According to Clayton Christensen in “The Innovator’s DNA”, associative thinking is a cognitive skill that you either posses or you don’t. It involves synthesizing novel inputs in new ways and therefore is to do with innate wiring not learning. However I believe it can be taught or at least made a little easier with a few simple tricks in connecting the disconnected and bringing familiar things together in new ways to build successful innovations. Or as John Cleese would say “Creativity is not a talent. It’s a way of operating.”
So here are a few ways of operating that can aid your innovation process and help you connect the previously disconnected:
It is easier to take care of the little things. We know we can solve those urgent but trivial tasks simply and quickly, but it’s the harder more time-consuming challenges that are important. We are not so sure about how to address these and our uncertainty makes us anxious. This is OK.
We can be anxious – in fact it is good to be anxious – it is the anxiety that drives us on to better our last idea.
Learn to harness the discomfort. Don’t settle for the easy answer just because it is a faster path to a solution. The size of the reward is typically in line with the size of the risk. So it may not feel too comfortable at first to others. As Albert Einstein vowed “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
The harder you work upfront collecting information the easier it becomes. We always love to immerse ourselves deeply in the Category, Consumer, Company and Channel to fuel our ideation. Dig into documents, quantitative research and immerse yourself in the challenge to uncover new information. Cast your net wide; the broader and deeper the input the more opportunities you will have to find interesting connections.
Grouping insights can be a very helpful way to understand where the biggest opportunities lie. At Fahrenheit 212 we categorize seven insight areas.
The child’s mind is a sponge dedicated to learn. They also have the “benefit” of a lack of entrenched paradigms. For when it comes to innovation it often helps to temporarily forget what we know. When children want to understand the world, they ask one very important question (repeatedly).
Why did he do that? Why did she say that? Why does it have to be that way? Why are all the products the same? Why can’t we do it like they do? Why can’t I have peanut butter & chocolate?
Architects plan, transform and create. Often they also supervise construction. It is about realizing something that might exist. There are systems, processes and strategies to apply, but the desired outcome is a unique solution to a problem. Painters are artists – they translate, interpret and decorate. They are using instinct and vision and the desired outcome is typically a unique interpretation on something. Push for the transformational over the iterative.
If you have done your homework you should have more information and knowledge than others you might be sharing the work with. They may not be able to see it initially. Hopefully you can explain why you are excited, but sometimes you cannot put your fingers on why. You have to feel it, to trust your gut. The truth will set you free. Or at least become clear very soon. As Steve Jobs points out “Intuition is a very powerful thing—more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.”
Often the greatest traction can be achieved in places that have not changed for years – where all the players are doing effectively the same thing. Look for things that are stuck, mundane or feel old. Look for areas of status quo that have been accepted for so long no one really remembers why it happens like that.
Get your head out of the computer. Get away from the desk. Go to museums, shops, research groups, people’s homes, speak to friends, colleagues and experts. You need distance from your other troubles, other projects, other distractions. You need to detach yourself from it all to be able to focus. Give yourself the time to do this, and give yourself the time to dwell on it.
We need to look for patterns, trends, truths, connections and similarities. What runs across, what links, what is moving. Then try and understand what is causing & influencing these. At the same time look for differences, anomalies and outliers. Then get to the bottom of the causes and influences behind these. What is new, exciting and on the rise? What are the Japanese, the Millennials, the NYC fashion crowd reveling around? What are the blogs saying?
It may not seem like a sensible strategy to be wrong, but allowing yourself to be wrong provides for the opportunity to create more disruptive innovations. The helpful ways to be wrong are pushing the boundaries of the brief, running at other hypotheses and creating things that might not work. These work out from the challenge rather than rethink it. It is less helpful to be wrong by being off strategy, repetitive of what has come before or innovations that do not motivate a visceral response.
Apply tests and trials, place things together and see if they work, and if not, try another combination. Perform analysis on the connections you create, run them through a series of questions, against the strategy, against the objectives and most importantly against scenarios that can expose flaws. Make comparisons with other innovations, previous connections and previous experiments.