One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.” Many cultural historians agree with Edison in that a whole host of new objects and ideas are based on objects and ideas already in existence. Adaptation is a common and inescapable practice in creativity. Even the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was written in defiance of England, was essentially the same as a popular tune sung in English pubs.
To become an expert at adaptation, ask:
• What else is like this?
• What other idea does this suggest?
• Does the past offer a parallel?
• What could I copy?
• Whom could I emulate?
• What idea could I incorporate?
• What other process could be adapted?
• What else could be adapted?
• What different contexts can I put my concept in?
• What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?
• What ideas inside my field can I incorporate?
WHAT IDEA CAN BE ADAPTED?
How about a restaurantplex? People go to the theater multiplex to see the latest hot movie, but when what they want to see is sold out, they wind up seeing their second or third choice. Having multiple theaters in one place means people don’t drive home without seeing a movie, and thus sells a lot more tickets. Apply that idea to restaurants. Diners might go to a restaurant multiplex with a particular restaurant in mind, but they’d know that even if that restaurant is too busy, a fine meal is probably assured. There could even be a central line for the next available restaurant.
Think of all the “of-the-month” clubs that were spawned by the Book-of-the-Month Club. One of the newest is the Panty-of-the-Month Club, which delivers designer silk panties once a month, gift-wrapped and perfumed.
WHAT PROCESS CAN BE ADAPTED?
After watching Spider-Man, researchers at the University of Manchester played with the idea of developing adhesives that would help people climb and cling to vertical surfaces. They brainstormed by considering ways that animals, reptiles, insects, and birds attach themselves to plants and trees. They were most intrigued by geckos, which have tiny hairs on the soles of their feet that allow them to climb slick surfaces. The researchers adapted this feature into an adhesive that mimics geckos’ feet, demonstrating the feasibility of self-cleaning, reattachable dry adhesives. These artificial micro-hair adhesives are being developed into gecko gloves, which will enable humans to climb vertical walls as easily as a gecko or Spider-Man.
Imagine, for example, you own a supermarket and want to improve your merchandizing and marketing. How do others in other fields merchandize? What ideas can you adapt? For example, Amazon is a tremendously successful on-line merchandiser. How does Amazon market their goods?
Amazon uses on-line tailored recommendations to entice customers with additional items. Adapt this idea to supermarket merchandizing by creating interactive kiosks to create recommendation-styled grocery lists for frequent shoppers who use the supermarket’s loyalty cards. The kiosks would have touch-screen systems to allow customers to print lists based on their past purchases, the day of the week, time of day and other elements. This could mean specials on beer and soda at the weekend, daily specials, or a list of items that are due to expire and are heavily reduced at the end of the day. Only in-stock items are recommended, and the kiosks can also help people with recipes and where to find their items in the store.
WHAT BEHAVIORS CAN BE ADAPTED?
A group of product designers turned their attention to how people clean their bathrooms. They were fascinated with the little tricks and rationalizations that facilitate the process of cleaning a bathroom. One designer, while on vacation in Puerto Rico, watched the hotel housekeeper use a flat broom to reach high up into her shower’s murkier corners. The designer copied the concept and developed the Mr. Clean Magic Reach, a bathroom cleaning system with a telescoping pole. The owner of the Mr. Clean brand sold 150 million Magic Reach brushes the first year.
CAN THE CONTEXT BE ADAPTED FOR A DIFFERENT MARKET?
A couple of brothers named Jacuzzi, who sold water pumps for farm use, designed a special whirlpool bath as a treatment for their cousin’s arthritis. They did little with this new product until Roy Jacuzzi put the concept in a different context—the luxury bath market—and bathrooms were never the same again. The Jacuzzi sold like crazy across the country, from California to the White House.
WHAT IDEAS CAN BE ADAPTED FROM NATURE?
Medical doctors working with geneticists have discovered a way to use fire-flies to fight cancer. The gene that activates a firefly’s bioluminescence is inserted into cancer cells, causing them to glow. A photosensitizing agent is added, making the cells produce toxic substances and causes them to self-destruct. This principle is already used in photodynamic therapy, which uses bursts of light to attack tumors. Inserting the light source directly into the cells makes it possible to attack tumors deep in the body without using an outside light source that could damage healthy tissue on the way.
WHAT MATERIAL CAN BE ADAPTED?
In New Mexico, a research project is under way to adapt jimsonweed, poisonous to humans, to help clean up heavy-metal pollution in the environment.