Why Cross-Pollinating Your Work, Works

At Farnam Street we believe in the idea that a multidisciplinary approach to big ideas is the best way to form a deeper understanding. Some concepts will intuitively lend themselves to this type of thinking. Something like evolution is an easy one. But there are also times when this cross-pollination is far less intuitive, yet can produce some amazing results.

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, author Tim Hartford walks us through some amazing examples of cross-fertilization and how purposefully adding a measured dose of chaos to your work can benefit you greatly.

Sandpaper Without the Sand

In the 1920s a gentleman by the name of Dick Drew worked as a sandpaper salesman at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

One day Drew was thinking about the challenge of painting a car — it wasn’t a specialty of his but he could appreciate the problem. What he did know inside and out was sandpaper, and he intuitively realized that sandpaper could help solve the problem. What he needed was a roll of sandpaper without the sand.

This became known as masking tape and it transformed more than just how we paint cars.

Presently we call the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company 3M, and Dick Drew’s insight in the early 1920’s wasn’t an anomaly, it is the type of innovation that has defined 3M as a company. What made them so consistently creative and innovative?

…3M has a “flexible attention” policy. In most companies, flexible attention means goofing off on the company dime. In 3M it means playing a game, taking a nap, or going for a walk across an extensive campus to admire the deer. 3M knows that creative ideas don’t always surrender to a frontal assault. Sometimes they sneak up on us while we are paying attention to something else.

3M also rotates its engineers from one department to another every few years. This policy is one that many companies—not to mention some employees—resist. Why make someone with years of expertise in soundproofing or flat-screen displays work on a vaccine or an air conditioner? For the company it seems wasteful and for the employee it can be stressful. But for a company that makes masking materials out of sandpaper… the real waste would be to let ideas sit in their tidy silos, never to be released.

The key term here that Harford hits on is reducing silos.

Many companies, whether by design or by accident, tend to be very compartmentalized. In essence, you are given a tiny box within which to work on your project but you often won’t have a good idea of what’s going on in other areas of the company; the opportunities for cross pollination are limited unless you commit to moving positions/projects.

By adding just a little disorder, a company can give its employees the freedom to think differently and maybe even help them out of a rut that is often caused by looking at something with too narrow a focus. Sometimes we just can’t “see the forest through the trees” — we're stuck in our little box.

Crop Rotation

A company doesn’t have to rotate it’s personnel into wildly varying positions to achieve this goal; it can be as simple as providing an environment which allows employees to easily work on various/differing projects.

Creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis see a strong link between the most creative people and their tendency to work on multiple projects. Gruber notes that Charles Darwin is a good example of this.

… throughout his life [Darwin] alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology, and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background, competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage with the Beagle with “an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals.”

And then there are the earthworms. Darwin could not get enough of earthworms. This great scientist, who traveled the world, studied the finches of the Galápagos, developed a compelling account of the formation of coral reefs, and—of course—crafted the brilliant, controversial, meticulously argued theory of evolution, studied earthworms from every possible angle for more than forty years. The earthworms were a touchstone, a foundation, almost a security blanket. Whenever Darwin was anxious, puzzled, or at a loss, he could always turn to the study of the humble earthworm.

Gruber and Davis have coined a term for this melting pot of different projects at different stages of completion, they call it a ‘network of enterprises'. They argue that the parallel project approach has four benefits:

  1. Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The knowledge gained in one enterprise provides the key to unlock unlock another.
  2. A fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention—we’re like tourists gaping at details that a local would find mundane.
  3. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another—as with the cliché of inspiration striking in the shower. Some scientists believe that this unconscious processing is an important key to solving creative problems. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that daydreaming strips items of their context. That’s a powerful way to unlock fresh thoughts. And there can be few better ways to let the unconscious mind chew over a problem than to turn to a totally different project in the network of enterprises.
  4. Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. In truly original work, there will always be impasses and blind alleys. Having another project to turn to can prevent a setback from turning into a crushing experience. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called this “crop rotation.” One cannot use the same field to grow the same crop indefinitely; eventually the soil must be refreshed, by planting something new, or simply taking a break.

Gruber and Davis argue that with the right network of enterprises, an impasse in one project can end up feeling somewhat liberating. If you fall down the wrong rabbit hole you have the ability to pivot to something fresh.

The writer can pull out some old jottings, the scientist can turn to an anomaly she had long wanted to investigate. What would have been a depressing waste of time for a single-minded person can become a creative lease of life for someone with several projects on the go. That’s the theory, but in practice it can be a source of anxiety. Having many projects on the go is a stressful experience that can quickly degenerate into wheel-spinning. (Rather than turning to the study of earthworms for a break, we turn to Facebook instead.)

We have written before about the negative aspects of multitasking and dividing your attention and focus. The goal here would be to find out the number and type of projects which give you the benefits outlined by Gruber and Davis but still keep that number manageable enough to not create an undue amount of stress. This will likely take a bit of trial and error.

Harford himself has a strategy that seems to work. It’s a wonderful mix of messy and organized.

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than fifteen projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

You can organize your projects like Harford, or come up with your own technique that suits your network of enterprises. The key is to create an environment that allows you to cross pollinate and, ideally, to rotate your crops when you stop liking what the harvest looks like.

If you want more, check out our other post on Messy, it’s a great book if you are looking for ways to facilitate a bit more creativity in your life.