My former graduate school classmate, Martine Haas (now a professor at Wharton), has written a new paper exploring how peripheral knowledge might impact breakthrough innovation. Haas describes peripheral knowledge as information and ideas that may not seem pertinent to a particular task, that are outside of that technical domain. Haas argues that that peripheral knowledge drives innovation through two mechanisms: transplantation and perspective shifting. Haas defines transplantation as "the direct transfer of artifacts, technologies or practices from peripheral domains into core domains, with or without some modification." Perspective shifting means that " expertise or experience in a peripheral domain leads work group members to see a problem in a core domain differently, thus revealing new solutions."
Haas and her co-author, Wendy Ham, go on to argue that having more one person exploring a peripheral knowledge domain can be helpful, but of course, that takes scarce attention away from the specific task at hand. In short, it's a balancing act: How much time should we spend focusing narrowly on the task at hand versus moving outside of that area to explore potentially, but perhaps not very useful, topics?
One last challenge: Which peripheral domain will be most useful? Well that's a tough one. It's difficult to know in advance. However, I do think groups can be purposeful about peripheral knowledge accumulation. At leading design firms, they think carefully about related domains that are worthy of exploration. They examine industries or products that might be in some way analogous to their current project, and then they explore those areas. Stepping back at the start of a project to think about potentially useful peripheral knowledge could be a key step in an innovation team's work.