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Why Collaborating Outside Your Bubble Fosters Innovation
Date:2014-02-17

Asking the right question — and expanding the circle of collaboration — can often lead to real innovation.

 

Think how the 20th century would have been different if Thomas Edison had set out to brighten dimly lit homes and illuminate industry by improving a valve on a gas lighting fixture. The conventional solutions of the time for brighter, better and safer lighting were in a “bubble” of information, technology and expertise all centered on the delivery of gas.

Real innovation — like the advances from Edison and his team — is not about assembling solutions from the tools and ideas we have, but from the questions and needs outside our limited sphere of knowledge.

Moving “outside the bubble” toward real innovation requires fundamental changes in traditional problem-solution thinking. The first challenge is to make sure we’re asking the right questions about what is the real problem or opportunity. The second principle demands that, in collecting information and ideas, we enlarge the circle of ideas, resources and experiences.

Defining the Real Problem Before Building a Solution

A refrigerator is designed to keep food cold, right? But ask anyone why they put leftovers in the fridge, and they’ll tell you it’s to keep food from spoiling. So the real problem we’re solving is freshness — not coolness.

We often approach product and technology design the same way. We rush to a solution without understanding the core problem we’re addressing.

At GE, for example, our customers create computing and communications technology that requires more and more processing horsepower in smaller, denser server cabinets, communications devices or on printed circuit boards. So the solution the industry looks for is a smaller power conversion unit.

But is the right question, “How can we make power units smaller?” We can — and do — make them smaller. But what if the question was, “Can you give us back the precious space we need for higher processing capacity?”

That question — a better definition of the problem — shifted our thinking to what we now call Designing in the Negative Space. We can’t entirely eliminate power conversion units — the devices still need power — but we can locate the power in previously unusable space or consolidate other power-related components into our units.

By understanding the need and reframing the question, we found solutions “outside the bubble.”

Collaboration Outside the Bubble

Our second principle is enlarging the circle of collaboration. As we work to truly innovate, collaboration with others outside our normal “bubble of expertise” creates new perspectives, invites different questions and opens channels to new experts and resources.

Amazon is a great example of a company that reached outside its core expertise to exponentially expand its product and service offerings — along with its value and brand — outside the normal sphere to become a “get any product, service and digital content you need anytime, anyplace” company. If Amazon had limited its expertise to e-commerce, it could have quickly become obsolete.

“OK,” you might say, “but we’re in the widget business and are happy staying in that space.” Or maybe you’re in the same camp as GE’s Embedded Power group, which provides board-level AC-to-DC and DC-to-DC power conversion solutions. With deep domain expertise and a reputation for innovation, why should we look outside the bubble? Yet, we too need to constantly look outside, because the next problem we can solve — the next value we can create — might be waiting for us.

Looking outside — literally — picture the local weather forecaster. You tune into the local news every morning to find out if you need to bring an umbrella to work.

That same weather information might just give us a new vantage on how we design our next generation of power conversion and mission-critical power products. Since many of our systems manage critical or peak demand conditions, they must provide power at maximum specification most — or all — of the time. But there can be a tradeoff in energy efficiency.

Imagine if power systems collected data from external sources, such as weather predictions or peak social media activity during the Super Bowl, to anticipate load demand. That system could provide an optimum level of both protection and energy efficiency — a smart power system that knows when to leave the umbrella at home.


Next: Operational benefits of power system upgrades