Since time immemorial, we’re told that our network of friends and family members are vital to our success. Who haven’t heard that “a friend in need is a friend indeed” or that “blood runs thicker than water”?
Well, the tables may soon be turned. At least according to innovation consultant Alan Gregerman.
Challenging conventional wisdom, Gregerman’s latest book “The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation, and Success” urges us to embrace strangers as sources of innovation, inspiration and success. In his own words, strangers can be “our best secret weapon or greatest competitive advantage in the battle to innovate, create, and deliver greater value, and make a powerful difference in whatever we choose to do…”
Extracting wisdom from diverse fields like business, psychology, sociology, history, science, and nature, The Necessity of Strangers is divided into three parts:
Using simple statistical logic, Gregerman explains why depending solely on one’s closed circle poses a limit to how much one can explore, connect, innovate and grow. To benefit from the diverse ideas and contributions of strangers, we need to overcome our natural aversion to them. We thus need to open our mindset and believe that engaging the world around us can be superior to internal brainstorming when coming up with the best ideas.
Four guiding principles are at play here:
1) Humility: Believing that we don’t know everything and that we can always be better;
2) Curiosity: Having an innate gift of being open to new ideas, new people, and new possibilities;
3) Respect: Believing that everyone matters and that we learn and grow by engaging other people on their own terms; and
4) Purpose: Our reason for being that guides our efforts to learn and grow.
Forming the bulk of the book, this second part details five areas where strangers can usher in greater success:
From Thomas Edison’s light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, to the Wright brother’s airplane and Apple’s iPad, we’re told that 99% of all new ideas are based on an idea or practice which somebody already had. Even a school of fish swimming in synchrony can teach a company like Nissan how to design a robotic future car.
To find the right strangers, we should stretch our thinking by looking for the “best thinking” outside our industries. This can come from places as diverse as popular culture, other cultures, nature, science, and even science fiction.
Rather that fit new hires into one’s company culture, Gregerman proposes a sort of “reverse orientation” where newbies are free to critique on what’s wrong with our company and propose how it can be improved. Rather than hire people like ourselves, we should instead seek new recruits from radically diverse backgrounds and profiles.
I love the book’s example of the Hindu festival of Holi. During the event, people from different backgrounds come together to throw and spray brightly coloured paint on each other to celebrate spring, fertility and the harvest. It is a day where everyone can be a joyous equal. One where they can express their innate creativity, regardless of their faiths, wealth, ethnicities and castes. This should be the standard which workplaces should aspire to achieve.
To reach out to people outside one’s department, one should practice The Power of 10 Things to build “conversational cultures”. How this works is that people are asked to pair off with somebody they do not know very well, have a five-minute conversation about anything outside work, and discover 10 things which one has in common with the other person.
We’re also told to give each other cute nicknames (it helps build affinity), and to re-imagine how mergers and acquisitions can be managed. Instead of “maximising the value” of their acquisitions, business leaders should tap the new ideas, new people, new energy and new ways of doing things present in an acquired company rather than assimilate them into the mother ship.
Through empowering strangers, companies like Amazon, Staples and eBay are able to dominate their markets by systematically studying the interests and buying behaviours of the strangers they do business with. Indeed, being stranger-centric – figuring out how to create and deliver the right offerings and experiences without knowing the specific individuals or businesses buying our products, services and solutions – is a key to success.
Citing the world of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, Gregerman espouses that the collective wisdom and resources of strangers can ignite businesses. One should also look at building community around special interests (as opposed to relationships), and to reach around the globe by identifying common challenges which they face.
In a world filled with strangers, leaders have to take on 6 different roles:
a) Challenge us to ask the right questions;
b) Help us to see that we can be better at the things that matter;
c) Capture our imaginations and inspire us to be remarkable;
d) Empower us to discover and combine our greatest abilities;
e) Encourage us to cast a wider net and embrace connecting with strangers and new ideas; and
f) Build cultures of conversations, engagement and possibilities.
To do well in their roles, leaders need to help employees step out of their comfort zones. New ways of learning are also required – not just within the confines of corporate classrooms but outside in the world. Moreover, good leaders must not only be good teachers but good learners.
The final section of the book provides the tools needed to help one work better with strangers. Amongst the different techniques provided, the most impactful “strategy” is probably to travel. From exploring new neighborhoods to visiting “best practice” businesses and strange, exotic places, travelling affords one the ability to expand one’s horizons and learn from strangers both near and far.
Overall, “The Necessity of Strangers” offers a novel approach to introducing new innovations, ideas and practices to an overtly homogenous workplace. Encouraging us to reach out to those who are different, the book challenges us to tap the talents, wisdom and experiences of strangers. By doing so, we can break the confines of conformity, and improve our chances of success in a diverse and uncertain world.