Need New Business Ideas? Start Talking to Strangers

Walk into any boardroom, and you will likely hear leaders using the term "innovation," at least as a buzzword. Companies know they have to innovate — or talk about it, anyway. But most businesses, organizations and individuals inadvertently close themselves off from a powerful source of innovation: people they don't know.

Alan Gregerman, president and CEO of consulting firm Venture Work Inc., said people fail to innovate because, ironically, they fear those who are new and different. To really grow, aspiring innovators need to forget a bad piece of advice from childhood: "Never talk to strangers," Gregerman said.

Having consulted with more than 300 organizations, Gregerman has learned that discomfort with voices from outside a company's inner circle can stifle innovation before it gets started. In "The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation and Success" (Jossey-Bass, 2013), the consultant reveals the professional and personal benefits of talking to people from different backgrounds.

In a telephone interview, Gregerman told BusinessNewsDaily how organizations and individuals can open themselves up to a "stranger-centric" mindset:

BusinessNewsDaily: Was there a personal or professional event that inspired you to write about strangers?

Alan Gregerman: I think there are a few motivations for the book. I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've been challenged in doing innovation with established companies. They're hesitant to do any approaches other than the standard ones. When they wanted new ideas, they brought in their own smartest people. But those people are not able to come up with breakthrough ideas.

Alan Gregerman, innovation guruPin It Alan Gregerman View full size image I'd say, "Let's leave the building for awhile." I was in essence saying, "We need to meet some strangers." But doing it in a company, I hadn't thought about it as going out and meeting strangers. Then, I had this epic moment. I was walking my daughter to the bus, and I saw this guy who made me nervous. I said, "Promise me you won't talk to strangers," and she said, "If I don't talk to strangers, how will I make new friends?"

We're all cautious — in our personal lives and in our business lives. We need to be challenged to do new things, need someone to shake up our world and show us new things. This can spark us to think in new ways.

BND: It seems ironic that the thing keeping businesses from innovating is a fear of what's new. Do you think these businesses really do want to innovate?

A.G.: I really believe that a lot of companies are interested in innovation. They just don't know how to do it.

Just because they want to innovate, that doesn't mean they're willing to do what it takes to be an innovator. You have to be willing to take in a lot of new ideas. On the one hand, companies want to be innovative. But when they understand what it takes, they get scared of that.

Also, a lot of people who are in leadership positions have a lot on their plates. It can be a full-time job just to innovate, if you want to really bring in new people, be open to new ideas.

There are also a fair number of companies that talk about innovation because they have to, but who are not really interested in being innovative. You can find info on any company online now, and so they're not going to say, "We're not interested in innovation."

BND: How are you able to convince companies to open up?

A.G.: I try to get them to realize that they can be even better. The ones who create openness are going to be served in the long term. I suggest, also, that we have a tendency in companies to get complacent. But when I'm focusing on innovation, it creates a positive energy in the company. And that makes better companies want to partner with me. It makes people want to be part of my energy.

I suggest that's an essential part of being an organization that's in high demand.

BND: What practical methods does the book share for opening an organization up to "strangers"?

A.G.: There are a few things you can do. Companies need to get out from the office and explore the world around them. Even for just one afternoon a month. Go someplace in the community, to a restaurant or a museum, and try to see what makes them remarkable.

I have a list of companies that show someone doing something remarkable. Let's say, one challenge we face is having a higher level of customer service. I might suggest sending small groups of folks into a company renowned for customer service, for example, Ritz-Carlton hotels. Go into the lobby, see how people are being greeted, see the engagement.

If you want to learn how to do better marketing, go to an Apple Store. Because Apple is a remarkable marketer of their products. Government agencies have fewer resources, so they need to learn how to do less with more. So I might send people to Ikea. They have a low-cost method, because customers find furniture themselves and take it home and assemble it.

I try to think about where in the world there are people doing cool things that might give some insights. I might suggest a ballet or a jazz ensemble to work on teamwork.

BND: What does the book have to say to individuals, not just companies?

A.G.: The book is also for individuals, in two respects. First, it's a guide to managing our careers. We do best when we're well connected with a broad group of people. You might meet someone who might suggest a new contact or a new direction for your career.

Two, our quality of life is really related to the diversity of the contacts in our lives. And that's affected by our ability to reach out to strangers — for example, when we identify challenges in our communities, such as homelessness or health care, we can reach out to address those issues. We can think about how we might connect with people in need, have more empathy and work with them to have meaningful collaborations.

The whole idea of reaching out to people different from us leads to bigger success in our professional, personal and social lives.

BND: How is this different from the advice we all get that we need to network?

A.G.: I think people, mostly, in our society go to a lot of networking events. We go in the wrong way, hoping to meet someone to instantly turn our life around. We actually need to build relationships with someone.

In America, when people meet each other, the first thing they ask is, "What do you do?" In other countries, people ask about what they like to do.

I've asked places to reinvent their networking activities. Find someone you don't know in the room, and say hello. Find 10 things you have in common that don't have to do with work.

We size up people based on the wrong things at first. Say, instead, I find they like kayaking … I might see how I could hang out with this person. Then, even if they work in insurance, they might know someone who can help me, and I might know someone who can help them.

We have to have a really deep sense of humility, realizing that we don't know it all. And I have to realize that anybody else knows something I don't know. When networking, I'm not just asking for a favor, I'm also realizing that they know something interesting.

BND: Are you really talking about just collecting strangers, or getting to know new people?

A.G.: Ultimately, they won't be strangers. I'm talking about people we don't know. The people we do know are awesome, of course. But the people we don't know are going to teach us new things.

I'm talking about people who are significantly different from us in some way — people who are in a different field, grew up in a different culture, were trained in a different way.

In big companies, most people are strangers. We have to break down those barriers and get people to know each other and what other people in the company do. People will say, "Oh, these people are in sales, all they want to do is sell the product." Or, "Oh, these people are in IT. They're not practical. They don't understand about our company."

We need to actually get to know each other. People who are not like us are going to teach us.

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