Sometimes your biggest opportunity can come come from where you least expect it. In this article I'll show how formidable steps in innovation have been taken on the back of the most unusual partnerships as illustrated in the following five examples.
Firstly, take the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train, capable of speeds over 200mph. Seeking to reduce noise and improve aerodynamics Eiji Nakatsu, the train's chief engineer (and keen birdwatcher) designed the train's nose to reflect the incredibly streamlined kingfisher's beak.
Similarly, two surgeons from London's Great Ormond Street Hospital took inspiration from Formula One pit technicians. When they saw the split-second efficiency of a pit stop they made the connection that would save lives. Recognising the need for clearly defined tasks and prioritisation, the racing experts helped re-write the handover procedure. The number of technical errors and information handover mistakes almost halved, saving many lives as a result.
Next, a pioneering international aid charity, Cola Life has partnered with Coca-Cola to utilise the unused spaces in the crates of soft drinks, to transport life saving medicines such as rehydration salts to hard to reach parts of the globe through the existing distribution channels.
My penultimate example draws inspiration from the fact that it took a Swiss watch maker, Swatch, to apply their modular and customisable manufacturing techniques to develop the hugely popular Smart car, ultimately together with Mercedes, which was a radical departure from existing models on the market and helped accelerate innovation across the sector.
Finally Quorn, one of the fastest growing food brands in the UK, came about through an unusual partnership between textile maker Courtaulds (now part of Akzo Nobel) and bread maker Hovis, who learned how to usefully weave a by-product of the bread making process, into a new valuable source of protein.
The future reveals itself through the peripheral
Pairings like these five examples have saved lives and revolutionised practices. How, then, can you develop your own peripheral vision and find similar operational genius when you need it most and when the clock is ticking?
The bigger the problem the greater the need to stick your neck out, far away from your desk, your computer, your immediate circle of colleagues and mentors. Go for unlikely sources: the hard work has been done for you by the people in the highest risk positions; proof has been found that better solutions are out there.
To define the underlying need in your problem, you must reduce it to its basest form and then consider which profession, group or species could not survive if it had not addressed that need. If you need to waterproof your latest invention, look to nature instead of technology companies and watchmakers. If it's sorting documents, find the most efficient postal service in the world. If you look to a like-minded company, you will most likely end up with like-minded 'solutions'. Research everything they do, how and when they started doing it and align your practices with your virtual mentor.
Finally, if in doubt find ways to share what you are doing and the nature of your problem in a jargon-free and interesting way. We have learned from experience that the solution to virtually any problem is already out there somewhere, but often lies outside of your organisation or even your sector. The art of innovation in the 21st Century is about sharing your needs smartly and listening to what comes back and learning to collaborate effectively.
Innovate better together
For impact and understanding, there is no substitute for talking to people with experience, both those who can influence you and those who have made inspired connections themselves. My company Creative Huddle is collaborating with 100%Open to hold Interplay, a one day event where businesses are asked to bring along their most pressing and beguiling problems for others to solve.
Bring your problem, build your networks, and add to your list of techniques and inspired connections for improving your business practices.