One of the great things about the creative process is that it isn't a zero-sum game. In other words, your creative inspiration doesn't rob me of the potential of having a great idea; in fact, in some cases, your great idea may even be the necessary precursor to my great idea.
Frans Johansson wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago when he published The Medici Effect
, which was subtitled "breakthrough insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures." The title highlights the effect that the Medici family had on seeding the confluence of people, ideas and commerce that blossomed during the 1400s into the Renaissance and the book is a detailed look at the combinatorial process that often leads to breakthrough ideas.
But you don't have to climb into a time machine or wait for random chance to "cross-pollinate" great ideas. There are three very simple techniques that, if practiced faithfully, inevitably yield insights that can infuse the process by which you conceive and execute new ideas and make the finished product stronger and more relevant to a greater number of people.
Technique #1: Collect metaphors. Keith Sawyer
and other researchers who study the creative process have pointed out the role that parallel metaphors have played in a number of innovative breakthroughs. Scientists and designers of all sorts have been enthralled for a very long time with biomimicry
, the art of learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable and healthier human technologies and designs.
The technique also has validity for corporate innovators. Peter Balbus, guest blogging on InnovationTools.com
, notes that simply trying to improve upon the "best practices" within one's industry rarely provides sizable competitive advantage. Looking at one's industry through the lenses of another
industry's metaphor, however, may yield some provocative insights, he asserts:
"In much the same way that businesses cannot slash costs to achieve industry leadership, copycatting other (in many cases equally challenged) peer companies won’t lead to breakthrough innovation either. Emulation is a viable technique. However, for it to serve as a useful process for defining a starting place for sustainable innovation one has to look outside of their current industry – and often very far away from that industry."
One of the simplest ways to collect metaphors is to turn on your TV and watch non-fiction shows that focus on an industry that is seemingly dissimilar to yours. One of the best shows for this is "How It's Made" on the Science Channel. In 30 minutes, you are exposed to the production processes and metaphors for at least 3 products, often in widely divergent industries.
Other shows that I have found useful for metaphor collection are: "Antique Roadshow" (great blend of history lessons and economic valuation practices!) and the many forensics shows on the Investigation Discovery channel (in criminology settings, interviews and data collection take on a meaning far different from any work I might do as a writer or producer).
Technique #2: Visit someone else's world. This technique takes metaphor collection one step further. Instead of just looking from the outside at how another group of people view a challenge or formulate solutions, you immerse yourself, however briefly or incompletely, in their environment.
The advantage of this technique is that you see the metaphors you previously collected in action and better understand the context of the solution.
Here are some ways to become more familiar with someone else's topical "eco-system".
- Go to the newsstand or bookstore and purchase 5 magazines on topics with which you are unfamiliar. Spend several hours reading the publications cover to cover.
- Visit a festival, conference, street fair, etc., on a topic you know nothing about. Large cities often have dozens of highly specialized gatherings each week, many with free or low-cost components that are open to the public.
- Check out YouTube channels. Social-media savvy organizations and businesses with a message to get across often turn to YouTube to distribute their programs.
Technique #3: Learn something new. Tackling a new hobby or skill, one outside your comfort zone but one you're motivated enough to stick with until you've achieved some level of mastery, can also take your cross-pollination to a still deeper level.
A little over 10 years ago, I took a contract job scripting and producing safety videos for an industrial manufacturing company. I had plenty of experience writing, but none with video production. My first shoot inside the plant was pretty intimidating -- it took me about 20 minutes to set up the tripod properly! However, I eventually caught on and the experience revolutionized how I viewed my role as a communicator. After learning the "rule of thirds" in terms of shot composition and how to write narration that supports the visuals (rather than the other way around), I never approached my work in print journalism the same way again.
Links for learning more about creative cross-pollination:
A Creative Liberty post from 2009 that walks you through how to use Twitter, Facebook, etc., to craft more robust creative ideas.
From Write Livelihood, the sister blog to Creative Liberty.
Alltop collects headlines of the latest stories from the best sites and blogs that cover a topic. It groups these collections — “aggregations” — into individual web pages. Its collection of innovation feeds is unparalleled and a great place to expose oneself to an amazing diversity of opinion on the creative process in a business context.