Cross-Pollination and Networks
The term cross-pollination comes from botany. It describes when one plant’s pollen ends up pollinating the flower of a genetically different plant. Though that’s a fun fact to know, you are probably more interested in the cross-pollination of ideas. This lesson will explain the concept and give you practical tips for cross-pollinating in your life.
What Is It?
Cross-pollination is used most often to describe the mixing of ideas from disparate industries or areas of expertise.
Good ideas are rarely industry- or application-specific. A good idea for getting people around town via a smartphone app (Uber) might just also work for getting meals around town (UberEATS). Or perhaps something used for digital communication (email) can be repurposed to help educate and share information (Highbrow!).
Cross-pollination is everywhere. One of the more innovative companies in the world has it right in their mission statement: “We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot.” (Apple) If it’s working for them, it might just be useful for you to create great ideas.
Why It Works
Why does cross-pollination create good ideas? The answer lies in the fact that new ideas are born out of other ideas. As Steven Johnson put it, “Ideas are born in networks.” In this case, he’s talking about networks of people sharing ideas.
Rarely is a new idea so completely original that it’s completely unrelated to another idea that existed before. As such, you can think of existing ideas as the fuel for new ideas, much like existing flowers are the fuel for future flowers. If you want to create a great new flower, mix two
other plants together in a unique way. (See how I came full circle on that analogy?)
Environments for Cross-Pollination
Now that you understand what cross-pollination is, step two is to learning how to design an environment where it can happen readily. Here are a few key environmental or cultural characteristics for encouraging cross-pollination.
A diverse group. Whether it be your team at work or the people you mingle with on the weekends, the diversity of the people you surround yourself with will drive the diversity of the ideas you are exposed to. Bringing people from different backgrounds and life experiences together is the most obvious way to ensure exposure to different ideas.
A case study on team diversity: One study from the early 2000s examined the innovation output of different teams at various companies. When controlled for the diversity of the team (whether the team members had a similar or diverse background from one another), the researchers found that the potential for breakthrough ideas was highest when the team was most diverse. It’s not a universal causation type of situation, but it’s fair to say that the potential for truly new ideas is correlated with the diversity of a team.
Mixing. Simply being around people with a wide range of backgrounds is not enough. There has to be interaction. This can be accomplished organically, but more often, it needs to be nudged, encouraged, or downright forced.
Mechanisms to encourage the mixing of teams include deliberately random seating arrangements, pulling people together in meetings or activities, or even just getting people together for lunch. I find if free food is involved, people will do pretty much anything.
If you’re working independently and seeking cross-pollination, there are a few places to find this diversity. Look for places where freelancers work, such as WeWork spaces or coffee shops. Attending conferences or seminars, though sometimes pricey, can also be effective. Look online for advice on networking, and you’re sure to see some useful guidance.
One last tip. Read! Reading books and articles from outside your field is one obvious and easy method of exposing yourself to new ideas. Since you’re taking this course, I would think you would agree!
Cross-pollination exposes you to different ideas and perspectives. This provides unique opportunities for new combinations of ideas to come together. Ideas are born in networks, so choose your network carefully.
Next lesson, we’ll discuss a very focused form of a network: a brainstorming session.
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