Revived from the Archives

Talk to Strangers

When we’re children, we’re told not to talk to strangers. They represent the unknown, or worse: danger. We learn to avert our eyes, politely refuse their candy. This is appropriate instruction for a five-year old, or a teenager in a school yard. It’s advice that may hold true in many adult situations, to avoid uncomfortable or potentially dangerous encounters. But in our world, the world of academic and scientific exploration and innovation, strangers may be precisely the people you want to talk to.

Strangers, in this sense, are the people you don’t (yet) know, but who know different things than you know. They are from other disciplines, other departments, other universities. They are interested in a domain that is not exactly your science. It may be a neighboring branch of science with obvious parallels or overlaps but still with an approach that is different from yours, or it might be from a very different universe, a science that is 180 degrees away, with subject matter and methodology foreign to you. These are the people with whom we want you to be talking.

We’re most interested in what happens when you collect a group of intelligent individuals – experts in their own subject matter – in a room (real or virtual) and encourage them to have conversations. Inevitably, there’s a connection. An analogy used to explain something in one discipline triggers a potential hypothesis in another. The dialogue about it weaves back and forth and leads to at least, a very intriguing conversation and at best, a novel, multi-disciplinary research project.

It isn’t always easy to talk to strangers. Getting started is the hardest part. Finding common ground from which to begin is the first step, and, at a KnowInnovation workshop, there’s usually a central question that pulls people from different domains together. We gather strangers around a table or in a virtual breakout room that share a curiosity about the same question. One of our primary functions as facilitators is to make it easy for people to move from being strangers to acquaintances and ultimately potential colleagues.

We choreograph the first few days of a workshop to shuffle people around in different configurations to maximize the opportunities to connect with other participants. Occasionally we’ll create random pairings, and charge these dyads with the assignment of introducing each other to the rest of the group. These short presentations are always intriguing, as the partners find out what they have in common and what is distinctly different, this helps them figure out how they might possibly help each other and work together. Sometimes, just in that short conversation, they even come up with a very interesting research question that is the result of their different perspectives.

The idea of connecting to strangers extends far beyond the walls of our workshops. On-line networks increase our capacity to engage, effortlessly with people beyond our immediate circles. This networking leads to novelty; and broadens the scope of expertise that you can call upon to solve problems and generate ideas.

It takes a bit more energy to talk with someone who’s a stranger to you, and the connections aren’t always immediately obvious, or necessarily fruitful. But the ability, and willingness, to listen to the questions, ideas and opinions of someone in a universe different than yours is a key component of our innovation process.

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Know Further: The surprising benefits of talking to strangers. Some sage advice about networking in science here and here. More exploration about networks and how to use them, and a glossary of networking related terms.