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Innovation vs. Industry Thinking (Jim Karrh On Marketing) – Arkansas Business Online

Where are you getting fresh ideas for your business? Are you better off looking within your industry, or outside of it?

This important question came back to mind a few weeks ago. I have a new client looking to expand his surgical practice, and as a means to get up to speed quickly I attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery with him and his team. It was a great opportunity to ask (admittedly) basic questions of other physicians, exhibitors and administrators.

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About a dozen marketing firms attended the meeting as exhibitors and sponsors.

Their leaders were there to touch base with clients and, especially, to develop leads for new business.

During the course of three days I spoke with professionals from all of them. The most impressive were those whose client list included people from outside the immediate world of LASIK and cataract surgeons, such as optometry, plastic surgery, dentistry and urgent care.

That’s no surprise. In a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review (“Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry”), researchers Marion Poetz, Nikolaus Franke and Martin Schreier concluded, “Over the course of years of studying innovation, we’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level.”

As one example, the authors cited the story of how 3M, which was looking for new ways to prevent infections associated with surgery, got its best input from a theatrical-makeup specialist who knew a lot about preventing facial skin infections.

The authors say the key is to identify “analogous fields” to our own, both the ones closely analogous and others that on the surface might seem less so. It’s a useful innovation strategy for a couple of reasons. People who are experts in analogous fields draw upon different bodies of knowledge. They are also less constrained by existing “everybody already knows that” approaches to the problem.

Many executives know this implicitly. When I interviewed an oil refinery manager a few years ago, he told me that he hears mostly the same things when attending industry conferences. He was yearning to hear about the things that plant-manager peers in different yet related fields, such as mining, had to say.

You might wonder about the practicality of all this. It’s one thing to generate new ideas that sound cool and innovative, but quite another to put them into practice profitably. Those authors acknowledge that potential trade-off; they recommend you “consider using knowledge from analogous fields mainly as a starting point for further development of practical ideas.”

We can learn a lot from professionals in different areas. The difficulty is getting access to them. I find that innovative leaders are very intentional about reading and listening outside of their industry. Many make it a point to attend meetings with peers from other industries, listen to podcasts or bring in outside experts and speakers to interact with their own teams.

As one other example, consider Bill Gates. During a 2013 profile by Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes,” Gates and his wife, Melinda, were asked about their reading habits at home. It came up that Bill Gates would sit and read an entire book about a topic such as fertilizer. When asked about that example, Gates said, “Well, fertilizers are very interesting. … [A few] billion people would have to die if we hadn’t come up with fertilizer.”

How is it with you and your team? Are there other — seemingly dissimilar — industries, topics or experts that might be a source for innovative ideas?

Jim Karrh, Ph.D., of Little Rock is a consultant and professional speaker, a consulting principal with DSG, and host of “The Manage Your Message Podcast.” See, email him at and follow him on Twitter @JimKarrh.

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