Intellectual middlemen

Being creative often involves being intellectual middlemen.

In an interesting study,  Kellogg school of Management Professors Jones, Mukherjee, Stringer and Uzzi analyzed 17.9 million research papers for novelty by assessing how much they’d been cited and what combination of sources they’d cited. They found that – the highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.

Charles Duhigg interviewed Brian Uzzi for his book “Smarter, Faster, Better” and Uzzi said – “A lot of the people we think of as exceptionally creative are essentially intellectual middlemen.” That is, “They’ve learned how to transfer knowledge between different industries or groups. They’ve seen a lot of different people attack the same problems in different settings, and so they know which kinds of ideas are more likely to work.”

So, how do we become better at being intellectual middlemen? The abstract of the paper offers a clue – Novel combinations of prior work are rare, yet teams are 37.7% more likely than solo authors to insert novel combinations into familiar knowledge domains.