In the beginning, it was the button. Then came the zipper. And then came Velcro. How? The ubiquitous “touch fastener” was invented about 60 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 Georges Braque to create more effective camouflage patterns for tanks and guns.

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. Their specific needs often turn out not to be exclusive to that customer. 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. Many great “inventions” have been a next generation or hybrid of a tried-and-true product or system.

But some problems require innovative thinking. One way to search for a solution 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, 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 he 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 ideal 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 to see where you could streamline or improve.

Rearrange. Put elements in a different order or reverse them completely. It’s easier to spot what’s missing in a new arrangement.

Creativity goes along 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 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.

 

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.