5 Ways To Innovate By Cross-Pollinating Ideas

Tina Seelig details how to combine unlike concepts to create the next big thing.

Editors’ note: The following is an adapted excerpt of InGenius (Harper One) by Tina Seelig.


What happens when you cross a checkerboard with a midnight snack? You get edible checkers, sold with the motto “beat ’em and eat ’em.” What if you cross high-heeled shoes with a tricycle? You get pumps with training wheels. Or, what do you get when you cross a dessert plate with an ice-cube tray? An ice cream bowl that melts after use so you don’t have to wash it.

These are just a few of the wonderfully fanciful ideas in John Cassidy and Brendan Boyle’s The Klutz Book of Inventions. The goal of their book is to help readers become comfortable creating ridiculous ideas, since many brilliant ideas seem really crazy when they are initially conceived. The playful inventions they describe result from connecting and combining objects and concepts that on the surface seem unrelated. By exploring ways to fuse them together, we see many surprising and interesting ideas surface.

This is similar to the philosophy behind the Japanese art of chindōgu, which involves coming up with “unuseless” inventions. Essentially, chindōgu involves combining products that are completely unrelated to create inventions that are wonderfully unusual. For example, an outfit worn by a baby with a mop on its belly that allows the baby to clean the floor while crawling around; a shirt with a matrix on the back, so that you can tell someone exactly where to scratch; an upside-down umbrella that allows you to collect water when you are walking in the rain; or eyeglasses with arms that can be removed to be used as chopsticks. These inventions might not be immediately practical, but each one opens a door to new ideas that just might be.

1. Combine Unlike Ideas

Being able to connect and combine nonobvious ideas and objects is essential for innovation and a key part of the creative-thinking process. Along with your ability to reframe problems, it engages your imagination and thereby unlocks your innovation engine. Essentially, you need to be able to reorganize and rearrange the things you know and the resources you have in order to come up with brand-new ideas.

Alan Murray, head of the School of Design at the Edinburgh College of Art, gave his former graduate students at the Technical University of Eindhoven a surprising assignment to help them hone these skills. He challenged them to invent a “sextron.” He told them they needed to combine two different household devices, such as a coffee machine and a blow dryer or a telephone and an electric toothbrush, to create something new, and it had to function as a sex toy. They then had to design a formal user’s manual for the new device. This was certainly an edgy project! His goal was to inspire these students in ways they had never imagined. Not only did they have a wild time taking on this provocative assignment, but they also learned that by connecting devices that had never been connected before, they could come up with surprisingly innovative products that stimulate both the mind and the body, from ears to toes, in unusual ways.


2. Talk to People

On a different scale, this type of cross-pollination takes place in our communities as ideas are randomly rearranged from cross-cultural sources. The analogy “trade is to culture as sex is to biology,” from a Wall Street Journal article on the importance of trade in enhancing innovation, captures this concept. According to the article, communities that are at the crossroads of the world, such as ancient Alexandria and Istanbul or modern Hong Kong, London, and New York, which attract people from vastly different cultures, benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas and increased creativity.

This concept was explored in depth by Annalee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the university of California at Berkeley. She has done extensive work on communities that are primed for innovation and has studied the critical factors at play in determining whether a city will be a hub of creativity. Her book Regional Advantage looks at the factors that contribute to the high levels of innovation and entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley. Essentially, Silicon Valley innovation is robust because of the extensive cross-pollination of ideas between individuals and companies. In Silicon Valley the firms are concentrated in a small area, which leads to more informal interactions and easier formal connections. There are also very low cultural barriers to communication between people of different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels.

For example, at a school baseball game in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is likely that kids on the same team will come from all walks of life. This means that the parents sitting in the stands watching their kids play baseball will reflect that demographic diversity. The informal discussions that take place often lead to interesting opportunities that might not happen elsewhere. A company executive or venture capitalist is likely to be sitting next to an engineer starting a new company. Their casual conversations while watching their kids play ball often lead to helpful advice, introductions to potential employees, or even funding for a new venture.

This is exactly what happened when Mark Zdeblick, an engineer and entrepreneur, was eating dinner at a local café. Two little girls from a nearby table started playing with Mark’s son. Mark began a conversation with the girls’ grandfather and realized that he was the inventor of a technology Mark happened to be studying. The girls’ father, also at the table, was a successful entrepreneur and now a venture capitalist. After several follow-up conversations with “Dad,” Mark and the girls’ father decided to start a new company together called Proteus Biomedical, which develops technology for personal health and wellness.


3. Build on Existing Ideas

Building upon existing ideas and inventions is another way to foster innovation. In fact, when you ask artists of all types where they get their inspiration, they can usually list others before them who set the stage for their work. Painters draw upon the tools, techniques, and approaches of other artists; musicians build upon the styles of other musicians they have heard; writers are influenced by literature they have read; and inventors build upon the creations of others. As Pablo Picasso is claimed to have said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Steve Jobs, the cofounder and former CEO of Apple Computer, amplified this sentiment in a 1994 interview by saying that the key to creativity is to expose yourself “to the best things that humans have done and then to bring those things into what you are doing.” he goes on to say that what made the original Macintosh computer great is that the people working on it were “musicians, and poets, and artists, and zoologists, and historians, who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.” Apple took inspiration from their knowledge of these diverse fields to create something that was completely novel.

4. Hire a Diverse Workforce

Very innovative companies, such a Twitter, know how important this type of cross-pollination is to creativity in their businesses, and they make an effort to hire people with unusual skills, knowing that diversity of thinking will certainly influence the development of their products. According to Elizabeth Weil, the head of organizational culture at Twitter, a random sampling of people at the company would reveal former rock stars, a Rubik’s Cube champion, a world-class cyclist, and a professional juggler. She said that the hiring practices at Twitter guarantee that all employees are bright and skilled at their jobs, but are also interested in other unrelated pursuits. Knowing this results in random conversations between employees in the elevator, at lunch, and in the hallways. Shared interests surface, and the web of people becomes even more intertwined. These unplanned conversations often lead to fascinating new ideas.


5. Use a Metaphor

Metaphors and analogies are extremely powerful connectors, because they lead you to very different ways of looking at problems. In a recent study, Lera Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau demonstrated that we get quite different sets of solutions depending on which metaphors we use to describe urban crime. If urban crime is described as a virus, then the solutions are predominantly shaped around social reforms, such as changing laws. However, if crime is described as a monster in our community, then the solutions focus on dealing with the individuals involved. You can use a range of different metaphors to unlock a wider array of solutions for this problem. For example, what solutions would result if crime is compared to tracking mud into a clean house, or an unwanted chemical reaction?

Connecting unexpected people, places, objects, and ideas provides a huge boost to your imagination. You can practice this skill by using provocative metaphors, interacting with those outside your normal circles, building on existing ideas, and finding inspiration in unlikely places. These approaches enhance creative thinking and are terrific tools for generating fresh ideas.