Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 25, 2009

Overlapping fringes: creating value through inter-disciplinary thinking

Jun Loayza , the entrepreneur and blogger, recently penned a few thoughts about the problem of personal branding when you consider yourself “a jack of all trades” . This reminded me of some great advice that Michael Fairbanks gave Gareth and me last year at the Australian Leadership Retreat. Michael is a social entrepreneur, head of the Seven Fund and Chairman Emeritus of OTF (which provides strategy consulting specifically to developing nations). When I mentioned I had many interests and wasn’t sure where to specialize, he suggested a nice “expertise-hack” based on finding new connections between fields. I’m paraphrasing here, but this was essentially his suggestion:

1) Pick two (or more) areas that you’re interested in but which might not be traditionally related to one another.
2) Find and carefully read the 3 – 4 top books and papers in each field.
3) For each, make a list of the anomalies, outstanding questions or issues that are still being hotly debated.
4) Compare your two lists and look for similiarities, or where insights from one field might inform the other.
5) Get busy thinking, talking and researching on the fringes of both fields to try and create value for both.
6) Start applying your new knowledge and ideas to create a business, start a blog, write a book, move fields or simply have a new and interesting passion.

The point is here that a) you’ll be combining your interests and will deepen your knowledge of both simultaneously while not getting bored, b) you’ll be naturally inclined to create new knowledge or ideas through synthesis, c) you’ll have a unique value-add to both fields so will stand out in a personal branding, d) you’ll be an interesting person to talk to because you’ll become an inter-discipliniary person (and hence useful to other fields beyond the two you started looking at).

Over the past couple of months I’ve taken Michael’s advice to combine three different areas through this blog – scenario planning (the field I’ve worked in for the last three years), decision-making errors and cognitive bias (which I’ve been reading a lot about for the past few years in my own time) and the study of complex systems (which I’m currently frantically learning as much as I can about).

As some of you will know, I think that today there is a sweet spot where these three areas of knowledge coincide, and hence I’m reading, networking, talking and blogging as furiously as I can to make it applicable to the current financial and economic climate. It’s not only adding value to my work on the future of the global financial system, but it’s personally fascinating and helping me meet and chat to very interesting people. And I’m practicing a technique that I’m sure will come in useful in other contexts in the future.


Responses

  1. Nice one Nick, love this blog topic!

    There are just so many ideas from one field that can fertilise others, but the problem is that it all seems a bit hit and miss in terms of probabilty of generating useful connections. (Although maybe a better probability than only specialising in ONE field, and hoping for a breakthrough by working solely within it? Thoughts?)

    It might take more than reading a few top papers from each field, in many instances. Also, if you have 10 fields of interest, how do you pick just 2 or 3?

    I like his suggestions though. I did a similar thing when i took a year off after school, reading all sorts of books and studies, came up with dozens of business ideas (all lying idle in a box somewhere!).

    I can think of a couple of examples where this cross pollination has happened into and out of the world of high finance:

    eg 1 – financial option pricing theory uses Brownian Motion random walk work from physics. LTCM (which did quite well for a while!!!!!) hired physics PHDs for the firm…

    eg 2 – i read somewhere that the Pentagon had an experimental betting exchange on global events affecting security. Something like you could buy or sell derivatives on the probability that X thing (maybe like a rogue state would launch a missile) would happen. This was a very creative and experimental cross fertilisation from finance, using “efficient market theory” which states roughly that given all the available [public] information, the market price will best predict the outcome. From memory they canned it for fear participants might be unethical and create security events to get a payoff, so it wasnt tested.

    Gotta run,
    Dan

    • Dan, good to hear from you my friend! A few thoughts in reply to your comments above:

      1) I think hit and miss is the way to go – try and go way out on a limb and then talk to experts to see if you’re in the ballpart. By narrowing down on the anomalies I’ve found it steers you in interesting directions. And definitely better in my mind than staying purely in one field, as Michael also told me – you’ll spend years becoming only 80% as good as the true experts, and probably be brainwashed in the process.

      2) I’ve found that the top few books and papers in each field actually are pretty good at both covering the spectrum and linking to other relevant information – the point is more that you have to use the 80/20 rule just to cope with the amount of material out there. Investing in speed-reading techniques and reading with a highlighter become very useful!

      3) Picking a few fields is tough, but I tried to marry stuff that was already sucking my time and interest, but were sufficiently different to offer insights. Doubling up on areas that will benefit both your work and social interests (stuff you might be doing anyway, or a tangential to another part of your life) are good places to start.

      4) Like your examples. The problem with the first is that, while they’re clever, they miss insights from easier more important fields – in the case of brownian motion, the micro-level price movements and random walk modelling actually fails to describe major shifts (due to the scale of analysis). Complexity theory actually covers this in detail, but the LTCM guys didn’t consider this field as important! So I guess that when you start applying insights to important decisions in the world, start small so that you don’t blow up due to a crucial missing piece of the puzzle or holding a false assumption.

  2. Hey thanks for the feature! You definitely add some great stuff to the conversation.

    Are you ever in socal?

    • Thanks Jun. Actually the blog post above started as a comment I posted to your blog! But it seems the post didn’t go through – I suspected there might have been something wrong with my connection so have saved the comment in a text file and will repost it to your blog when I get back tonight.

      I’m not often in socal, but trying to get out more. Planning to head to san fran and stanford at some point this year though – will drop you a line in case we’re not too far apart at that stage!


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