About 25 years ago, when the market for surgical drapes – which medical workers use to prevent infection – was depressingly stagnant, manufacturer 3M established a working group to look into trends in infection control. As its members travelled the world in search of ideas, they woke up to the fact that medics in developing countries urgently needed help in fighting deadly infectious diseases. But even if 3M could radically cut the cost of their drapes, those medics wouldn't be able to afford them.
Then, 3M opened up their networks and their thinking.
Veterinary hospitals, they discovered, were able to keep infection rates low despite serious cost constraints. Another source of new thinking was Hollywood: make-up artists were experts in using inexpensive materials that did not irritate the skin and were easy to remove. The result was several new product lines for 3M, and a completely new approach to infection control.
It demonstrates that we can make exceptional discoveries when not constrained by our own expectations, and that looking afield for examples of resilience, inspiration and best practice – even borrowing ideas from seemingly unrelated sources – can create unexpected solutions and drive positive change in the world.
When we discuss diversity, we are usually talking about the need, now more important than ever, to make sure people aren't discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
But there is another reason to value diversity. Diversity of thought – putting together people who have different experiences and perspectives – is one of the best ways to spark fresh ideas and make new discoveries. Freed from the routines and expectations to which we cling, we're more likely to make the breakthroughs we need to solve seemingly intractable problems.
How do we open ourselves up to new possibilities? Reading and research outside your area of expertise can help broaden the mind, as can attending seminars and lectures that may have little to do with your day-to-day business. The latter has the added benefit of expanding your network – interacting with people you would otherwise never meet. Working in a foreign country can open one up to new possibilities, or (like those 3M researchers) help one to understand the demands of different kinds of consumer.
Sometimes learning from a seemingly unrelated industry can spur new thinking. A growing number of health-care providers are drawing on practices in the aviation industry to prevent deaths from medical errors, learning best practices on how to manage on-site emergencies via standard cockpit procedures such as communication protocols, checklists and crew briefings.
For business owners, it can be as simple as making the most of the diversity latent within your organisation. Another way to spark new ideas is to create a working environment where respect for diversity of thought is built in. A survey of 1,800 professionals for the Harvard Business Review discovered that inherent diversity (traits you are born with) and 'acquired diversity' (that gained from experience) were both more valuable than heretofore imagined.
The survey identified six actions that unlocked innovation in a wide range of office environments: making sure that everyone is heard; making it safe to propose new ideas; giving team members decision-making authority; sharing the rewards of success; giving practical feedback; and implementing feedback that comes to you.
Leaders who gave diverse voices a fair hearing, the research discovered, were almost twice as likely as others to uncover value-driving insights.
Hiring diversely in the first place can also help: the research also showed that employees of firms with a diversity of talent were 45 per cent more likely to report growth in market share, and 70 per cent more likely to report that their firm had captured a new market. Advertising jobs through diverse channels (while highlighting diversity in your job descriptions), offering targeted internships and ensuring there is diversity on interview panels are all useful ways to broaden talent searches.
Opening ourselves up to fresh inspiration doesn't have to involve new people at all. Insights from the natural world can help too. As the global battle against malaria stalls, scientists are adding a new tool to their armoury: sniffer dogs.
In recent tests by scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, working alongside colleagues in the Gambia and a charity called Medical Detection Dogs, trained dogs diagnosed malaria infections purely by smelling samples from socks worn briefly by children in West Africa. The canine detective work was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is seeking new, quick, non-invasive ways to diagnose the disease.
Expertise knows what it knows, but it also needs to draw on what it couldn't know. This is where observing the work of experts outside your chosen field is worthwhile. Take the evolution of graphene, one of the most remarkable substances ever discovered.
A single microscopic layer of carbon atoms laid out in a honeycomb-like lattice, graphene is found in objects as common as a pencil. But it took two researchers from the University of Manchester to isolate it, in 2004, by putting sticky tape on a piece of graphite. (The pair won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.) Not only is graphene the world's thinnest material, it is also tougher than diamonds, incredibly flexible, utterly transparent and extremely dense.
The discovery of graphene is less than 20 years old, but it's already brought together academic researchers, entrepreneurs, electrical engineers and scientists at top electronics firms to solve all manner of urgent problems.
The collaboration among different disciplines to change expectations of what is possible is something philosopher Thomas Kuhn might have called a 'paradigm shift'. Graphene's incredible strength could be used to produce advanced bulletproof vests; it might give us a phone so malleable that can be rolled up like a magazine. More crucially, researchers at MIT are convinced it can hasten a world in which solar cells sit invisibly on windows, walls and mobile phones and turn almost every surface into a source of renewable electric power.
That said, solving complex problems doesn't have to involve Nobel prize-winning scientists. In 2011, it took video gamers playing a protein-folding game called Foldit just three weeks to unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that had baffled the scientific community for a decade.
In the present global pandemic, which has fundamentally reshaped the ways we live and work, diversity of thought and openness to new possibilities are vital. We have seen how companies have pivoted to find new avenues of business. Companies such as 3M and others are already producing huge quantities of personal protective equipment.
But the concern is that the measures necessary to protect us from the coronavirus may limit our ability to interact with others and expand our networks. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, sociologists talked about the dangers of online 'echo chambers', where we were exposed only to views indistinguishable from our own. Unchecked, our retreat into post-coronavirus bubbles might make that worse.
This might, of course, never happen. Crises often bring people together, and periods of innovation have followed periods of turmoil throughout history. The benefits of looking beyond our own worlds for inspiration have not gone away.
From the quest for a reliable vaccine to the task of finding exciting new ways of working, we need invention and discovery more than ever. That means reinforcing our commitment to a radical openness, to venturing beyond our comfort zone. Seeing the bigger picture doesn't only change our perspective. It makes our understanding of the tiniest detail sharper.