Mashup! – Leveraging the power of combinational creativity

“Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected” – William Plomer

Creativity is hard to define, and even harder to make happen. The act of generating something new that has never existed before is tricky. Is it alchemy? Magic? Lightning striking?

According to Edward de Bono, “creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.” Often, it’s a new approach to something old. This type of creativity – called “combinational creativity” – can be powerful, arresting, and surprising. Combinational creativity refers to combining existing or known information in some new and novel way. For example, Gutenberg (Johannes, not Steve) took a wine press and a die/punch and made the printing press.

So, basically, we’re talking about “mashups”. Think about it – what makes mashups so interesting is the surprise that happens when two things you already know are combined to create an entirely new, and even better, entity. One of the first great mash-ups, Dangermouse’s 2004 bootleg album “The Grey Album”, was new music comprised solely of samples from The Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “The Black Album”. It was both shocking, and revelatory.

Well, you can leverage the power of combinational creativity and the mashup, too. Here are three ways.

1. Actively pursue knowledge spillovers”.
Attributed to urban theorist Jane Jacobs, “knowledge spillovers” are when ideas are exchanged from one person, company, industry to another, via unintentional contact and communication. Jonah Lehrer talked in his New Yorker article about the incredible creative spillovers among the variety of tenants of Building 20 at MIT that led to many seminal research and development projects in the 1950’s through the 1990’s, from the emergence of the field of linguistics to the creation of the worlds’ first video game.

How can you foster these knowledge spillovers?

  • Leave your office. As I’ve written before (per Tom Peters), “managing by wandering around” has tons of benefits, one of which is all the random conversation and sharing that happens as you meet people along the way.
  • Bring fresh, new thinkers (“zero-gravity thinkers”) into your teams and meetings to add new perspectives and take advantage of their divergent experiences.
  • Bring in experts from other departments, companies, even fields to talk about their experiences. Leverage meetings with vendors, sales people, and field teams to gain from their “spillover”.
  • Live a little. You can gain from spillover from things you do, see, read, and experience outside of your day job.

2. Practice “Random Links.
Purposefully following random links will lead you to discover associations that you probably never would have explored intentionally (this is a tool we sometimes use at Starcom).

  • Develop links. Choose random objects, photos, ideas or people, and find connections between them and your objective or problem. This can help you define your problem, or develop your solution in a very new way that doesn’t rely on the tired old Category lingo.
  • What would Steve Jobs do? Consider how a successful leader might solve your problem. Think about the problem through Steve Jobs’ or Richard Branson’s eyes, for example.
  • “The Space Beside”. Another tool we sometimes use, “The Space Beside” examines parallel brands or categories for learning that can be applied to your brand. Look beyond your category for inspiration here. E.g, how would Target, or Facebook approach it?

3. Steal with pride.
As I referenced last post (courtesy of Bill Taylor and his HBR blog), the best source of new ideas for your field can be proven, old ideas from unrelated fields.  Don’t think that leveraging these ideas are “stealing” – remember that the simple act of making the lateral leap to your category and your specific problem can be a highly creative, revolutionary act.

What are your favorite mashups? How do you spur creativity on your teams?


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