A Lot of Clams

“One of the best innovation stories I’ve ever heard came from a senior executive at a leading tech firm. His company had won a million-dollar contract to design a sensor that could detect pollutants at very small concentrations underwater.

It was an unusually complex problem, so the firm set up a team of crack microchip designers, & they started putting their heads together.

About 45 minutes into their first working session, the marine biologist assigned to their team walked in with a bag of clams and set them on the table. Seeing the confused looks of the chip designers, he explained that clams can detect pollutants at just a few parts per million, and when that happens, they open their shells.

As it turned out, they didn’t really need a fancy chip to detect pollutants — just a simple one that could alert the system to clams opening their shells. “They saved $999,000 and ate the clams for dinner.”

Greg Satell, Harvard Business Review June, 2017

That, in essence, is the value of open innovation. When you have a really tough problem it helps to expand skill domains beyond specialists in a single field. Many believe it is these kinds of unlikely combinations that are key to coming up with breakthroughs.

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