How Unusual Combinations Lead to Breakthrough Ideas

A great way to generate original ideas for your business is to look for weird combinations. Most new ideas are really combinations of other ideas. Here are some well-known examples of this brainstorming strategy in action, and tips on how you can start using it today!

A popular new variety of sandwich is rocket salad and curry. Purists in Italy or India might be horrified but for consumers it is an exciting new combination. A great way to generate original ideas for your business is to look for weird combinations. Most new ideas are really combinations of other ideas. So look to see how you could mix your products or services with those from completely different sources.

Marrying ideas has been around a long time. What is the greatest invention of all? One contender is Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Before Gutenberg, all books had been laboriously copied out by hand or stamped out with woodblocks. Around 1450 in Strasbourg, Gutenberg combined two ideas to invent a od of printing with moveable type. He coupled the flexibility of a coin punch with the power of a wine press. His invention enabled the production of books and the spread of knowledge and ideas throughout the Western World. In terms of revolutionizing communication only the invention of the Internet comes close.

2 + 2 = 5 or more!

When you combine two ideas to make a third then two plus two can equal five. In the ancient world one of the great discoveries was that by combining two soft metals – iron and tin – you could create a strong alloy – bronze. In a similar way combining two minor inventions – the coin punch and the wine press – gave birth to the mighty printing press.

How can a concert violinist create an innovation? The acclaimed Finnish violinist Linda Brava has performed with many leading symphony orchestras. She posed for Playboy magazine and appeared on the US TV series, Baywatch. By combining glamour with virtuosity in classical music she has established a unique brand for herself.

Consider absurd combinations

Take a product and think of an absurd way to make it work. Trevor Bayliss is the English inventor who conceived the clockwork radio. What a strange combination! Radios need electricity and clockwork is a mechanical od. Surely batteries or mains electricity are better ways to power a radio. However, in the developing world batteries are expensive and mains electricity is unreliable. Bayliss built a reliable radio that people could wind up by hand. It has transformed the availability of information in many of the poorest regions of the Earth.

Now you try it!

You can apply the same process to combinations of partners and think of diverse individuals or organizations who could work with you. Combining your different skills could create an original approach to the market. Think of how Pavarotti performed with the Irish rock band, U2.

Nearly every new idea is a synthesis of other ideas. So a great way to generate ideas is to force combinational possibilities. Get your team together and brainstorm how you could mix your products with those from wildly different sources. Take it to the extreme. How could you combine your key concept with random products, services, places, personalities, etc? The more bizarre the combination the more original the ideas that are triggered.

Study how your customers use your products or services. Do they use them with other products? Is there a combination you could create which would make things easier for your customers? Just like the drinks company who innovated with a ready-mixed gin and tonic.

Remember that:

  • Someone put a trolley and a suitcase together and got a suitcase with wheels.
  • Someone put an igloo with a hotel and got an ice palace.
  • Someone put copier and a telephone together and got a fax machine.
  • Someone put a bell and a clock together and got an alarm clock.
  • Someone put a coin punch and a wine press together and we got books.

So the next time you wheel your suitcase or read a fax or a book you are benefiting from someone’s ingenuity in putting together a combination of ideas. Why not try it with your own products to drive innovation in your business?

By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at destination-innovation.com.

Image by Alexa Clark

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