To become creative—to consistently innovate—which strategy is best? Should you focus expertise in your domain, going deeper? Or should you be a generalist and learn broadly?
My experience, and research, leads me to believe that both are necessary.
You can’t create a new guitar riff destined to become iconic, if you are not familiar with other great riffs. You should be able to play Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple), Iron Man (Black Sabbath), Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns ‘n Roses), Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana), and Satisfaction (Rolling Stones). Only then can you invent a new one. Creative solutions are typically developed by people with some expertise in their fields. We call this deep domain knowledge.
Can you develop a new intervention for cancer without years of researching what has already been tried? I have always wanted to write a fiction bestseller, but I don’t try because I never even read fiction. (My book on Amazon, from which I still receive royalties, is fictional but really is an allegory).
Innovation, according to Peter Drucker, typically comes through borrowing from other domains (HBR, 2002), however. The big innovations that grab headlines are often born from converging knowledge types.
Neuroscience tells us that creativity often involves pulling from memories stored in our brains. When we are faced with a problem, we access the database of experiences and knowledge in our brains and choose one as THE solution. So the broader your knowledge, the larger the database from which to draw possible answers.
Unfortunately, everyone is becoming more specialized. People are able to dig very deep into their own fields. But they are less able to cross-pollinate knowledge from other domains.
If you want to reach creative eminence, make friends with people outside your profession. Spend time with weird people.