Cormac McCarthy is considered by many to be the greatest living American writer. His works including All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men and The Road have become mainstays of contemporary American culture. But there’s more to McCarthy than his ability to use spare language to tell dark tales.

These days he works at the Santa Fe Institute among scientists who like tackling big questions that span different fields. SFI’s scientists work under the theory that the best way to solve toward questions they want to ask is through the intermingling of scientists of all kinds — physicists, biologists, economists, anthropologists and others.

And others. That’s where Cormac McCarthy, who attended but didn’t graduate from the University of Tennessee, comes in.

The SFI is a research community focused on expanding the boundaries of scientific understanding. “Its aim to discover, comprehend and communicate the common fundamental principles in complex physical, computational, biological and social systems that underlie many of the most profound problems facing science and society today,” according to its website. With faculty members whose interests range from the scaling and sustainability of cities to the evolution of complexity and intelligence on earth, SFI has extended the logic of collaboration further by establishing a regular fellowship to bring a novelist, playwright, philosopher or other humanist to the institute. In that spirit, McCarthy has also become a vital part of the intellectual atmosphere.

SFI may have coined the term, orthogonality (which technically means “right angles or perpendicular lines”) to capture in a word what it sees as the value of bringing together people with different backgrounds. This group of people, deemed by many to be the smartest folks in the world, find great value in bringing cross-disciplinary thinkers together. Building on their thinking offers validity to the question: What is the value of the concept to businesses? Could a form of “orthogonality” or perpendicular thinkers solve some of your organizations biggest problems?


Louis Gerstner describes his arrival at IBM in April 1993 when an active plan to disaggregate the company was in place in his memoir, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? At the time, the company’s management held that IBM’s core mainframe business was headed for obsolescence. The company was in the process of allowing its various divisions to rebrand and manage themselves as the so-called “Baby Blues.”

When Gerstner became CEO, he reversed the plan, largely based on his previous experiences as an executive at RJR Nabisco and American Express. Drawing from insights gained while working in other industries, he recognized “the biggest problem that all major companies faced in 1993 was integrating all the separate computing technologies that were emerging at the time, and saw that IBM’s unique competitive advantage was its ability to provide integrated solutions for customers — a company that could represent more than piece parts or components….”


Fresh perspective could provide the answer

For Mike McCann, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Amesbury, the perspective gained as an executive in one industry has proven invaluable when transferred into a different industry.

“That expectation that the payout will be immediate is short-sighted, but having a fresh perspective will allow you to make some immediate course corrections,” McCann said.

He likens the switch from one industry to another to that of a football player traded from the Broncos to the Vikings. “You’ve got the skills but don’t know the offense yet, but you’re not there to learn. You’re there to lead,” he said. “You have to be able to learn on-the-fly effectively. They’re not hiring you to come in and learn. They’re hiring you to run the business. You have to be learning and running — and fixing stuff at the same time.”

“Our era of hyper-specialized subfields and mutually unintelligible vocabularies makes it easy to forget that borders between disciplines were once crossed more frequently,” McCann said, remembering his time working at Xerox. “At Xerox, we’d give new employees a 13-page acronym list. We basically spoke our own language, and when you get in that world too deep people start thinking that no one else can possibly understand things the way we do. The danger is: You’re sitting around a conference room breathing your own exhaust with no outside perspective.”

For leaders who move from one industry to another, being flexible in learning and adapting to a new environment requires chucking the ego and an acceptance that “you don’t have all the answers,” McCann said. “People who are curious and good learners, thoughtful and pragmatic can adjust. The trouble is that if you expect others to think like you do, you’ll be very frustrated. It’s really about self-awareness. One guiding principle of good leaders is to understand our abilities and competencies. You can move way too fast and press an organization until it breaks.”

Richard Spoon, ArchPoint CEO, agrees. “Leaders have to remember that they’re going to be ahead of the team in what they’re introducing. Leaders will have been living in the new concept for years in another industry. I encourage careful consideration in how a new idea or program is introduced to a team.”

When asked the question, “Is there value in learning how other industries solve problems?” Spoon said, “Absolutely and no.”

While he appreciates the great value of new ideas and perspective in an organization, Spoon cautioned, “If you’re bridging from one industry into another and you bring that knowledge over without carefully considering the implications — political, customer or competitive, the situation has the potential to backfire. As a leader, you’ve got to consider the implications of how and when you bring best practices from another industry into your current industry. Is there value? Absolutely. Is there risk? Possibly. Leaders have to trust their experience, perspectives and instincts to consider the different possibilities the perspective changes could to bear.”