Why You Need a Wacky Neighbor

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There’s a lot to be said for creative ideas that push the needle forward, even incrementally. But where do you go when you need a truly breakthrough idea? The kind of idea that will revolutionize your business—maybe even your entire industry—and cause your competition to wonder if they’d be better off just closing up shop? If that’s the kind of breakthrough you’re looking for—you need a wacky neighbor.

Motivational Speaker Bill Stainton
What do I mean by “wacky neighbor”? I mean someone who sees the world differently than you do. In fact, someone who sees the world differently than your entire team—maybe even your entire industry—does. For this reason, there’s a good chance that your wacky neighbor may come from a field completely different than yours.

motivational speaker Bill StaintonWhen I was producing my Seattle-based sketch comedy TV show Almost Live!, we had a wacky neighbor on our team. His name was Bill Nye. You probably know him as Bill Nye the Science Guy, but before he became the Science Guy (which happened on our show), he was just Bill Nye, writer and performer. Bill, however, came from a different world than the rest of us. We came from the world of TV, and comedy, and performing. Bill Nye came from the world of science and engineering. In fact, when Almost Live! was on hiatus during the summer, Bill would work as an engineer at Boeing (our little local airplane company) designing things that you and I aren’t allowed to know about.

Now here’s the thing. Because Bill came from a different background, and therefore saw the world differently than the rest of us, he would routinely come up with ideas that none of us would ever have thought of. Many of those ideas were so far out there that they were completely unusable. But, every now and then, Bill Nye would come up with “the brilliant idea,” the one that would have the rest of us (all Emmy winners) scratching our heads and thinking, “Now, how the hell did he come up with that?

Wouldn’t you like someone like that on your team?

A recent article in Harvard Business Review was titled To Innovate Better, Find Divergent Thinkers. Fine. They want to call them “divergent thinkers.” Well, they’re Harvard Business Review, aren’t they? I’m sticking with “wacky neighbors,” because I think it’s more memorable—it’s “stickier”—and besides, it’s more fun. But the bottom line, as encapsulated in their subheading, is the same:

Often the best ideas come from “analogous fields.”

To find these people, the article suggests using “pyramid searches.” A pyramid search can be summarized in three steps:

    1. Identify people who are knowledgeable about the topic in question.
    2. Ask them who might know even more than they do.
    3. Contact those people and ask them to refer you to experts in analogous fields.

The idea is that those at the “top of the pyramid” (those who are identified in Step 2) tend to know others with similar knowledge, even when that knowledge is in a different field.

But no matter how you go about finding these divergent thinkers, it’s important that you begin the search.

Because that wacky neighbor just might give you your next million dollar idea!

Question: What divergent ideas have you gotten from somebody outside of your industry? Please leave a comment in the Comments section below so that other leaders can benefit from your experience.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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