Cross-Pollination Propels Innovation

To kick off our “Innovations” series, we bring you this post by Susan T. Schuster, originally published at on June 1, 2013.

Do you have the eyes to see opportunity? The inner-spark that says “hey, this might be crazy, but I think it could be the next big thing?” I’ve learned over the years that often the very best ideas sound not only crazy or unlikely, but downright impossible. How do these ideas, these innovations, often come about? Cross-pollination. Take the best of two worlds and mix together into something unique—be it people and ideas or opportunities and organizations.

People often ask, “how can I learn to be innovative, to see potential where others don’t?” Just like a lot of things in life, innovation is part art, part science, but it is more than that. To be innovative, one must be able to clearly see the connectivity and possibilities between seemingly unrelated people, organizations, and opportunities. Do you feel a surge of energy and excitement over an idea? Take that and run with it. What can you draw from different areas of expertise, interest, or knowledge to build a team to make it possible? Start with an open slate—as Walt Disney said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

What do you bring to the table? What diverse strengths do you have on your team?StrengthsFinder is a great start, but use tools like that to dig even deeper. Who are you? What defines you? I am more complex than my top five strengths: ideation-strategic-achiever-maximizer-individualization. What is your internal driver? Passion and enthusiasm for seeing connections is the primary catalyst for me. I absolutely get a thrill from connecting people, organizations, and opportunities—whether it’s the perfect volunteer gig; an unexpected new job for a friend; or even the best plumber, roofer, or seamstress in my neighborhood—to make the perfect match is just plain fun.

Can you define your personal brand in just one word? Doing this can help you see how you might initially approach innovation. My word, my personal brand, has always been Fun, with a capital F. Not silly fun, but energizing, exciting, “get on The Energy Bus with me” fun. Non-negotiables in my definition of fun include energy and growth, mutual trust and respect, and a healthy sense of humor with an energizing vision for the future. What is your personal brand? Try on different perspectives, like De Bono’s classic thinking hats; would your perspective change with a different approach?

Want to be innovative? Start by educating yourself. The basics keys are Associating, Questioning, Observing, Networking, and Experimenting. Associating is all about cross-pollination, making connections between two seemingly unrelated thoughts, processes, or situations. Indeed, innovation skills can be developed.

To support your learning, connect with like-minded people from different walks of life that care about innovation. In the Twin Cities, check out the ground-breaking Social Innovation Lab to experience cross-sector assemblies that seek to transform ideas into action.

Learn, then keep learning; link different interests together. Read books like Creativity. Look at and learn from the new interdisciplinary majors open to college students—again, the benefits of cross-pollination. We are not a world of silos any more; diverse abilities and interests are where the power to innovate resides.

What pulls it all together? For me, I see with passionate clarity, innovation is about relationships, being curious about the world, about other people, their needs, their strengths, their hopes, dreams. Have the eyes to see opportunity; this is where the innovators excel. See the potential in others—people have so much untapped potential that you as a catalyst can help them unleash. See the potential in organizations—new ways to collaborate or approach the work. Most of all, see the synergies between the people, the organizations, the challenges—this is where the opportunities lie. See with fresh eyes. Change up where you sit at work, talk to new people, keep an open mind. Say, “what if?” Be curious! “To innovate, find what’s hiding in plain sight.”

Have you noticed that some of the most innovative people have diverse interests, diverse networks? They seem to have their hand in many worlds, plucking ideas from here, new thoughts from there, and then come up with a whole new approach. There is unharnessed power in cross-pollinating across industries, professions, communities, and (particularly) sectors—public, private, nonprofit. It is often said that the most important innovations in the future will be the innovation of ideas, not necessarily what we have traditionally thought of as innovation, e.g. gadgets, such as smartphones, iPods, etc.

A great example of cross-pollinating is Springboard for the Arts’ Community Supported Art (CSA) program, which uses the model of community supported agriculture (the original CSA) to bring artists and patrons together. Bringing even more worlds together to cross-pollinate is a project like Irrigate, which blows apart all boundaries, linking public, private and arts sectors to build community.

CSA pickup (photo by Scott Streble)

Even when something innovative does burst forth, it takes leadership and vision to support and nurture that innovation. Communities and organizations that are successful not only support, but prize their innovators. An environment conducive to innovation draws more energy to it, leading to exponential impact. Innovation is just a glimmer of an idea to start; you must know it when you see it and be the catalyst to move the idea forward.

A great local example of this is the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Community Giving Garden. It all started with three women from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s IT department (Joan Barrett, Susan Brousseau, and Magda Surrisi) who, in 2007, had the simple idea to grow produce on their corporate campus to provide access to healthy food for women and children at a local domestic violence shelter. They were innovators, taking the seemingly unrelated resources of corporate land and company volunteers and matching that with a community need—feeding hungry people. They were supported; their good idea was allowed to germinate (pun intended), to grow, and now has become part of the fabric of their community.

Joan Barrett, thinning carrots. Photo courtesy of Magda Surrisi.

Innovation is a powerful and inspirational force that propels others to get on board. The success of the Blue Cross giving garden, started in 2008, brought initial and growing interest from local corporations. Responding to this interest and enthusiastically sharing best practices and a mutual commitment to making a difference in our community led to the 2010 creation of the Twin Cities Corporate Giving Garden Network. This network of fifteen (and growing) companies now provides well over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to hungry people in Minnesota and beyond.

Land O’Lakes, Inc. Giving Garden. Photo courtesy of Land O’Lakes.

And guess what—an urban designer that I needed for a new innovative community project? I found him through a serendipitous and timely connection made possible by our very own Pollen, cross-pollination of the very best kind. Your network matters.

Susan T. Schuster is a board member at Springboard for the Arts, senior community affairs consultant at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, creator and founder of the Twin Cities Corporate Giving Garden Network (the 2012 CVC-TC Innovation Award winner), and a passionate advocate for innovation in community involvement. 

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