The most foundational ideas are simple to understand but often hard to live by, to “execute” or “actualize” on a daily basis. The great hyper-serial entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell, mentor to Jobs and Wozniak before Apple, said that great games take a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. I believe that is true of almost every principle in life, business, and entrepreneurship. So here is one:

Breakthrough innovations most often come from combining two ideas that everyone sees every day but no one has put together (yet).

I have some good support on this idea:

“Creativity is connecting things.” – Steve Jobs

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” – Albert Einstein


Arthur Koestler’s famous theory of “bisociation” explained creativity through the combination of elements that don’t ordinarily belong together; graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to a slot machine that aligns the seemingly random jumble of stuff in our heads into a suddenly miraculous combination; T. S. Eliot believed that the poet’s mind incubates fragmentary thoughts into beautiful ideas; the great Stephen Jay Gould maintained that connecting the seemingly unconnected is the secret of genius.

I started keeping a list of business ideas when I was 12. My list now numbers over 300 ideas, several of which I have developed beyond the idea stage. In my most successful concepts, associating things was key. BOOKSTOP, the first chain of giant bookstores, combined Toys ‘R Us (large selection, low prices, long hours, freestanding locations) with B. Dalton (mall bookstores). Hoover’s, the business information site, was first created as a cross between Rand McNally (selling huge quantities of reference books at low prices) and Moody’s (business reference books at high prices). The company later morphed to online and serving the business market, so maybe then it became “Moody’s meets Oracle” or something to that effect.

My friends who built Whole Foods Market might be “Kroger meets kale.” The world-changing Toyota production system, using just-in-time inventory, was inspired when a Toyota executive watched American supermarkets refill their shelves as fast as customers bought the food. Was Uber a hybrid between eBay and taxis?

The combination of two ideas is often used for pitches for books, movies, and television shows. “Scandal” might have been pitched as “The Sopranos meets The West Wing.”

I touched on this concept in my 2001 book (an expanded edition is available as The Art of Enterprise) under the label “grid thinking.” That section of the book went like this:

Gaps and Intersections

Many times, the best ideas come from two sources:

  1. Looking for gaps in the present structure.
  2. Looking for intersections.

Take looking for gaps. When I studied the bookstore business, I found that people had numerous and excellent choices when they shopped for toys, but not when they shopped for books. When I look at the consumer banking industry, I see an industry that is years behind where most US businesses stand (in terms of paying attention to the customer). I’ll come back to that industry later in the book. There are literally thousands of gaps like these, you just have to find them. (Try the curiosity tools in the early chapters of this book.)

Looking for intersections means finding ways to combine two existing ideas. Perhaps more than two ideas, but usually two is enough. For years, I kept noticing that iced tea was one of America’s most popular beverages. But, twenty years ago, you could not find iced tea in bottles or cans. I kept asking, where are the cans of iced tea? Only in the 1990s did the tea companies (Lipton and Nestea) get together with the canned drink folks (Pepsi and Coke) to create products that people want – and buy. Toys R Us was really taking the economic structure of Kmart and applying it to a new business – toys. Innovators are combining laundromats and cafes. Put together coffee and cool lifestyles – and you get Starbucks!

One way to look for intersections is to draw a grid, with one type of thing running vertically and another classification horizontally. In the grid below, I have put technologies (broadly defined, of course) on the horizontal lines and product types on the verticals. Note that I have been loose in my definitions, letting books fall on both axes. Then look at every possible crossing point and give it some thought – is there a business opportunity there?

Since I wrote that, I continue to see more evidence of the power of this idea.

Based on my experience, one of the few business or innovation books which really hits the nail on the head is The Innovator’s DNA by Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen is. The authors surveyed many great entrepreneurs and found they used several methods from observation to experimentation, but that the one common characteristic was “associational thinking.” I urge you to read that book for more ideas and inspiration.

More recently I found an old book that takes the concept to a higher level. In A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Young Webb points out that the power to come up with ideas is increased by the number of subjects you are interested in. Exponentially. Think of the number of combinations that are possible if you roll two dice. Now think of how many possibilities there are if you roll one hundred dice. It has been said that the number of possible patterns of a chess game is greater than the number of atoms in the universe. But even being interested in twenty subjects instead of three makes a huge difference. This is a powerful reason to get a “liberal arts education,” to be exposed to as many ways of thinking and methods of analysis as possible. Even if you don’t have a formal education in these areas, the world of books and the Internet stand ready to widen your horizons. (See my article on liberal arts education here.)

How many subjects are you interested in? How often do you add a whole new field of study to your head? Are they just an extension of what you already know, or a more radical jump, like from opera to the blues or from seeing New York to seeing Bhutan? Or from opera to agriculture?

I would love to see your thoughts and examples of “combinatorial/associational thinking” here on linkedin.


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