Back in the 1970s, Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, a heart surgeon, was feeling frustrated. At that time, the field of open heart surgery was still in its infancy, and surgeons used a rigid ring to help restore the shape of a heart valve after surgery. Unfortunately, this ring did not work particularly well because it was too rigid to move with the human tissue. And although specialist medical labs and surgeons in operating theatres had sought to develop a better solution, nobody had found one that worked.

Then, some years later, Cosgrove happened to spot a kind of flexible hoop that 19th-century American women used for embroidering pieces of cloth. That’s when he had his “aha!” moment: why not utilise the sewing device and apply it to human hearts to create a valve that could move with human tissue?

“Heart surgery and embroidery don’t usually appear in the same sentence,” admits Cosgrove, who now runs the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. But the idea worked so well that it quickly became the dominant method in coronary care, and Cosgrove himself has since filed 30 patents for similarly unusual inventions.

© Shonagh Rae

So what inspires this type of “aha!” moment? And can anybody – or, indeed, any institution – set out to replicate moments like it in other areas? This question is becoming increasingly crucial as Europe and the US scramble to find ways of boosting productivity.

For although politicians and CEOs love to invoke the virtue of “innovation” – talking about serendipity is all the rage in the consultancy world – an answer to just what it is that sparks these flashes of creative genius remains unclear. Is it best achieved by training up specialists? Or should companies try to mix people up? Or should they simply refuse to meddle at all – and just hope that serendipity strikes?

Opinions vary. When, for example, Cosgrove looks back at his own career, he attributes his moments of serendipity to at least two things. One is hard to replicate: Cosgrove is severely dyslexic, and thinks that this means he has always been forced to improvise in creative ways. But a second, more general, lesson is that specialists – such as heart surgeons – need constantly to create situations where they can collide with new ideas, be that 19th-century embroidery or anything else.

Cosgrove is a firm believer, for example, in the value of travelling widely into different worlds, not only via cyber space but in day-to-day life, be that to conferences, work trips or simply holidays. “Many of my ideas were inspired by comparisons and objects outside heart surgery … or required the collaboration of professionals in other disciplines,” he says. “Innovation happens at the margins, where one discipline rubs up against another.”

But collisions with the unexpected need not always involve travel. The MIT Media Lab in Boston, for example, likes to take academics from completely different disciplines and force them to work side by side to spark unusual ideas. The research and development wings of companies such as 3M, the gigantic industrial conglomerate, do something similar in their own laboratories.

However, such collisions do not need to happen outside companies or in dedicated research laboratories. John Seely Brown, for example, is a scientist who previously ran the Palo Alto Research Center. In decades past, the centre did indeed try to spark innovation by urging academics from disparate disciplines to collaborate.

These days, though, Brown co-chairs a project known as the Deloitte Center for the Edge, which tries to encourage institutions to become more creative at the edge of organisations or where different departments collide with each other – or with the outside world. After all, that is where boundaries can be turned upside down. “When we are engaging in a creative activity, we are taking the familiar and making it strange … when we behave imaginatively, we do just the opposite: we make the strange familiar,” he argues.

Another school of thought argues that what is most important is creating some organisational mess. A few years ago, for example, Mark de Rond, a researcher at Cambridge university’s Judge Business School, examined a series of scientific breakthroughs – such as the discovery of penicillin, Viagra or DNA – and concluded that most emerged as a result of “controlled sloppiness” or unplanned accidents that arose when scientists had the freedom to roam. “Serendipity … may benefit from a degree of sloppiness, inefficiency, dissent, failure, and tenacity,” he observes, pointing out that Alexander Fleming stumbled on penicillin only because his bench was so wildly messy that experiments were cross-infected.

Of course, this is not a popular message for most corporate or political leaders to absorb. These days some trendy tech companies, such as Google or Facebook, have made a virtue out of letting their employees “roam” at regular intervals. But most do not. After all, “sloppiness” often looks costly and is hard to justify in a world where the cult of efficiency tends to rule supreme.

Either way, the next time you hear a politician or CEO invoke the word “innovation” it is worth pondering Cosgrove’s embroidery hoop. And if you are lucky enough to have a holiday this summer, remember that “roaming” is not just about rest – sometimes it can end up being more productive than anything we ever do at work.

Illustration Shonagh Rae

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