How Seemingly Irrelevant Ideas Lead to Breakthrough Innovation

At Reebok, the cushioning in a best-selling basketball shoe reflects technology borrowed from intravenous fluid bags. Semiconductor firm Qualcomm’s revolutionary color display technology is rooted in the microstructures of the Morpho butterfly’s wings. And at IDEO, developers designed a leak-proof water bottle using the technology from a shampoo bottle top.

These examples show how so-called “peripheral” knowledge — that is, ideas from domains that are seemingly irrelevant to a given task — can influence breakthrough innovation. “The central idea of peripheral knowledge really resonates,” says Wharton management professor Martine Haas. After all, who can’t think of examples when ideas that seemed to bear almost no relation to a given problem paid off in some unexpected way? By bringing peripheral knowledge to core tasks, it is well known that work groups can recombine ideas in novel and useful ways. But the problem, Haas notes, is primarily one of attention: How do you get workers focused on a particular task to notice — and make use of — seemingly irrelevant information?

Haas and Wharton doctoral student Wendy Ham approached that problem by attempting to define the conditions under which peripheral knowledge is likely to influence breakthroughs. Their results are included in a new working paper titled, “Peripheral Knowledge and Innovation in Work Groups: The Relevance of Irrelevant Knowledge.” “We’re trying to understand what is special about knowledge that we don’t credit at all at the start of a task and may even find completely irrelevant,” Haas says. She concedes that breakthroughs often rely on serendipity — playing with a Rubik’s Cube might inspire a new architectural design, for example — but that shouldn’t deter investigation of the innovation process. Instead, she asks, “Can we understand more systematically what increases the chances of innovation, and not leave it completely to faith?”

Haas and Ham began mulling this question while conducting research at global advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi — a font of fresh ideas, Haas recalls. Every company wants the advantage over rivals that innovation offers. Some, like ad firms, build innovation into their cultures, but few are good at it. “Most companies want more ideas than they have,” says Haas, “and don’t know how to make [innovation] routine.”

Drawing on theories of creative problem solving, the authors identify two ways that peripheral knowledge advances breakthrough thinking: Idea transplantation and perspective shifting. Idea transplantation, they write, involves “the direct transfer of artifacts, technologies or practices from peripheral domains into core domains, with or without some modification.” Reebok’s basketball shoe and IDEO’s leak-proof water bottle are examples.  

Perspective shifting occurs “when expertise or experience in a peripheral domain leads work group members to see a problem in a core domain differently, thus revealing new solutions.” As an example, Haas and Ham note that in order to commercialize electric cars, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi borrowed the concept of a contract-based leasing model from the mobile phone industry. “Agassi pointed out that burdening consumers with battery-related expenses upfront is analogous to making car-buyers pay for several years’ worth of gasoline upon purchase of the car,” they write. “This perspective shift, from technology to economics, reformulated the problem at hand such that a wholly new solution set was discovered.”

Stocks vs. Flows

However, both idea transplantation and perspective shifting rely on individuals paying attention to seemingly irrelevant information. So what are the conditions under which that is likely to take place?

To help break that down, the authors distinguish between what they call “knowledge stocks” and “knowledge flows.” Knowledge stocks are composed of accumulated expertise and experience that individuals might bring to a given task. For example, a video game designer may have previously been a ski instructor. In that case, the designer’s knowledge of skiing in the context of creating video games would be viewed as knowledge stock. Knowledge flows, on the other hand, involve knowledge that individuals are actively engaging in while doing a task — whether that’s outside research, working to solve a problem in an unrelated area, talking with acquaintances in other fields, or reading an article on a topic that is seemingly irrelevant to the assigned task.  

According to Haas and Ham, it’s knowledge flows that are most critical for breakthroughs. Since all individuals are prone to information overload, when facing a task they tend to be “cognitive misers,” relying on shortcuts to determine which information is useful in that context. Because of that, work groups will be most likely to give their attention primarily to information that seems very relevant to the task at hand — that is, knowledge that is part of the “core” domain. But knowledge flows allow information from peripheral domains to seep in. Why? “Information that is available in an individual’s short-term memory” — that is, knowledge flows — “is more cognitively accessible, and thus more likely to receive attention, than information that is stored in that individual’s long-term memory” — or knowledge stocks.

There are other dynamics that come into play as well. When more than one member of a work group engages in a peripheral domain, that domain is more likely to play a role in breakthroughs. However, the authors note, there is a tradeoff: Paying increased attention to one region of peripheral knowledge shrinks attention to other domains that just might inform the core task in a useful way. If attention spans had no limit, it wouldn’t matter. But attention has limits for individuals and a group. Such limits impose opportunity costs, when attention to one domain sacrifices attention elsewhere. “In a sense, peripheral domains are in competition with each other for the attention of work group members: More attention for one means less attention for others,” they write.

Cooking or Archery?

The problem, according to Haas, is that the likelihood that any one peripheral domain will pay off in terms of innovation is very low. There’s no way to know in advance whether musing about medical devices, cooking or archery will inform a groundbreaking sports shoe design. With that in mind, the authors note: “It is reasonable to expect that work groups are more likely to encounter a valuable source for idea transplantation or perspective shifting if they pay attention to a broader range of peripheral domains.”

For that reason, Haas and Ham write, attention capacity becomes a critical factor. Attention capacity has two elements: time that each member of the work group can allocate to the task, and the amount of time that the group as a whole has to complete the task. In many organizations, members of work teams often have more than one assignment that impinges on each other. The authors suggest that an individual’s attention capacity for a task — and therefore the ability to focus on more than one peripheral knowledge domain — is higher if he or she is assigned to spend, say, 80% of total work time on the assignment instead of 20%.Moreover, workers’ attention capacity is greater when the duration of a task is six months instead of six weeks.

The authors conclude that if work group members have more attention available to devote to the task or project, “the advantages of … attention to a particular peripheral domain will be more likely to outweigh the disadvantages arising from distracting attention from other domains.”

Incubation theory, according to Haas and Ham, supports the idea of taking breaks and engaging in outside activities while working on projects requiring innovative thought, and they note that their research helps to support that. They add that their ideas about peripheral knowledge would be most applicable “in contexts in which it is reasonable to expect that breakthrough innovation can be driven by ideas from seemingly irrelevant domains, such as creative industries, product design or entrepreneurship” — as opposed to fields that have “rigid problem-solving paths,” such as mathematics.

Should managers then encourage workers to engage in outside projects and hobbies and share their seemingly irrelevant experiences with their teams when working on a project? The answer is tricky. “This prescription has its own risks,” Haas and Ham write, “since the resulting likely increase in attention to peripheral domains will simultaneously reduce attention to core domains. At the extreme, work group members might spend all their limited attention focusing on domains that are not only seemingly irrelevant but actually irrelevant to their task, severely impeding their performance on that task.

“There is no easy managerial intervention here,” they conclude. “Nevertheless, our hope is that our theoretical analysis has revealed insights into the knotty nature of these challenges that can offer managers a deeper understanding of the tradeoffs they face in striving to achieve their innovation aspirations, as well as helping to further organizational scholarship on the complexities of breakthrough innovation.”

At this early stage, says Haas, “all you can say is that you want people to be aware of peripheral ideas and that you should encourage groups to express ideas from outside the core task — while keeping a watchful eye on the attention capacity of the work group.”

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