Allow Your Ideas to Have Sex with Other Ideas to Create New Ideas

Allow Your Ideas to Have Sex with Other Ideas to Create New Ideas

Psychology February 19, 2012 / By Michael Michalko
Allow Your Ideas to Have Sex with Other Ideas to Create New Ideas

Creative geniuses form more novel combinations than the merely talented. Recommended techniques on how to combine ideas and parts of ideas.

When Hero of Alexandria invented a steam engine in the first century A.D. and employed it in opening temple doors, news of his invention spread so slowly and to so few people that the opportunities it could have afforded humanity by combining  his idea with other ideas was lost. Because Hero's idea never mated with other ideas, it grew old and died. The only evidence that it even existed is because the design of his idea is preserved in ancient Arab manuscripts.

Imagine the ancient possibilities if Hero's idea of a steam engine had sex with other ideas at the time. The steam engine mated with carts would have produced steam propelled vehicles,  mated with farm implements would have transformed agriculture overnight, and mated with sailing ships would have produced steam-powered fast moving ships. Its progeny would have included using steam for all sorts of manufacturing processes, dehydrating food, ice-making, home heating, alcohol stills and even home heating.

In early history, ideas were chaste because they were afforded few ways to meet and mate with other ideas. Ideas seldom met other ideas and lived and died alone. For example, the astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy was ingenious and precise, but it was never used for navigation because astronomers and sailors did not meet. Therefore their different ideas could not mate and have sex.

The benefit of diversity in the human race is a result of humans exchanging genes with one another during sex and life is richer for it. Similarly, when two dissimilar ideas are combined in the imagination, new complex patterns are formed which create new ideas. This strongly resembles the creative process of genetic recombination in nature. Chromosomes exchange genes to create emergent new beings. Think of elements and patterns of ideas as genes that combine and recombine to create new patterns which lead to new ideas.

Combining the attributes and aspects of certain ideas with other ideas is to creativity and innovation as sex is to biological evolution. The new ideas are not only greater than the sums of their parts, but they are different from the sums of their parts. George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, invented Velcro by combining the ordinary zipper with burdocks. Johann Guttenberg invented the moveable-type printing press by combining the patterns of pressing grapes and the process of engraving on blocks of wood.

If you examine most any idea, you will discover that the majority of ideas are created by combining two or more different elements into something different. The lawn mower, for example, was invented in the cloth making industry by Edwin Budding who worked on a machine that trimmed cloth smooth using revolving blades and rollers. He combined this concept with the scythe, which was commonly used to trim grass, attached a handle so it could be pushed and the first lawn mower was born.
The modern world with its gigantic interconnectedness has made it much easier for ideas to meet and have sex with other ideas from all over the planet with ever-increasing promiscuity. Consider the promiscuous telephone. First the telephone had sex with a copier and produced the fax. Sometime later the telephone had sex with the computer and spawned the Internet. Fairly recently, the horny telephone had sex with the internet and the iPhone was born. Kind of makes you wonder how the telephone has the time for all its affairs.


COMBINE RANDOM OBJECTS. Select 20 objects at random. You can select any objects, objects at home, objects at work, or objects you might find walking down the street. Or you can imagine you are in a technologically-oriented science museum, walking through the Smithsonian Institute, or browsing in an electronic store and make a list of 20 objects that you would likely see. Make two lists of 10 objects each on the left and right sides of the paper. Pick one from the left and combine it with one on the right. When you find a promising new combination, refine and elaborate it into a new invention. For example, the combination of sunglasses and windows inspires the idea of tinted house windows that are designed to change colors with ultra-violet light to help keep the house cool.

In another example, John, an avid fisherman combined Christmas tree from one list with fish on the other. This inspired his idea of putting unsold Christmas trees into habitats for fish in otherwise barren lakes. The trees are taken to a lake where volunteers bundle and secure them to the lake bed. Within days, the newly denuded branches become covered with algae which attract aquatic insects and schools of fish. The volunteers, mostly fishermen, get the GPS coordinates of the trees which become their private locations for excellent fishing.

COMBINING SUBJECTS FROM UNRELATED FIELDS. When looking for original ideas, try combining subjects from unrelated fields. Create two lists of objects: one list containing objects from one world (e.g. solar energy) and the other from another world (e.g. work). One entrepreneur created two lists of objects: one list contained household objects and the other list contained objects from the world of sports. The combination of "laundry hamper" with "basketball" inspired him to create a new laundry hamper fashioned into a basketball net, approximately 40 inches long, attached to a cylindrical hoop and hung on a backboard that is attached to a door. This allows kids to play basketball with dirty laundry as they "stuff" the basket. When it is full, a tug on a drawstring releases the clothes.

