In September of 2006, Boeing executive Alan Mullaly was named the new CEO of Ford Motor Company. Not only did he have zero experience in the auto industry, he drove a Lexus (shocking!).

The hiring decision was widely panned by industry experts and “regular people” alike. But Mullaly wasn’t fazed. When asked how he was going to tackle something as complex and unfamiliar as the auto industry, particularly given the financial shape Ford was in at the time, he replied, “An automobile has about 10,000 moving parts, right? An airplane has two million, and it has to stay up in the air.”

In the end, Mullaly was credited with having led a significant turnaround of Ford, which was also the only major auto manufacturer that didn’t require a government bailout during the great recession.

Industry Expertise is Overrated

When speaking with prospective clients, I am often asked whether I am an expert in their particular industry. While there are a few industries in which I have spent a number of years (e.g., retail, consumer products, health & human services, disease-based nonprofits), there are many more in which I have not.

In practice, however, lack of industry-specific experience is not usually a limitation. While it’s true that some understanding of the industry is critical, an outside resource can draw on the expertise that resides within the client organization, and from speaking with industry participants and analysts.

The truth is, if you are seeking creative and innovative ideas, they often come from looking at things from a different perspective — a perspective that is more likely in the possession of those with experiences across multiple and different industries.

There are many examples of this…

In my work with a major manufacturer of replacement auto windshields, we saw early indications that a competitor might “roll up” a large number of independent shops, potentially creating a large and formidable chain. Because I had lived through a similar scenario with an industrial gas company client, we were able to take steps to disrupt the pattern.

In India, an organization called Aravind Eye Hospital created an innovative way to eliminate needless blindness using a variation of “production line” processes to perform a large number of critical cataract surgeries. Apparently, the founder was inspired by having observed the production process at a McDonald’s restaurant during a visit to the US.

Or consider the example of retail giant Staples, launched in the 1980s by former supermarket executives who wanted to become “the Toys ‘R Us of office supplies,” a company that itself was initially inspired by supermarkets!

The point is, some of your best and most creative ideas are going to be found in uncommon places … provided you are willing to look.

Recommendations

Read broadly. In today’s online environment, where so many sources deliberately direct us to news items that align with our interests, it can take intentional action to read outside our field.

That may involve reading trade journals from other industries (I receive a lot of these, having worked with a wide variety of companies); reading the local newspaper, in your own city or from other parts of the country; or reading nonfiction books that have nothing to do with your day-to-day work. All of these can get you thinking more creatively.

Copy regularly. If yours is a regional organization, perhaps other companies in different locations or markets have faced similar challenges. How can you learn from their solutions? When I worked at a regional supermarket chain early in my career, the CEO had built relationships with CEOs of chains outside our region. I learned a lot about in-store bakery operations from a visit to Wegmans in NY State.

Likewise, consider studying organizations in “adjacent” spaces to yours. Inspiration for the novel “Cure GBM” approach at the National Brain Tumor Society came from ideas we gleaned by looking at innovators focused on Alzheimer’s and Muscular Dystrophy diseases.

Hire strategically. If you need help improving activities that are core to your business (operations, manufacturing, etc.), hiring an industry expert makes sense. However, if you are thinking about strategy or innovation, you may find that an industry expert has the same limitations as you. Those with experience in other fields or disciplines may be a useful source of creativity and differentiation.

But beware of one thing… it’s important to ensure that the examples you choose to follow are the right ones.

Several years ago, and speaking of Staples, former executives from that company launched a flower-shop concept called KaBloom. It was driven, in part, by the observation that in cities across Europe, people bring flowers home every day. So, they built a large chain of flower shops on corner locations. Unfortunately, it turns out that activity in European cities was not driven by the availability of flower shops. Rather, the availability of flower shops was driven by the culture of buying flowers every day!

Conclusion

The Director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT deliberately had the building designed so that scientists and engineers would be forced to walk through shared common areas. In this way, they would encounter each other frequently, increasing the opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas.

And yet, in industry after industry, I encounter prospective clients whose natural instinct is to do precisely the opposite: seek assistance from people who have years of experience in their field, and who therefore share a common background, understanding, and approach.

Therein lies the limitation. Innovation, it’s often said, occurs at the intersection of disciplines, where a different perspective can bring new ideas to light. Whether you use outside help or make a determined effort to look in other places, make sure to wander outside your area of specific expertise — you might be surprised by what you find.

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