One of the great misnomers is that new concepts arise out of thin air. In reality, any novel thought is the result of what Maria Popova describes as combinatorial creativity. This involves connecting things to create new ideas:
… in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.
Combinatorial creativity is the theory that there is no purely original concept; every “new” thought, idea, and belief is built on what came before. Just look at one of the biggest rock bands that has ever existed. In the early 1960s, the Rolling Stones were on the forefront of the music scene with a sound considered to be entirely unique. The truth is that the blues heavily influenced them.
Mick Jagger was not trying to create a new type of music when the Rolling Stones started out. He was attempting to emulate his ideals – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Slim Harpo, Fats Domino, etc. In a recent interview he said:
I copied all [James Brown’s] moves. I copied everybody’s moves. I used to do [James’] slide across the stage. I couldn’t do the splits, so I didn’t even bother. Everyone did the microphone trick, where you pushed the microphone, then you put your foot on it and it comes back, and then you catch it…it hit me in the face too many times and I gave it up.
What I consider to be a distinctive stage persona is really Mick’s ability to combine characteristics of those he admires and make it his own. Innovation in the corporate world is no different. To generate combinatorial creativity, leaders can:
Benchmark industry leaders. Their precise ideas may not fit your organization, but it will inspire you.
Get others involved. If one person has some degree of experience to draw from, imagine what your whole team can create.
Learn everything. If creativity really is the result of making connections from a wide array of information, you need to learn as much as possible.
Imitate your ideals. If someone does something you admire, try doing it yourself. The more you practice, the more it will morph from mimicry into a homage.
Try it all. As Mick said, “You just incorporate everything into your act.” Once you’ve tried, you can weed out what’s not working.
Can’t get no satisfaction? Feeling like you’re going to have your 19th nervous breakdown? You can take a deep breath. Your next world-changing idea will be based on the knowledge and experiences that you already have. So maybe you can’t always get what you want, but you will definitely get what you need.