In another example, a politician wanted to come up with ways to encourage more people to vote. He had two lists of ideas: one from the world of politics and one from the world of entertainment. He came up with the idea that offers a financial incentive to show up at the polls. Here's how it would work: Each person's vote would count as a lottery ticket. At the end of each election, one ticket would win $1 million. If two million Arizonans vote, as they did in an average presidential election, the odds of winning (1 in 2 million) would be far better than current Powerball odds (1 in 146 million). The voting jackpot would come from the state's unclaimed lottery fund.  Amazingly, many people never pick up their lottery winnings - enough analysts say to provide $2.7 million every two years. With $1.7 million remaining after the jackpot, government could offer 1,700 prizes of $1,000 each. That would increase the odds of winning something to about 1 in 2,500. And since socioeconomics plays a big part in voter turnout, this incentive will bring nonvoters to the polls.

COMBINE PROBLEMS.  Fedex combined a forklift with a scale to accomplish two needed tasks quicker. Work on two or more unrelated problems in parallel. Use a notebook for each separate problem. E.g., one problem might be about finding the capital and resources for a new project. Another problem might be about improving the employee evaluation system, and still another might be a new advertising campaign. When you're stonewalled on one problem, move to the next. When you come up with ideas or moves that work for one problem, try the ideas or related ideas with the other as well. 

WORDS. A third technique using words is to first generate a list of nouns  (5 to 10 or so)  and another list of adjectives and verbs that pertain to your subject. Each noun should represent some aspect or essence of your subject. Use a thesaurus if you wish. The list of adjectives and verbs should be freely associated (write whatever adjectives and verbs come to mind). Next randomly choose a noun from the first list and combine it with an adjective or verb from the second list and use this combination to generate ideas. Try different combinations. This is the technique that I used to create the title for my book, Thinkertoys. I randomly combined "toys" and "think." Then, I reversed it to "think toys." Next, I elaborated on the words to "Thinking Toys," and combined the two again into "Thinkertoys."

COMBINE IDEAS. Collect all your ideas and put them into two columns, column A and column B. Either list them on paper or write them on cards and put them into two piles or tape them onto the wall in two columns. Randomly connect one idea from column "A" and one idea from column "B." Try to combine the two into one idea. See how many viable combinations you can make.

Japanese marine scientists brainstormed for ways to make an aquarium into a life-form educational facility for children while the aquarium's director and his staff brainstormed for ways to make the aquarium fun for children to feel closer to marine life. One idea was to incorporate a restaurant that served seafood. Another idea was to hold fishing seminars to teach children how to safely catch and clean fish. These two ideas combined inspired the final idea which is a fishing hole where visitors can catch such fish as coho salmon and horse mackerel. The restaurant will then clean and serve the visitors their catch for dinner.

In another example, a Marco Island, Florida, resident was advised his concrete 80-foot-long seawall was crumbling. A marine contractor told him the only to fix it was to replace the entire wall, deck and boat lift at a cost of $250,000. Instead of reaching for his checkbook, he began to think of how "things" are held and supported. Then he combined these ideas with his seawall. One of his "how things are held" was a telephone pole on his road which is anchored into the ground with large screws. If screws could brace tall poles, why not a seawall? He designed and installed the large screws and saved his seawall. Later, he patented his idea and started his own company which manufactures anchor screws for fixing seawalls.

COMBINE EXTREMES. Create two opposite extreme ideas. For instance, what idea would you create if you had all the resources (people, money, time, etc.) in the world? Then, ask what idea would you create if you had no resources? And then try to combine the two into something practical. Also, think of the elements and attributes of each extreme and then make random connections between the two lists of extremes.
Suppose, for example, you want to reward employees for ideas that increase productivity. One extreme would be to award each employee one million dollars for each idea. The other extreme would be to award each employee a penny. The combination of the two extremes inspires a "Penny for Your Ideas" campaign. Buy a gumball machine and place it in your office filled with colored gumballs. For every idea (or every five or ten ideas) award the contributor a penny for use in the machine. Award a cash prize according to the color of the gumball that comes out ($2 for green, $5 for yellow, $100 for red, etc.).

In another example, suppose a company makes hot sauce. One extreme is to have separate bottles for the various flavors from mild to super hot. Another extreme is to have one bottle. Combining the two extremes inspires the idea of a pump-spray hot sauce that the user can change from slightly spicy to fiery hot by simply turning the cap.

COMBINE TALENT. Look for ways to maximize the many different and diverse talents in group brainstorming sessions. You could divide the group into smaller groups by gender, work experience, departments, geographical regions, education and so on. Have each group brainstorm for ideas and then combine the groups to share ideas and to look for ways to combine them. For example, you might divide a large group into three groups: very experienced, moderately experienced, and little or no experience. Or divide a group by position, for example, salespeople, customer service representatives and service personnel. Have each group separately generate ideas and then combine the groups to successfully integrate the ideas. One company I worked with recently brainstormed with three groups: Youth (Under 20); middle age (30 to 50); and senior (60 to....).

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