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The Necessity of Strangers in Innovation and Success

Alan Gregerman






By Alan S. Gregerman, PhD
President and Chief Innovation Officer
Silver Spring, MD
Author of The Necessity of Strangers

We all know that innovation is vital to the success of manufacturing companies of all shapes and sizes. In order to grow and prosper, they must continually deliver even greater value to the customers they have the privilege to serve.  And they do this by:

  • Developing better products, services, and solutions.
  • Improving the quality and efficiency of the ways they produce and distribute their offerings.
  • Creating more valuable customer experiences that make users more capable and successful.

Otherwise they run the risk of becoming less relevant.The Necessity of Strangers Cover

Most companies seem to understand this—at least conceptually—because they spend a lot of time and energy talking about innovation and touting its importance in board and shareholder meetings, and on their websites, marketing materials, business proposals, and job postings. Many have even invested significant resources in new R&D efforts, focused innovation initiatives, innovation “centers,” employee training, financial incentives and other activities intended to foster a more conducive business culture and mindset.

But despite all of this interest, most of us are stuck with a very strange notion of how innovation happens—a notion that is built around the power of getting our smartest people in a room to brainstorm. If only it were so simple.  Because what is emerging as common practice flies in the face of not only reality, but the entire history of innovation.  A history built on the ability of people, working on their own and in groups, to get beyond the limits of their own expertise, experience, and insights. And beyond what they know best. To get up off of their individual and collective bottoms in a search for new ideas, insights, and perspectives that can really spark their creativity. To leave the confines of even the hippest and best designed meeting room in order to engage the world head-on with a compelling sense of openness, wonder, honesty, and possibilities.
To seek inspiration by exploring the ideas and insights of others—around the corner and around the planet. To connect with strangers toiling in similar fields but in different ways and with strangers who are very different than they are and who know things they don’t know—so they can combine this new learning and, more importantly understanding, with the things they know best. 

Innovation is a quest to be “different” in ways that matter, rather than a task to create a slightly newer version of what we already do—based primarily on the expertise and know-how we already have.


In other industries, disciplines, walks of life, cultures, places, periods in history, or parts of the natural world. If that isn’t a call to get off of our butts and out of the comfortable confines of our offices, cubes, labs, and production floors to wander around and engage strangers, then I don’t know what is. This simple act enabled Roald Amundsen to reach the South Pole first by living with Inuits in the Arctic Circle, Igor Sikorsky to create essential breakthroughs in vertical flight based on the wisdom of 2000 years of strangers including toy makers around the globe, George de Mestral to invent Velcro after a walk in the woods with his dog, Vidal Sassoon to reimagine the world of hair design and fashion based on the genius of modern architects, Nissan to design cars that don’t collide tied to the research and knowledge of marine biologists, and most other folks who have changed the direction of their products and industries.

And I might even suggest that the Apple iPod, one of the most successful and innovative products of our generation, and its powerful ecosystem that includes the iTunes store, owes its inspiration in part to the Sony Walkman from Japan, the invention of MP3 technology by German engineers.

So while all of us have been taught to believe that it is whom we know that matters, that’s simply too narrow a worldview. It’s whom we could know that matters more. The future belongs to the most curious people on the planet—those who are willing to connect with, learn from, and collaborate with strangers. ME


This article was first published as a digital exclusive feature for the October 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 10/1/2013

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