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Why Companies Desperately Need Generalists to Innovate

4 ways generalist collaborators fuel the power of companies innovation strategy

Over the last ten years, open innovation has become a recurring issue in the management of large companies. More organizations have dreamed of extensive collaboration across their various departments and with external partners as their innovation ideal.

But fewer people ask about which type of employees can best contribute to these new types of organizations. According to David Epstein in Range, the number one value of these employees is the broad and varied range of their skills.

Creative collaborators are less and fewer lifetime specialists in one area of expertise, and more and more generalists who often change fields and can think about cross-cutting issues. Their innovations come less and less from the depth of their knowledge and more and more from the breadth of their thinking.

Here, a few examples to demonstrate how you can become one yourself—or benefit from their talents.

Generalists achieve match quality quicker

You might have felt it that way too: it is difficult to find the vocation that will define your life. It is often the result of a long trial and error between several trials and experiences.

By inventing the concept of “match quality”, the economist Ofer Malamud of Northwestern University tried to understand this late specialization in life. He explained how, before entering the job market, students have two choices: either specialize quickly and study a field at length, or try different professional experiments and then find out. Among the two, it was admitted that the first choice seemed to benefit more students, since students are confronted more quickly to their match quality.

To attest to his idea, Malamud has analyzed data from thousands of former students in the United Kingdom and has come across really different paths and outcomes. He found that students in Scotland were finding it harder to specialize early than those in Wales and England; but strangely enough, that didn’t mean they were finally falling behind.

On the contrary, by experimenting with different career options, they had a better chance of assessing alternative options and eventually finding what they really liked. Namely, a quality match that matched their skills and desires.

By being able to take an interest in different types of jobs, these generalist students knew their strengths and weaknesses much better and were much more suited to their jobs. So, like them, you may learn to be interested in a diversity of expertise to find the one where you can bring the most value.

Field outsiders see structural similarities better

Shubin Dai, a specialist in bank data analysis is maybe one of the best model of the outsider.

Passionate about his data financial work, he also spends his time responding to the various challenges posed by Kaggle, a community of data scientists. Quite surprisingly, he enjoys working on various topics such as nature conservation and medicine where he has gained considerable knowledge. For example, in these fields, he has achieved to identify the human causes of deforestation in the Amazon, and he has become a leading expert in disease prediction.

Like Kaggle, these kinds of outsiders are more and more prospected by companies, as they respond perfectly to the issue of open innovation. They have increasingly been opposed to the field insiders that know deeply their stuff, but have been suspected of being blinded by the limits of their own expertise.

The outsider specific talents have been based on what researchers have conversely called the “outside view”. It consists in relying not on familiar experience or analogies but on more distant and deeper analogies. By adopting an open perspective, they can seek and find similar structures with their project and thus better judge as they compare it with examples from other horizons.

InnoCentive is an organization that has tried to promote an outsider-like vision of innovation. It has bet on open-mindedness by setting up crowdsourcing with communities of various specialists. Thus, biologists or chemistry specialists can work on issues as distant from their field than IT or network architecture issues. Yet, by providing diverse and open expertise, they find connections that the clients themselves haven’t found about.

This enables InnoCentive to have a 75% more chance of success in their clients’ projects, compared to the 20% of corporate and internal research projects.

The bottom line is that organizations need to rely more and more on collaborators who have remote expertise and are therefore more original and accurate on their issues.

Polymath inventors find more concrete opportunities

Andrew Ouderkirk is a physical chemist who had a funny idea in his head. Noticing how water bottles refracted light differently depending on the angle, he wondered one day if it was possible to create a plastic film that diffused light in all directions.

This then led him to find a special kind of glitter that radiated much better; but he didn’t expect to find such a revolutionary application for them.

By inserting this material into smartphones, LED bulbs, and solar panels, it enhances with gigantic power the radiation and energy of the light to be provided. This invention led him to create 3M, one of the most innovative companies in the world. But also to study more closely the specifics of successful researchers.

Together with research collaborators, he studied hundreds of inventor profiles, dividing them into several types. There are researchers who specialize in a field and make discoveries that improve the technique of his field. There are generalist researchers who work in fields and subjects that are often quite different. Actually, what he found is that these two types have rather similar contributions.

By extensive research, his team found a third type, which is the polymath inventors. They define themselves both by particular expertise on a subject and by a thirst to explore other fields all the time. Consequently, they had a much better contribution, capable of invoking their expertise and perspective on various issues.

By broadening the application of its knowledge to distant fields, they increase their innovative power. Like them, try to get closer to the polymath kind of curiosity, and chance are you’re not far from finding new kind of applications in various fields.

Broad thinkers get the best of the team knowledge

Wondering how experts and consultants always reached a perfect contradiction, Philip Tetlock is a political expert who wanted to analyze more closely their argument and reasoning differences. He then came up with the idea of studying almost 300 experts on different subjects to analyze the accuracy of their predictions.

The results of his experiment revealed that most of the experts were not good at predicting in the short term and very bad in the long term. But there were certain types of experts who were more successful than others.

Unlike specialists and visionary thinkers who brought all the facts into their analysis, integrative experts were able to consider arguments that did not fit with their theories and even challenge them. Also, they could easily debate with other thinkers and collaborate with them to advance their ideas.

As such, they did not stop at one area of expertise but were comfortable multiplying different perspectives. What made them different was their critical thinking and collaborative skill that allowed them to get the best out of other people’s ideas.

Through these abilities, these experts proved themselves to be the most accurate in their analysis and to bring the most benefit to companies. Try getting closer to them to use their relevant and much more reasoned insights.

By drawing inspiration from these especially illuminated innovators, expand your knowledge and skills to boost your thinking.

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