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  • Writer's pictureMike Entner

The Apples to Oranges Ideation Process

By Michael Entner-Gómez | Digital Transformation Officer | Entner Consulting Group, LLC.

How Polymath Non-Linearity Confounds Focused Technologists

At the intersection of technology and innovation, diverse thought processes play a pivotal role in driving progress. Among these varied cognitive styles, the non-linear thinking of polymaths stands out as a unique and often misunderstood element. Polymaths, known for their wide-ranging knowledge and expertise across multiple disciplines, approach problems and ideas in a way that's drastically different from their more focused counterparts in technology. This article delves into this contrast, exploring how the “apple to oranges” ideation process of polymaths can both baffle and benefit the more linear, goal-driven minds of focused technologists.

At the heart of this exploration is an understanding of non-linear thinking. Unlike linear thought processes, which follow a straight, goal-oriented path, non-linear thinking is characterized by its ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas, jump between concepts, and embrace a more holistic view. This form of thinking is not just about connecting point A to point B but rather about seeing a web of possibilities where others see a straight line.

The interaction between these two distinct cognitive styles raises intriguing questions. Can the broad, interconnected ideation of polymaths complement the depth and focus of technologists? Or does it lead to a fundamental clash that hinders collaboration and innovation? This article aims to unpack these questions, offering insights into how the non-linear “apple” approach of polymaths can mesh with the linear “orange” approach of focused technologists, potentially leading to groundbreaking innovations and solutions.

The World of Focused Technologists

In stark contrast to the polymath’s wide-ranging curiosity, focused technologists embody the essence of specialization. These professionals dedicate their careers to mastering specific areas within the vast realm of technology. Their approach is characterized by deep, linear thinking — a methodical process that builds knowledge and solutions step by step, focusing intently on a singular objective.

The strength of focused technologists lies in their ability to delve deeply into complex technical problems, often leading to significant advancements within their field. This depth of understanding allows for a level of expertise that is essential in addressing the intricate and highly specialized challenges of modern technology. From developing cutting-edge software to pioneering new hardware, these individuals drive the technological advancements that shape our world.

However, this intense focus can sometimes result in a kind of cognitive tunnel vision. Focused technologists may find it challenging to step outside their domain of expertise or to consider solutions that fall outside the conventional scope of their field. In a rapidly shifting technological landscape, this limitation can be a hindrance to innovation, especially when facing problems that require a more interdisciplinary approach.

The linear mindset of these professionals is both their greatest asset and a potential limitation. While it enables them to push the boundaries of their specific field, it can also isolate them from the broader spectrum of ideas and solutions that a more diverse cognitive approach, like that of polymaths, can provide. The challenge, therefore, lies in bridging the gap between the depth of focused technology specialists and the breadth of polymathic thinkers.

In understanding the world of focused technologists, it’s crucial to appreciate their role in driving forward specific areas of technology with unparalleled expertise. Their contributions are invaluable, yet they stand to gain significantly from interacting with the wider, more interconnected thought processes of polymaths.

Apples and Oranges: The Polymath Approach to Problem Solving

In the polymath’s world, problem-solving is akin to comparing apples and oranges – not to highlight their differences, but to find underlying similarities and connections that are not immediately apparent. This approach is fundamentally different from the linear, focused method employed by technologists, and it brings a unique perspective to tackling complex issues.

Polymaths excel at drawing parallels between seemingly unrelated fields or ideas, to find connections in unlikely places. For them, an apple and an orange aren’t just different fruits; they represent a broader spectrum of possibilities and connections. A concept in physics might be related to a principle in psychology, or a pattern in nature might inspire a new approach in computer science. By looking at problems through this wide-angle lens, polymaths can uncover innovative solutions that might escape a more narrowly focused mind.

At the heart of the polymath's approach is analogical thinking — the ability to see relationships between different domains. This way of thinking encourages a form of creativity that is less about inventing something entirely new and more about recombining existing ideas in novel ways — what Grandmaster Flash would refer to as a remix [did I mention polymaths love EDM and Hip Hop?]. For example, the Wright brothers applied principles of aerodynamics from the study of birds to achieve human flight, an instance where insights from biology informed a breakthrough in engineering.

