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Cathy Waters joined her passion for books with her interest in IT to co-found the former Abebooks used-book database, later acquired by Amazon. (ARNOLD LIM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Cathy Waters joined her passion for books with her interest in IT to co-found the former Abebooks used-book database, later acquired by Amazon. (ARNOLD LIM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Creativity Gap

How outsiders solve problems that stump experts Add to ...

The year was 1500, and Bayezid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had a problem. He wanted to build a bridge connecting old Istanbul with the fast growing Karaköy neighbourhood, which lay across a wide inlet of the Bosphorus called the Golden Horn. Even the Romans, with their bridge-building prowess, hadn’t attempted to span the Golden Horn.

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A design was solicited from Leonardo da Vinci, an unlikely source both because of the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire and because he was better known as a painter than an engineer at the time. The endlessly curious da Vinci had been playing with an idea for a self-supported bridge design for nearly two decades. He proposed an elegant and novel solution: a 240-metre single-span bridge, which would have been the longest in the world, made possible by combining geometric concepts to alter a classic keystone arch design.

Sultan Bayezid rejected the design, believing it couldn't possibly work. It would be 300 years before the engineering principals behind da Vinci's bridge were widely accepted. Finally, in 2001, his idea was shown to be feasible when a bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.

Da Vinci was, the classic polymath, with incredible achievements in fields as varied as mathematics and music, botany and sculpting. Yet, the tale of his impossible bridge is an important lesson in the value of an outsider's perspective. Da Vinci was able to conceptualize how the world's longest bridge could span the Golden Horn, a problem that stumped expert bridge builders for centuries, because his creativity wasn't held back by a familiarity with the typical barriers of bridge building. He needed a great deal of knowledge about engineering to be able to understand the problem, of course, but his expertise in other fields allowed him to think differently and more creatively than others.

This is the power of a fresh set of eyes in problem solving. “Radical innovations often happen at the intersections of disciplines,” write Dr. Karim Lakhani and Dr. Lars Bo Jeppesen, of Harvard Business School and Copenhagen Business School respectively, in the Harvard Business Review. “The more diverse the problem-solving population, the more likely a problem is to be solved. People tend to link problems that are distant from their fields with solutions that they've encountered in their own work.”

Dr. Lakhani's and Dr. Jeppesen's ideas about how to tap the unique creativity of amateur strangers come from their study of the company InnoCentive, Inc., which posts tough R&D problems online for anyone to solve. InnoCentive was pioneered by executives at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly who were unhappy with their R&D department's creative output. Instead of throwing more money at the same organic chemistry problems only to be studied by the same experts, they thought, why not offer a reward to anyone who could produce a solution?

Within months, Eli Lilly received many inventive solutions that had eluded its highly qualified staff researchers, and since then other Fortune 500 companies like General Electric and Kraft Foods have used InnoCentive to broadcast stubborn problems on the Internet. Dr. Lakhani's and Dr. Jeppesen's study of InnoCentive found that 30 per cent of these challenges that confounded experienced corporate researchers were solved by non-employees. Dr. Lakhani's and Dr. Jeppesen's most interesting finding? The solvers weren't experts in relevant fields. In one case, a molecular biology problem was solved by an aerospace physicist and a small agriculture business owner.

“We assume that technical problems can be solved only by people with technical expertise,” writes Jonah Lehrer, who discusses InnoCentive in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. “But that assumption is wrong. The people deep inside a domain – the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem – often suffer from a type of intellectual handicap. It's not until the challenge is shared with motivated outsiders that the solution can be found.”

THREE CREATIVE OUTSIDERS

Cathy Waters, the computer savvy bookseller

The Problem

It was 1994 when Cathy Waters, a consultant for the B.C. government, decided to make a career change. On an impulse, she picked up a book from the library about running a bookstore. “I can do that,” she thought. Within months of purchasing Victoria's Timeless Books, Waters encountered an irritating problem. When she wanted to seek out rare used books for customers, her only option was to post an advertisement in the industry publication AB Bookman's Weekly. In response, she received daily stacks of mail for weeks, on recipe cards, foolscap, postcards, you name it. Deciphering handwriting and compiling book information became a daunting chore.

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