The Beauty of Cross-Pollination: Four Ways It Can Increase Your Productivity

“The cross pollination of disciplines is fundamental to truly revolutionary advances in our culture.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson, influential American astronomer.

In agriculture, cross-pollination occurs when pollen from one field of crops interacts with another, creating hybrids. This is often deliberate, as a form of experimentation when trying to create new crops (like the grain triticale, a cross of wheat and rye).  However, it just as often occurs naturally when genetically modified crops cross-pollinate and fertilize traditionally modified crops.

Scientists have long since learned that mixing experts in multiple disciplines can “cross-pollinate” and spark new ideas. For you Big Bang Theory fans, think of Sheldon (a physicist) and Amy (a neurobiologist) working together to determine how human consciousness creates the reality we see.

In recent years, the concept of cross-pollination of ideas has taken hold in business. So rather than compartmentalize their employees in rigid departments, some companies and think-tanks have taken to mixing people from a variety of fields and allowing them regular contact. The intent is to apply ideas from as many fields as possible to the problems at hand, just in case something unexpected applies.

You can personally apply cross-pollination from multiple fields to your own teamwork by absorbing knowledge in many fields. How will this increase your personal productivity?

  1. It puts your subconscious to work. The subconscious mind excels at the grubby job of taking bits and pieces of ideas, and fitting them together into practical, even revolutionary new solutions. We’ve all read the story of how Elias Howe invented the first truly practical sewing machine in the 1840s, after a nightmare of savages surrounding him with holes in their upright spearpoints that bobbed up and down in sequence. Similarly, Friedrich August Kekulé deduced the ring-structure of the benzine molecule after dreaming of a snake swallowing its tail—an obvious reference to the old Ouroboros myth. After studying subconscious solutions like these, numerous scholars and “lifehackers” have come up with ways to encourage the subconscious mind to help solve problems.

  2. Everything is grist for the mill. I recommend keeping your eyes wide open, because you never know what might boost your productivity or make your company a fortune. A fast-food manager picked up the drive-thru idea as he used a bank’s drive-thru night deposit window. This single innovation made the industry billions. Even reading fiction can help: while wrestling with how to finish a scholarly paper on an esoteric subject, a colleague took a break to read a novel chapter or two, clearing his mental palate. A discussion of how experts cut diamonds with tiny, precise blows after a careful study of their flaws helped him find the ending he needed. This isn’t uncommon; often a minor plot point or throwaway idea by one writer stimulates a story idea in another, which is why most writers read a lot.

  3. It works. White-collar cross-pollination has existed for decades now, though it’s not as popular as it once was. An influential 2004 study published in Harvard Business Review after the examination of 17,000 business patents demonstrated that the farther apart a set of colleagues’ disciplines were, the less likely they would produce quality innovation. BUT the ideas they did produce proved “of unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.”

  4. It aids the diffusion of ideas. Not all ideas cross-pollinate. In fact, very few do. But a 2010 paper in the Annales d’Economie et Statistique (Annals of Economy and Statistics) shows cross-pollination allows for a more democratic flow of ideas, especially once commercial firms get involved. (Although companies do tend to hold tight to workable cross-pollinated ideas, hindering their mobility.) This shouldn’t surprise anyone, since it unlocks the limitation keeping most research stuck in scientific journals 99% of the public never sees, increasing the audience and potential for cross-pollination. You never know which little fragments the subconscious will lock together.

The Law of Unexpected Consequences

For every dollar spent on the U.S. space program, many more enter the economy via new inventions. These include spinoff technologies like quick-cool ceramics, infrared ear thermometers, LASIK, aerodynamic fairings for 18-wheelers, smartphones, space blankets, building shock absorbers, visual enhancement systems, memory foam, cordless vacuums, advanced solar cells, cochlear implants—the list goes on. Open yourself to the ability to work with anyone and suck up knowledge like a sponge.


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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