Introduce Bees Into Your Organisation

Last week I introduced the concept of stealing with glee. It received a lot of feedback. One person said that encouraging corporates to ‘steal’ was inappropriate. Most of the feedback centred though on questioning how the ‘sentiment’ could be ingrained into corporate life? It is fascinating that the spotlight on creative souls focuses on those who inspire with original thought. I contend that those who can adapt ideas from ‘outside’ are just as creative and in some regards a skill that is easier to transfer. Just as bees pollinate a third of everything we eat and some 84% of the crops grown for human consumption; we need bees to pollinate them to increase their yields and quality. In a parallel world transformational organisations also rely on employees to cross pollinate ideas. 

There’s magic in cross-pollination and in the people who make it happen. Cross-pollinators can create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts. They often innovate by discovering a clever solution in one context or industry, then translating it successfully to another. 

Curiosity and an open mind have sparked cross-pollination opportunities throughout history. Food pioneer Clarence Birdseye, for example, was on a Canadian fur-trading trip in 1915 when he noticed his Inuit guides laying out fish to freeze in the cold outdoors, where it stayed fresh for many months. Cross-pollinating that simple technique from a native outdoor culture to his modern indoor world. Birdseye created a frozen-food empire that still bears his name.

Orville and Wilbur Wright cross-pollinated materials and mechanisms from the emerging bicycle industry to build their first powered aircraft. Now, more than a hundred years later, cross-pollination between cycling and aviation routinely flows in the opposite direction, as high performance aerospace materials like titanium and carbon fiber are adapted to lighten and strengthen cutting edge bicycles.

George de Mestral used nature as the stimulus the led to the innovation of Velcro after a day of hunting in the Jura Mountains in France in 1941. Carefully inspecting the burrs in his woolen clothes and his dog’s coat, he found hundreds of little hooks engaging the loops in the material and fur. This natural hook and catch system gave him the initial idea for Velcro. De Mestral went on to make a machine to duplicate hooks and loops out of nylon.

And in the history of innovation, one of the greatest Cross-Pollinators, and perhaps the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’, was Leonardo da Vinci – painter, architect, engineer, mathematician, and philosopher – who blended his diverse talents into a prolific and remarkable legacy. Yet his creativity would not have flowed without the foresight & funding of the Medici family. To fuel the imagination their patronage helped develop European culture and arts by encouraging leading creative to share ideas. Thanks to this family and a few others like it, sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, financiers, painters, and architects converged upon the city of Florence. There they found each other, learned from one another, and broke down barriers between disciplines and cultures. Together they forged a new world based on new ideas—what became known as the Renaissance. As a result, the city became the epicenter of a creative explosion, one of the most innovative eras in history. The effects of the Medici family can be felt even to this day. What if Corporates could play the role of the Medici family?

There’s no rocket science involved in building a greenhouse for cross-pollination. None of these individual elements is especially hard to do. But put them all together – along with a hundred tiny details that support the social ecology of the organization – and they represent a commitment to cross-pollination that yields benefits in everything from team morale to competitive advantage.

Those who practice cross-pollinating, perhaps more than any other persona, intuitively understand the role of serendipity and chance. By actively seeing and connecting with more ideas and people, the Cross-Pollinator becomes a bit like the unlikely bumblebee. Many have wondered how the bumblebee flies at all, with its bulky body and tiny, fragile-looking wings. But the bumblebee doesn’t know that, so it goes on flying anyway. Perhaps the answer lies, as it does with so many things hard to comprehend, in the sum of parts. And so it is with the Cross-Pollinator, a sometimes unsung role in the business world, the person who tirelessly spreads the seeds of innovation.

Every organization needs Cross-Pollinators. Maybe, like the bumblebee, you too are an unlikely hero. Do you have wide interests, a voracious curiosity, and an aptitude for learning and teaching? Are there others on your team who have an aptitude for playing this role? You may find your wings can flap faster than you ever imagined. The Cross-Pollinator is an essential part of the eco-system of innovation. Welcome the role. Encourage it in others. It will help your organization succeed.

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