work with renowned choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

At first, the engagement of a choreographer in an airport terminal design isn’t intuitive, but when the principle becomes the start-point, this kind of collaboration seems like an “of course”.

Victoria Harrison-Mirauer is discipline lead for innovation at Ashridge Hult International Business School and runs private innovation practice The Ideas Machine.