Polymaths often engage in a mental process of contrasting different ideas or fields to create a new synthesis. This synthesis can lead to breakthroughs that might not be achieved through a more linear, within-domain approach. For instance, Steve Jobs famously combined insights from calligraphy and technology to revolutionize the design and user interface of personal computers. Yes, one could argue that he borrowed his interface idea from a visit to Xerox PARC, but since he’s no longer with us we’ll let him slide on that.

This polymath approach of comparing apples and oranges is not without its challenges. It requires a breadth of knowledge and the ability to think abstractly about different domains. Quite frankly, as one of the polymath persuasions, I can tell you it is absolutely exhausting, and we will frequently shelf ideas only to revisit them years later. However, the opportunities it presents are vast. In an increasingly interconnected world, the ability to connect disparate ideas and fields is becoming more valuable. Polymaths, with their broad perspective and analogical thinking, are well-positioned to lead the way in innovation by bringing together the best of different worlds.

Clash of the Titans

The interaction between the non-linear thinking of polymaths and the linear mindset of focused technologists often leads to a clash of ideologies. This clash, while sometimes challenging, can also be a source of great innovation and creativity.

In collaborative environments, when a polymath's broad, integrative approach meets a technologist's specialized, linear method, the initial result can be misunderstanding and frustration. Polymaths may view technologists as overly narrow or rigid in their thinking, while technologists might see polymaths as lacking focus or depth. This divergence can lead to conflict, but it can also be the genesis of innovative ideas that neither could have developed alone.

Real-world examples of such collaborations can be enlightening. In industries like software development, product design, or biomedical engineering, projects often require both depth and breadth of knowledge. For instance, in developing a new medical device, the polymath's broad understanding of medicine, engineering, and user experience can complement the technologist's deep technical expertise in device engineering.

The primary benefit of this interaction is the potential for innovative solutions that emerge from combining different perspectives. Polymaths can introduce novel ideas and connections, while technologists can provide the practical know-how and detailed understanding necessary to realize these ideas. However, the drawbacks are equally notable. Communication barriers can arise, and projects can suffer if there is a lack of mutual understanding and respect for each other's thinking styles. Balancing these two approaches requires careful management and a willingness to embrace different perspectives.

To draw the utmost value out of a partnership between these two different thinking processes — in essence, harmonizing them — several key strategies emerge:

  • Mutual Respect and Understanding: Cultivating a culture of mutual respect and understanding is vital. Team members should be encouraged to appreciate the different approaches and perspectives that each individual brings.

  • Cross-Disciplinary Teams: Integrating polymaths and technologists into cross-disciplinary teams can enhance creativity and innovation. Such teams can leverage the wide-ranging insights of polymaths and the specialized knowledge of technologists.

  • Idea Exchange Workshops: Regular workshops or meetings where team members can freely exchange, and brainstorm ideas can help blend the diverse thinking styles.

  • Leadership Support: Leadership plays a crucial role in fostering an environment that embraces both linear and non-linear thinking. Leaders should advocate for diversity in problem-solving approaches and provide resources for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

While these strategies may seem obvious, they are rarely incorporated into the ideation and development processes. When properly scaffolded, the fusion of non-linear and linear thinking can be a powerful driver of innovation. By understanding and leveraging the strengths of both polymaths and focused technologists, teams can achieve remarkable outcomes.

When polymaths and technologists work together, they can achieve a synergy that amplifies their individual contributions — as Aristotle would say, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Polymaths can help technologists see the bigger picture and consider alternative perspectives, while technologists can provide the practical expertise to turn broad ideas into tangible solutions. There are numerous examples where the collaboration between polymaths and technologists has led to remarkable innovations. From the development of the internet, which required a blend of computer science, communication theory, and social understanding, to advancements in sustainable energy technologies, which combine engineering, environmental science, and economics, the benefits of this collaborative approach are evident.

