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Tuesday, June 26, 2012


How to grow your idea by annexing its neighbor

Dean Keith Simonton, in his 1989 book Scientific Genius suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito-"I think"- originally connoted "shake together," intelligo, the root of "intelligence," means to "select among." This is a clear early intuition about the utility of permitting ideas and thoughts to randomly combine with each other and the utility of selecting from the many the few to retain.

Like the highly playful child with a pailful of Lego's, geniuses constantly combine and recombine ideas, images, and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds. Consider Einstein's equation, E=mc2. Einstein did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, by combining these concepts in a novel way, he was able to look at the same world as everyone else and see something different. The laws of heredity, on which the modern science of genetics is based, are the results of Gregor Mendel who combined mathematics and biology to create a new science.  

In nature, a rich mixture of any two forces will produce patterns. Imagine spilling a little water onto the surface of a highly polished tray. It beads up into a complex pattern of droplets. And it does so because two countervailing forces are at work. There is gravity, which tries to spread out the water, and there is surface tension, which tries to pull the liquid together into complex globules. It's the mix of the two forces that produces the complex pattern of beads. Moreover, that pattern is unique. Try the experiment again and you'll get a completely different arrangement of droplets.

Similarly, when two dissimilar subjects are combined in the imagination, new complex patterns are formed which that create new ideas. The two subjects cross cross-catalyze each other like two chemicals which that both need to be present in order for a new concept, concept, product or idea to form. 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 that lead to new ideas.

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.


Try this strategy to combine your 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.

In a group brainstorming session, ask each participant to silently write or print five or six ideas on index cards. Then have each participant prioritize their ideas and select one. The facilitator collects and places the leftover cards face up on a table. Next, ask the participants to come to the table, review the leftover ideas, select one and then return to their seat. This is also done silently and should take about 5 to 10 minutes. Finally, ask each participant to combine their idea with the one they selected from the Aleftover@ pile into a new idea.

Leonardo da Vinci believed that to really know how things work, you should examine them under critical conditions. He believed in pushing concepts to the extreme in his imagination. 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 APenny 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.).

by Michael Michalko

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