There’s a great article this month in Wired magazine on the actual science behind what makes an outsider’s perspective valuable. Considering the issue’s theme, the article’s title seems to suggest that there is something in the way screw ups effect the brain that increases the chances of success in the future.
In actuality, the article discusses the physiological explanations for phenomenon such as “the burden of knowledge” and “confirmation bias.” Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has revealed that our brains edit signals from our senses to fit into a mental model of reality that we have constructed over time. (If you think about it, our senses don’t actually paint a full picture of “reality” anyway, e.g. the visible spectrum of humans does not extend into ultraviolet but it does for bees.)
Our mind has evolved in this way to allow us to quickly make sense of a lot of information at one time. The trade off is that sometimes our mind will simply overlook important information in the interest of expediency. Other times, we’ll misinterpret the information. Think about it: have you ever been working on a paper when at some point you ceased to really see the words on the page, instead almost reading from memory, so that you really couldn’t catch typos?
The article makes a compelling argument for bringing a new perspective in on an issue to help turn a perceived failure into a win. Insiders tend to be operating under similar assumptions so they’ll tend to mishandle information that doesn’t fit well into their mental model in the same. An outsider will have a different mental model, enabling that person to make connections and recognize opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked. While an insider might preemptively eliminate a possible solution from consideration, an outsider who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know is likely to experiment more and look further afield for possible solutions.
Methods such as brainstorming (or ideation, depending on the zeitgeist) have evolved to help disrupt mental models – to color outside of the lines, if you will. Breaking free of the constraints of mental models is also part of what makes open innovation work so well. Open innovation incorporates a much larger, more diverse set of mental models, increasing the chances of uncovering something that was previously overlooked. It is hard to predict where the aha moment is going to come from so open innovation deals with this by spreading its bets. Insiders still play an important role; it’s the combination of insider and outsider perspectives that make open innovation such an effective model though.
I especially enjoyed this article because it validates what I am trying to do with this blog. Most [popular] business bloggers are career coaches, successful entrepreneurs, best selling authors or otherwise have done something to establish their credentials as thought leaders. I do not pretend to be any of those things. I’ve got a good though fairly common resume. MBA from what I consider the best business school in the US, a stint on Wall Street, a stint in management consulting. Enough to have something of an insider’s perspective, but I still consider myself outside the corporate establishment. We’ve stopped questioning some of the standard operating models in business, either because change seems too daunting or because we’ve lost the ability to see a better way. I think there is a better way.