Real-World Polymaths as Pioneers of Innovation

Here are ten real-world examples, from various domains, of polymaths that have brought their diverse expertise and innovative thinking to various fields, demonstrating the power of their "apples and oranges" approach [I’ve added links for additional readings]:

  1. Elon Musk: A prime example of a modern polymath, Elon Musk has made significant contributions across various industries (Elon Musk: How to Become an Expert in Any Field). His work ranges from revolutionizing the automotive industry with Tesla's electric vehicles and innovative battery technology to pioneering space exploration with SpaceX's reusable rockets. Musk has also ventured into the intersection of neurology and technology with Neuralink, aimed at creating brain-machine interfaces, and has addressed urban congestion with The Boring Company's subterranean transportation systems. And let’s not forget, Musk co-founded OpenAI to promote the development of friendly AI​​.

  2. Steven Pinker: As a cognitive psychologist and linguist, Steven Pinker has made substantial contributions that cross traditional academic boundaries (Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers). His work includes groundbreaking books like 'The Language Instinct' and 'How the Mind Works,' which have laid the foundation for modern linguistic studies. Pinker has also ventured into philosophical questions about human nature and societal constructs, demonstrating the interconnectedness of philosophy, evolutionary biology, and cognitive psychology. His public engagement has influenced discourse on science, language, and culture​​.

  3. Nikola Tesla: A visionary inventor and engineer, Tesla left an indelible mark on the world of science and technology (9 Things You May Not Know About Nikola Tesla). Renowned for his pioneering work in electrical engineering, Tesla's innovations include the alternating current (AC) electrical system, which revolutionized power distribution. His inventive mind also led to concepts and prototypes for wireless communication, the Tesla coil, and alternating current motors. Although his genius was often overshadowed by financial challenges and rivalries, Tesla's legacy endures. His contributions continue to shape the modern world, from electricity generation to wireless technologies, earning him recognition as a polymathic figure of unparalleled ingenuity.

  4. Jagdish Chandra Bose: a pioneering scientist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made groundbreaking contributions to multiple fields (Biography of Jagadish Chandra Bose, Modern-Day Polymath). His work in physics and botany was marked by innovation and cross-disciplinary thinking. Bose's investigations into radio waves and the properties of electromagnetic waves predated Marconi's wireless communication work. He also delved into plant physiology, revealing the fundamental similarities between plant and animal tissues. A true polymath, his legacy as a scientist, physicist, biologist, and inventor endures, as his pioneering spirit and diverse interests continue to inspire innovation in various scientific domains.

  5. Noam Chomsky: Chomsky's work spans linguistics, politics, media, philosophy, cognitive science, and activism (The Importance of Chomsky's Ideas). He revolutionized the study of language with his theory of transformational grammar and has provided profound insights into media manipulation and systemic propaganda. Chomsky's philosophical inquiries challenge prevailing notions of knowledge and reality, and his contributions to cognitive science have shaped the understanding of the human mind. Beyond academia, Chomsky is a relentless advocate for social justice, human rights, and environmental sustainability​​.

  6. Leonardo da Vinci: da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance polymath, excelled in an array of fields (Why Leonardo da Vinci was a Genius). His artistic masterpieces like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are celebrated worldwide, but his brilliance extended beyond art. Da Vinci was a visionary scientist, anatomist, engineer, and inventor. His notebooks brim with designs for flying machines, bridges, and futuristic inventions. He dissected the human body, advancing medical knowledge. Da Vinci's ability to blend artistic creativity with scientific inquiry epitomizes the polymathic approach, leaving an enduring legacy of innovation and curiosity that continues to inspire generations.

  7. Benjamin Franklin: This Founding Father was a true polymath (7 of the Most Important of Ben Franklin's Accomplishments). He excelled as a writer, scientist, inventor, diplomat, and statesman. His experiments with electricity, particularly the famous kite experiment, contributed to our understanding of electrical phenomena. Franklin's inventions, including the lightning rod and bifocal glasses, improved daily life. His writing, such as "Poor Richard's Almanack," offered wisdom and humor. His diplomacy secured crucial support during the American Revolution. Franklin's multifaceted genius embodies the spirit of polymaths, leaving an enduring legacy of innovation, wit, and statesmanship.

