In the beginning it was the button. Then came the zipper. And then came velcro. How? The ubiquitous “touch fastener” was invented about 40 years ago by a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral, who based his idea on his observation of the way burrs stuck to the fur of his hunting dogs after a walk in the woods.

Many good ideas have been discovered because someone poked around in an outside industry or discipline, and applied what they found to their own field.

Dan Bricklin took the “spreadsheet” concept from accounting and turned it into VisiCalc, the program that helped create the microcomputer software industry.

World War I military designers borrowed from the cubist art of Picasso and Braque to create more effective camouflage patterns for tanks and guns.

Mathematician John von Neumann analyzed poker-table behavior and developed the “game theory” model of economics.

The “unbreakable” U.S. military code used in World War II was based on the Navajo language.

“I’ve known advertising people who got ideas from biology, software programmers who got inspiration from songwriters, and investors who spotted new opportunities by going to junkyards,” said Roger von Oech in his book “A Kick in the Seat of the Pants.”

In my experience, listening to customers is a tremendous source of inspiration. Hearing what their specific needs are often turns out not to be exclusive to that customer, and can benefit other accounts that our company services. We’ve added products and features because one customer needed a particular item.  

I’ve heard it said that there are no new ideas, just improvements on old ones. I’m not sure that’s true, but many of the great “inventions” have been a next generation or hybrid of a tried-and-true product or system.

Some problems require fresh, innovative thinking. One way to search for creative solutions is to SCAMPER toward a better result:

• Substitute. Replace an element that’s part of the problem. Use a different material, ingredient or person and see what happens. Try a variety of options to improve the process or product.

• Combine. Put elements together. Do you have two departments working on related problems? Plan some joint sessions so they can brainstorm a better solution. By seeing the whole pizza instead of one slice of the pie, you create the potential for an exciting new recipe for success.

• Adapt. Look outside the problem for something you can use to address it. Refer to the Velcro example: de Mestral wasn’t actively seeking a new fastener, but recognized the potential use of such an accidental discovery. Be open to possibilities.

• Minimize/maximize. Make something smaller or larger. Instead of targeting the mass market with a new product, for example, maybe you can find a small niche to sell it to. Conversely, maybe a specialized tool has wider potential. Internet marketing is the ideal tool for specialized products.   

• Put things to a different purpose. Look for a different application. Are people in their most productive roles, or are they looking for other opportunities to shine? Encourage hidden talents to surface.  

• Eliminate. Look for elements you don’t need. Often we include steps in a process out of habit, for example, whether they still serve the original purpose or not. Analyze as you go along to see where you could streamline or improve.

• Rearrange. Put the elements in a different order or reverse them completely. It’s easier to spot what’s missing in a new arrangement. Take a chance on a new beginning and see if it leads to a better ending.

I tend to agree with the wisdom of Carl Ally, founder of the Ally and Gargano ad agency, who said: “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging and hog futures. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes, six months or six years down the road. But he has faith that it will happen.”

Creativity goes hand in hand with being curious. It isn’t necessary to become an expert on opera or baseball or auto mechanics to be successful in business, but it will expand your horizons. You just might be amazed what you find at the edge of your universe.

Mackay’s Moral: Creativity is a marathon that creates value in the long run.

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