A few years back, Bluewolf, a software consulting firm, was one the cusp of losing its top client. Engineers couldn’t come up with an innovative solution. So the company hired a bartender. It worked.
If you’re curious about innovation, here’s an 11-minute TED talk worth watching: Why tech needs the humanities. Eric Berridge, co-founder of Bluewolf, describes what happened when his top client was about to fire the firm. Bluewolf’s team of engineers couldn’t come up with a solution, so they decided to go drinking.
At the bar, the engineers commiserated while Jeff the bartender consoled. Then—out of the blue—Jeff offered to take a crack at solving the problem. The next day, Bluewolf’s COO asked, What do we have to lose? The firm sent Jeff to meet the client. A few days later, Jeff came out of the meetings up with a $200 million dollar solution. The client became one of Bluewolf’s best references.
Forty years of Harvard Business School research indicates very few businesses and organizations have the infrastructure to sustain innovation. Bluewolf stumbled on to it. Hire an outsider. A bartender, for example. Jeff is not a software engineer. He’s a dropout of Penn as a philosophy major. How, then, did he solve the problem?
Jeff thought in pictures. He reframed the conversation, changing what the firm was going to build and—most importantly—why. He disarmed their fixation on the programming skill. By reframing, Jeff the bartender figured out how to program the best solution.
At that time, Bluewolf was made up of around 200 people, all computer science majors and engineers. But their experience with Jeff made Bluewolf wonder if there was a more effective infrastructure. There is. Bluewolf decided to hire artists, musicians, and writers. The company’s culture was transformed. Today, Bluewolf is over 1,000 people, yet only 100 have degrees in computer science or engineering. Bluewolf is still a software consulting firm—in fact, it’s the number one player in its market.
Berridge believes tech companies should look beyond STEM graduates for new hires. He’s not against STEM. Bluewolf simply looks for people with backgrounds in the arts and humanities. They are often best at bringing creativity and insight to problems.
This is not original. Many years ago, Tempe Grandin came up with an innovative solution for $1,000,000,000-a-year problem in the cattle industry (yes, a billion dollars). She knew nothing about the industry. She thought in pictures and reframed the problem.
Quirky hires outsiders. The manufacturing company builds innovative products by including people outside the company. Insiders “can’t invent that well,” says founder Ben Kaufman. “They know too much.” He believes outsiders often present better solutions to complex problems, not despite their lack of industry expertise, but because of it.
This is how Innocentive works. It’s an online clearinghouse for unanswered questions in science. Alph Bingham, founder and former CEO, says Innocentive has discovered that the people most likely to solve the most complex problems aren’t professionals in the discipline in question. In fact, being an expert in an area distinct from the field of the challenge is a “statistically significant predictor” of success. Bingham says outsiders “have to be close enough to comprehend the technical aspects, but not so close that you are biased by the way those immersed in the problem tend to think.”
This is how Southwest Airlines works. When it sought innovative ways to decrease the time it took to refuel, disembark and board passengers, and unload and load baggage, it looked outside the airline industry, to NASCAR pit crews and drivers. They solved the problem, which is why Southwest is one of the most innovative airlines in the industry.
Over the past 50 years, the Pentagon’s Defense Advances Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has produced an unparalleled number of breakthroughs, including the Internet, RISC computing, and global positioning satellites. The impetus is a “special forces” style research group writes Harvard Business Review, one that tackles problems by assembling “diverse, agile, and scalable teams; and allowing independence from the mainstream organization in project selection and execution.” DARPA hires outsiders.
On average, organizations initially “see” only 40 percent of their situation. They try to figure out the rest from patterns they recognize from past experience. That’s an ineffective way to try to solve problems, as you’re working inside the framework that created the problem in the first place. You have to bring in outsiders.
Look to the humanities. Five years ago, Ben Schmidt wrote an essay arguing that the decline of the humanities was overstated. Now he’s revised his argument. The years since the Great Recession have been “brutal for almost every major in the humanities.” The sciences and engineering have gained at the expense of them. Not good for sustaining innovation.
But a good reminder of the solution. Hire outsiders like Jeff the bartender.
 Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House, 2014)