Virtually all ideas are created using the same recipe and ingredients: a goal (based on a problem or need), combined and mixed with stimulus. (See How To Make an Idea: A Recipe.)
Here’s some examples of common inventions from history to show how it works.
As early as 2600 BC, Chinese farmers used small stones from river bedd to keep track of their sheep. A single pebble was used for sheep. And, lines on the ground noted their location. This idea worked until they had to move their flocks. To make it portable, farmers created a small wooden frame, replaced the stones with wood beads, and substituted silk fibres for the lines. In the end, the world’s first calculator: the abacus.
Purpose To efficiently track sheep in open fields
Stimuli Using nearby handy items: stones, lines, wood, silk
New Idea An abacus
Electric Relay Stations
Samuel Morse couldn’t find a suitable method to keep an electric signal strong enough for telegraphs to travel across the U.S. In St. Louis, Morse noticed riders exchanging tired for fresh horses. He recreated a similar ‘relay station’ along an electrical path to keep the signal consistent from end to end.
Purpose To maintain a signal strength over a long distance
Stimuli Seeing tired horses replaced at key points along a pathway
New Idea Electric relay stations
The examples are endless, and often amusing.
Noticing steam escaping from a teapot, James Watt used the same mechanics to harness a new type of transportation: the steam engine.
Tending to a cut on his wife’s hand from a kitchen knife, Earle Dickson had only wide surgical tape and large gauze pads at home. He cut down both elements to fit his wife’s dainty hands, creating Band-Aids.
A colleague showed Helen Barnett Diserens the new invention sweeping the country in the early 1940s: the ball-point pen. Intrigued by the mechanics of a tiny ball trapping a reservoir of ink, she re-thought the engineering on a larger scale, creating the first roll-on antiperspirant.
Alexander Leipa had a crazy thought while raking leaves in his backyard: he could pack more leaves into rubbish bags if he could stack them. His crazy idea became Pringles potato chips.
George de Mestral noticed tiny hooks on the burrs he pulled from his clothes and his dog after a walk in the forest. He replicated this hook and loop mechanism in the lab, and today we have Velcro.
A neighbor suggested that the Jacuzzi Brothers – manufacturers of aviation and agricultural pumps – to create a portable pump which could be submerged in water to help his arthritis. The Jacuzzi spa was born.
You don’t have to invent new products to use the key learnings from these examples:
- Look to nature as a source of inspiration.
- Be open and curious to exploration, accidents, connections, common areas or parallels between two different items to spark new ideas.
- Look for metaphors to solve your problem or issue. In other words, adapt a solution from a similar problem from a different and unrelated industry or category.
- Use one of the most feared activities of business: day-dreaming. (Or are you the type that schedules actual thinking time out of your day?).
- Change some aspect of your topic or problem. For ex: Diserens increased the size the ball-point, while Dickson decreased the size of the tape and gauze.
- Two heads are better than one: many ideas were created by two people collaborating, particularly from different fields.