Cross Pollinating Inside & Out

Last week I introduced the concept of introduce bees into your organisation. The best feedback I received during the week was the following: “cross-pollinating is just as important inside your organization as it is gaining insights from outside. What Morgan Stanley did really well was to ‘cross sell’ the idea that someone in another division of Morgan Stanley can sell you product to their client (or a derivative of) or to someone else in an organisation of your client.” Most companies I spend time with talk about cross-pollinating across organisational lines and ‘blasting through the silos,’ though in practice many of them have trouble doing so. Most of the time it is if people forget the power of shared learnings or worse feel it appropriate to keep their colleagues from a different division at bay.

One company that has taken cross-pollinating to another lever has been Proctor & Gamble. Especially under the two separate tenures of A.G Lafley who outlines his approach in the book Game Changers. Not only have they built on clever ideas imported from outside their organization (from the now ubiquitous Swiffer duster to the playful Spinbrush toothbrush), but they have also gotten better at cross-pollinating ideas among previously siloed groups around the company.

For example, they combined a knowledge of safe whitening agents from the laundry business with their deep expertise in oral hygiene to create Crest Whitestrips for their Oral Care unit – now grossing over $600 million per year. There are dozens of other examples – already on the market or still in the works – that nimbly combine technologies and insights across organizational lines. You can see the effect of Cross-Pollinators at P&G not only on the shelves of your local supermarket but also on the share price, which has doubled in recent years.

One company who lives and breathes internal cross-pollination is IDEO. The old adage “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” may be true but what do you do when your ‘acorn’ days are far behind behind you? How do you continue to grow and flourish? Mentoring apprentices and protégés has been part of business as long as we’ve had crafts and professions. But consider the flipside. Sometimes what managers really need is a mentor from a younger generation to inform and inspire. It is what IDEO refers to as ‘reverse mentoring’. It is the ability to do what Bob Sutton calls an ‘attitude of wisdom’: enough knowledge to sense when you’re on course, enough humility to know when you need help navigating. Reverse mentoring can help counter your company’s natural tendency to be over reliant on its experience. Consider seeking out younger mentors to provide insights and initiative about what’s happening in the world today.

One of the most rewarding parts of my week is getting lessons on the power of You Tube from my son who has proclaimed “why do I need to go to school when I can become a Youtuber”. Could you benefit from a reverse mentor? Be one yourself? The best part of this cross-humanising technique is that everyone gains. Consider opening a new line of communication, adopting an attitude that frees you to learn from the younger members of your staff. IDEO refers to this as the ‘eggs teaching the chickens.’

One way to promote cross-pollination within your organization is to seek ‘T-shaped’ individuals. That is, employees that enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many fields, but a depth in at least one area of expertise. I’ve spent a lot of time with T-shaped people, and one thing I’ve learned is never to leap to conclusions about them. It’s tempting when you hear one salient fact about a person to start making assumptions, but with a T-shaped person, you are likely to be surprised by what you find out next. In the end, they defy simple categorization, but don’t let that bother you. If you’re looking for cross-pollination, gather some T-shaped people for your team.

Cross-Pollinators sometimes tackle a problem by turning it around. Creativity guru Edward de Bono called it ‘lateral thinking’ – looking at an issue from a completely different perspective. Sometimes you literally need to sneak up on an old problem from a new direction. Instead of heading straight at the challenge, you approach it, well, backward. To me, one great visual metaphor for ‘backward’ innovation was the high-jump technique dubbed the ‘Fosbury Flop.’ Dick Fosbury was an unremarkable athlete who preferred the standard ‘scissors’ technique. Fosbury did as he was told but was no better than average at the straddle, never eclipsing 5’4”. 

The summer after he graduated in 1965, Fosbury started doing his trademark ‘Flop’ – bounding in long, powerful strides, then at the last moment, twisting to turn his back parallel to the bar and leaping into an arched backward half somersault – shoulders up, followed by knees, with both feet clearing the bar at the final moment, then landing upon his shoulders, face up. That summer he flopped over a bar 6’7” high and won a national junior championship. Coach after coach tried to convince that the ‘scissors’ was the way to go. Yet 5’10” was as good as it got. 

Fosbury, of course, kept right on flopping – all the way to the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Like a lot of breakthroughs, the Fosbury Flop looked strange the first time you saw it. Really strange. Experts said Fosbury would break his neck. Instead he broke the Olympic record with a jump of 7’4” and won gold. It took almost 10 years for Fosbury’s innovation to ripple through the ranks of elite athletes, but eventually the Fosbury Flop was fully adopted by every Olympic high jumper in the world. 

Looking back today, it’s abundantly clear that the old straddlers were jumping with an outmoded technique. It took an independent thinker like Fosbury to fashion a genuinely new approach. But Fosbury didn’t flop all at once. The breakthrough didn’t come in the kind of ‘eureka’ moment so popular in the mythology of invention. He experimented with a style widely considered flawed, adding his own twist, gradually refining his technique, never sure whether he was on a path to success or stumbling down a blind alley. As with many business innovations, Fosbury was first told that his approach would fail miserably. I can’t think of a better moral for those interested in innovation. The next time someone tells you no one’s done it that way before, or that it sounds like a crazy idea, ask them if they know the story of the Fosbury Flop. Cross-Pollinators keep an open mind. They know that success can come from the most unlikely of all directions.

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