Great Ideas Often Come From Non-Experts

When we look for creative, breakthrough ideas, it’s a no-brainer to turn to people who have experience and an extensive track record of success.

Or is it?

The world is increasingly prioritizing specialization and sub-specialization. We—not without reason—believe that the more time and thought we spend within a highly defined area, the more likely we’ll find innovative solutions to problems. And when it comes to addressing certain types of challenges or enhancing an existing aspect of a product or service, a specialist makes sense.

But what if the entire future of your business or brand is being threatened? What if all of the thought leaders within your industry have thought of everything already? What if you are faced with a big picture problem in your field that doesn’t have room for you?

The reason Leonardo da Vinci is considered possibly the greatest creative genius in history is because he was the exact opposite of a specialist or subject matter expert. He applied his insatiable curiosity to art, engineering, science, mathematics, philosophy, anatomy, and other pursuits. And he created works that are among mankind’s most enduring achievements by bringing together knowledge from these studies and connecting them in ways no one else had done before. He connected ideas from disparate disciplines to create even more great ideas.

A modern-day Leonardo could be seen in Steve Jobs. While he is inextricably linked to Apple computers and devices, he was not a trained computer engineer. Like da Vinci, Jobs had a wide array of interests and passions that had nothing to do with computing. He studied Buddhism and calligraphy. He was a voracious reader of classic literature. He often attended design conventions. In other words, like da Vinci, Jobs stuffed himself with knowledge and understanding from a disparate array of fields. He also hired people for Apple’s original Mac development team who, while knowledgeable of computer science, were also musicians, writers, artists, and historians.

Recently, a group of researchers conducted an experiment that further illustrated how great ideas can easily spring from unexpected sources. The researchers conducted hundreds of interviews among three different audiences around the subject of safety. They asked carpenters, roofers, and inline skaters for their best ideas on how to improve safety in not only their specialties but also in the other two areas.

What the researchers found was that the most novel and innovative ideas for safety gear in each of the categories came from the interviewees who were not experts in that category. Overall, members of each group were better at thinking of inventive solutions in areas other than their own.

These examples show how ingenious ideas don’t have to originate from subject-matter experts—they often come from people who are simply open to connecting ideas from unrelated disciplines and topics. If you’re looking for game-changing ideas, consider picking the brains of people outside of your field who aren’t limited by the “best practices” or “tried-and-true” conventions that may be obstructing your thinking.