  8. Buckminster Fuller: This architect, inventor, and futurist was a visionary polymath (Introduction to Buckminster Fuller). He popularized the geodesic dome, an architectural innovation with applications from housing to space exploration. Fuller's "Spaceship Earth" concept emphasized sustainability and global cooperation. His Dymaxion car and map challenged conventional transportation and cartography. His interdisciplinary thinking and commitment to solving global challenges embody the essence of polymathic thought, leaving a profound legacy in architecture, design, and visionary ideas.

  9. Hedy Lamarr: Known primarily as a Hollywood icon, Lamarr was also a remarkable polymath (7 Things You Didn’t Know About Hollywood Star and Inventor Hedy Lamarr). Beyond her acting career, she co-invented Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) technology during World War II. This pioneering work in secure communication laid the groundwork for modern wireless technologies. Lamarr's combination of artistic talent and scientific curiosity exemplifies the polymathic spirit, proving that innovation knows no boundaries. Her legacy continues to inspire those who recognize the profound impact of her contributions to technology and communication.

  10. Alan Turing: A brilliant mathematician, logician, and computer scientist, Turing was a polymath of extraordinary talent (How Alan Turing Set the Rules for Computing). His work during World War II on breaking the Enigma code significantly contributed to the Allied victory. Turing is often considered the father of computer science, with his Turing machine concept laying the foundation for modern computing. His interdisciplinary thinking extended to biology with the formulation of the Turing test, a benchmark for artificial intelligence. Despite tragic personal struggles, Turing's pioneering contributions in multiple fields continue to shape technology, cryptography, and artificial intelligence.

These examples (and there are many more) highlight how polymaths, with their diverse expertise and innovative approaches, have made substantial contributions across various fields, embodying the “apples and oranges” approach to problem-solving. It's also worth noting that polymaths can often be controversial or polarizing figures due to their cross-domain interests, unconventional opinions, and connected view of seemingly disconnected things — love them or hate them, they’ve moved the needle in ideation and innovation.

Bridging Polymath Creativity and Technological Focus

In our contemporary landscape, characterized by intricate challenges, the synergy between polymathic creativity and technological focus has transitioned from a luxury to an imperative. The convergence of these distinct cognitive approaches holds the promise of generating novel solutions that remain elusive when pursued in isolation. By amalgamating the expansive, interconnected thinking of polymaths with the depth and precision of technologists, we unlock a realm of innovation that transcends conventional boundaries. This fusion not only enriches our problem-solving prowess but also paves the way for transformative advancements, underscoring the potent unity required to address the multifaceted challenges of our times.

As such, the synergy between polymathic creativity and technological focus extends its influence well beyond individual projects. It fundamentally reshapes our approach to innovation, dismantling silos and nurturing cross-disciplinary thinking. As this collaborative mindset permeates diverse industries, we can anticipate groundbreaking progress in domains such as medicine, engineering, and sustainable development. The convergence of diverse cognitive styles not only enhances our ability to solve problems but also lays the foundation for holistic solutions to the complex challenges of our era.

In a world marked by increasingly “wicked” problems, the imperative to bridge polymathic creativity and technological focus becomes ever more pressing. This compels us to reevaluate our educational systems, promoting interdisciplinary learning and the cultivation of diverse talents. As we embark on this transformative journey, we must contemplate how we can unlock the full potential of our collective intelligence. How can we harness the strengths of both polymaths and technologists to shape a brighter future? It's a call to explore, innovate, and bridge the divide between creativity and focus for a better tomorrow.

Parting Thoughts

The journey from understanding the non-linear thinking of polymaths to appreciating the focused approach of technologists reveals a rich landscape of cognitive diversity. The "apple to oranges ideation process" underscores the importance of valuing different perspectives in problem-solving and innovation. By embracing and combining the strengths of both polymaths and technologists, we can foster a more innovative, inclusive, and effective approach to the challenges of the modern world. In this fusion of diverse thoughts and expertise, we find the seeds of future breakthroughs and advancements, affirming the power of bringing together the best of all worlds.

"Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else." — Leonardo da Vinci

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