The "random collision" theory of innovation

May 9, 2012: 11:26 AM ET

Leaders tend to surround themselves with people who are like them. Creating environments where "unusual suspects" can meet is the key to generating new business ideas.

By Saul Kaplan, contributor

FORTUNE -- Collaborators are everywhere. You will find them in the gray areas between silos. Just look up from your current business model. Seek out difference and gather often across boundaries, disciplines, and sectors. Be open and be curious. Beware of random collisions with unusual suspects. Unless, of course, if you want to learn something new. In that case seek out innovators from across every imaginable silo and listen, really listen, to their stories. New ideas, perspectives, and the value creating opportunities are in the gray areas between the unusual suspects. And yet we spend most of our time with the usual suspects in our respective silos. We need to get out of our silos more.

It is human nature to surround ourselves with people who are exactly like us. We connect and spend time with people who share a common world-view, look the same, enjoy the same activities, and speak the same language. We join clubs to be with others like us. The club most worth belonging to is the non-club club. The most valuable tribe is a tribe of unusual suspects who can challenge your world-view, expose you to new ideas, and teach you something new. A tribe of unusual suspects can change the world if it is connected in purposeful ways.

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It is easy to see the potential from enabling random collisions of unusual suspects. Just check out any social media platform.

Social media is a hotspot for random collisions. You don't need to hang out in these virtual places long to know they are populated with very unusual suspects. Interstitial spaces are ubiquitous and magic happens every day. We can bring this magic into our organizations, meetings, and gatherings. We just have to resist the normal tendency to hang out with the usual suspects. Most of the conferences and meetings we go to are teeming with usual suspects who love to get together to admire the problem. We sure do love to admire problems. Solution discussions are narrow and tend to shop around old solutions that have been discussed forever. If you want new ideas, approaches, and solutions go to gatherings that you have absolutely no reason to attend other than you might learn something new or meet somebody with a different perspective and experience. Make it a personal goal to attend gatherings where you don't know the people or subject matter. Or better yet go to gatherings that are designed to bring unusual suspects together and to enable random collisions.

The goal is to get better faster. If you want to get better faster hang out in interstitial spaces. Don't just dip your toes into interstitial spaces but jump in with all the passion you can ignite. Magic happens in the interstitial space between us. Maybe we could change the conversation if we connect more unusual suspects in purposeful ways. Maybe then we can make progress on transforming business models and social systems. Business model innovation takes cross-silo collaboration and breaking down the boundaries between industries, sectors, and disciplines. In constant heads down mode business model innovation isn't possible. Transformative business models are only possible if organizations learn how to experiment with new approaches that cut across protected silos. We need to think and act more horizontally.

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We live and work in a networked world complete with mega bandwidth and social media platforms to help us collide with more unusual suspects if we just look up from our silos. These new connections can help us to design, prototype and test new business models. It is time to try more stuff and take advantage of the disruptive innovation potential of all the technology we have within reach. We have more technology available to us than we know how to absorb. It isn't technology that gets in our way. It is our fault. Humans, and the organizations and silos we live in, are both stubbornly resistant to change. If we are receptive we can learn from innovators especially the ones you will only find if you look in unusual places.

Business model innovators are all around us. They are taking advantage of today's technologies and creating new ways to deliver value. We can learn from them if we look up from our silos. Sometimes the most inspiring innovators are in places we would never have thought to look. Or perhaps we just don't notice them because we are so focused on our current business models and industries.

This piece is adapted from The Business Model Innovation Factory. Saul Kaplan is the author of The Business Model Innovation Factory. He is the founder and chief catalyst of theBusiness Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI, and blogs regularly at It's Saul Connected. Follow him on Twitter at @skap5.

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