Most innovations are based on combining ideas in fresh ways. 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 method of printing with movable 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.
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.
A weird combination that worked for the BBC is their celebrity stock exchange, Celebdaq. On this site you can take a future option on the media coverage for your chosen celebrity and then watch your option rise or fall in value. By marrying Hello magazine and financial spread betting the BBC has created a radical innovation that is proving very popular.
Try combining your main product or service with a range of foreign concepts and see what you get. By putting together toys and management training Lego was able to conceive a new corporate strategy technique whereby management teams build business models using Lego blocks. By combining the worlds of pharmaceuticals and fashion, L'Oreal has carved out a distinctive and successful strategy.
How can a concert violinist create an innovation? The acclaimed Finnish violinist Linda Brava has performed with many leading symphony orchestras. She was elected to Helsinki city council in 1996 and became Finnish Tourism ambassador to Sweden. 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.
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 method. 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.
You can apply the same process to combinations of partners and think of diverse individuals or organisations 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. Or how Mercedes-Benz and Swatch combined to create the revolutionary Smart Car. Who would have thought that a prestige carmaker would collaborate with a fashion watchmaker to come up with the most innovative town car ever seen?
Nearly every new idea is a synthesis of other ideas. So a great way to generate ideas is to force combination 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?