Meanderings

Here is their opening scenario … Your business has a big problem. You’ve thought about it, but you can’t seem to crack it. So you consult your colleagues — to no avail. Then you turn to the big guns — your industry’s top experts. They’ve got nothing. (Well, to be precise, they’ve got 40 PowerPoint slides worth of nothing, and you’ve got $225,000 less of something.) Now what? You might take some inspiration from Pete Foley, associate director of the cognitive science group at Procter & Gamble, who was looking for an inspired solution to challenges faced by P&G’s feminine-care business unit. Its R&D staff had pursued several approaches, but none of them offered the breakthrough that Foley craved. So he did the next logical thing: He took his team to the San Diego Zoo. The zoo is developing a specialty in biomimicry, a discipline that tries to solve problems by imitating the ingenious and sustainable answers provided by nature. In a working session with the company, the zoo’s biomimicry experts made an unexpected connection between P&G’s problem and the physiology of a gecko. Other ideas came quickly, inspired by flower petals, armadillos, squirrels, and anteaters. (Full disclosure: Chip led a workshop with the biomimicry team on another issue.) By the end of the day, the working group had generated eight fresh approaches to the challenge. It was as if Ideo had opened an office on Noah’s Ark. Most of us don’t solve problems this way. We start by tapping the local knowledge, and if it’s insufficient, we go looking for specialists. But what if we’re following the wrong protocol? We should stop looking for experts and start looking for analogues. It’s a big world: Chances are someone has solved your problem already. And she might be an anteater.