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The creative asset you're probably ignoring right now

Tue Jul 7 2016 Michael McQueen

We often assume that innovation and strategy ought to be the domain of those with experience and expertise. The novice, the newbie or the inexperienced is often told, even if indirectly, to learn ‘how things are done around here’ and only to make suggestions once they’ve earned the right to have an opinion.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if the most valuable source of strategic innovation and creativity is actually the person with almost no experience?

Old information looked at through new perspectives makes new information, said futurist Alvin Toffler, and he’s right. Quite simply, leveraging the insights of those who have a fresh perspective is a powerful way of imagining new opportunities and solutions that may not otherwise have been apparent. 

Consider the creative power of fresh eyes:

  • Having grown up in Kabul, Afghanistan, Massoud Hassani was more than familiar with the scourge of land mines. However, his formative years also offered him a unique perspective that spawned a remarkably innovative way to deal with minefield’s dotted around the worlds trouble spots. Without the benefit of advanced studies in weaponry and disarmament, Hassani’s brilliant idea came from an observation of nature – the behavior of a tumbleweed to be exact. Noticing how tumbleweeds would blow freely in the wind rolling gently along the ground, Hassani came up with the design for an artificial tumbleweed made up of 200 bamboo rods and plastic feet. Heavy enough to trigger mines, light enough to be blown by the wind, and flexible enough to withstand multiple blasts per unit, Hassani’s ingenious invention became known as a Mine Kafon (‘mine exploder’ in his native language) and has saved countless lives around the world.

 

  • In a similar display of naïve brilliance, take the case of a 14­year­old Pittsburgh student by the name of Suvir Mirchandani. Noticing how many printed handouts he was receiving in middle school, the environmentally and economically sensitive Suvir began to wonder if there was a way to minimize the amount of ink being used by his school – especially considering ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume. Collecting random samples of teachers' handouts, Suvir concentrated on the most commonly used characters (e, t, a, o and r). First, he charted how often each character was used in four different typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. Then he measured how much ink was used for each letter. Next he enlarged the letters, printed them and cut them out on cardstock paper to weigh them to verify his findings. He did three trials for each letter, graphing the ink usage for each font. No-one could question this 14-year-old’s attention to detail! From this analysis, Suvir figured out that by using Garamond with its thinner strokes, his school district could reduce its ink consumption by 24%, and in turn save as much as $21,000 annually. Taking his findings one step further, Suvir calculated that if the U.S. federal government used Garamond exclusively, it could save nearly $136 million per year.

Whether it is a new staff member who has just joined the team or a young person who hasn’t yet ‘learned their place’, the beauty of those with fresh eyes is that they have no trouble thinking outside the box because they don’t yet know what the box even looks like. More importantly people with fresh eyes are blissfully unaware of how things have always been done. As The Forgotten Plague author Frank Ryan suggests, “Solutions often lie in unexpected places where only beginners might bother to look.”

Attesting to this fact, a Harvard Business Review article from November 2014 argued the best ideas often come from outside your industry. Three European economics professors conducted a study of roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters to collect ideas on how to improve the comfort of their respective safety gear. What’s fascinating is each group came up with better ideas to improve gear from the other two fields than its own.

While there are numerous ways to leverage the value of fresh eyes, the important thing is that the ideas and input of those ‘outside the box’ are always encouraged and heard. This is perhaps the best and only way to generate truly revolutionary ideas and get perspectives that those too invested in or close to the status quo will never see.

As Marshall McLuhan once famously said, “I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”