Innovation Springs from the Unexpected Meeting of Minds

ComstockHere is an excerpt from an article written by Beth Comstock for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Looking for the next breakthrough? Be willing to cross over.

Crossovers are what happen when an invention, idea, or body of knowledge in one field jumps into another — and the result is a quantum leap of progress. Sometimes the people and the pieces we need to put together to get the job done come from the unlikeliest of places:

o The space suits worn by the Apollo astronauts were made not by aerospace contractor Hamilton Standard, as NASA originally intended, but by the seamstresses at ILC Dover, better known as Playtex. It turned out that knowing about couture, the art of constructing garments perfectly fitted to the body, was more important to helping humans survive the vacuum of space than the aerospace engineers initially understood.

o The first pacemaker was conceived not in a lab but at a chance meeting in a Cornell dining hall between two visiting cardiologists and an electrical engineering student. GPS was created over a long lunch at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

o Recent developments in medicine have come from computer games. In just three weeks, the players of Foldit, which simulates protein folding, deciphered a part of the molecular structure of HIV/AIDS that had eluded medical researchers for over a decade.

o By bringing the rhythms and attitude of hip-hop to a historical biography of Alexander Hamilton, composer, lyricist, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda created a “crossover” moment in the form of Hamilton, the hit musical that won the 2016 Grammy award for Best Musical Theater Album.

The lesson: if you’re not making room for the unexpected meeting of minds, you could be missing out on the next big breakthrough. Visionary leaders understand this. They set up the creative, collaborative environments that foster crossovers and the innovations that come from them. Research has validated this approach. A study by Martin Ruef, a professor at Duke University, found that horizontal networks of individuals with a diversity of expertise were three times more likely to innovate than uniform vertical networks.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Beth Comstock was named Vice Chair in August 2015. In this capacity, she leads GE’s efforts to accelerate new growth. She operates GE Business Innovations, which develops new businesses, markets and service models; drives brand value and partners to enhance GE’s inventive culture. This unit includes GE Lighting, GE Ventures & Licensing and GE sales, marketing and communications.

Since 2008, she served as GE’s chief marketing and commercial officer. From 2006, she was President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal overseeing ad revenue and the company’s digital efforts, including early development of hulu.com, Peacock Equity, and acquiring ivillage.com. In 2003 she was named the company’s first chief marketing officer in more than 20 years. Previously, she held a succession of roles at GE, NBC, CBS and Turner Broadcasting.

Beth is a member Nike’s Board of Directors and Trustee president of the Cooper – Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. She graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in biology.

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