Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

mashup thinking

Innovating The Innovations

It's a mashup!

It’s a mashup!

Mashup thinking is an excellent way to develop new ideas and products. Rather than thinking outside the box (always difficult), you select ideas from multiple boxes and mash them together. Sometimes, nothing special happens. Sometimes, you get a genius idea.

Let’s mash up self-driving vehicles and drones to see what we get. First, let’s look at the current paradigms:

Self-driving vehicles (SDVs) include cars and trucks equipped with special sensors that can use existing public roadways to navigate autonomously to a given destination. The vehicles navigate a two-dimensional surface and should be able to get humans or packages from Point A to Point B more safely than human-driven vehicles. Individuals may not buy SDVs the way we have traditionally bought cars and trucks. We may simply call them when needed. Though the technology is rapidly improving, the legal and ethical systems still require a great deal of work.

Drones navigate three-dimensional space and are not autonomous. Rather, specially trained pilots fly them remotely. (They are often referred to as Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPAs). They military uses drones for several missions, including surveillance, intelligence gathering, and to attack ground targets. To date, we haven’t heard of drones attacking airborne targets, but it’s certainly possible. Increasingly, businesses are considering drones for package delivery. The general paradigm is that a small drone will pick up a package from a warehouse (perhaps an airborne warehouse) and deliver it to a home or office or to troops in the field.

So, what do we get if we mash up self-driving vehicles and drones?

The first idea that comes to mind is an autonomous drone. Navigating 3D space is actually simpler than navigating 2D space – you can fly over or under an approaching object. (As a result, train traffic controllers have a more difficult job than air traffic controllers). Why would we want self-flying drones? Conceivably they would be more efficient, less costly, and safer than the human-driven equivalents. They also have a lot more space to operate in and don’t require a lot of asphalt.

We could also change the paradigm for what drones carry. Today, we think of them as carrying packages. Why not people, just like SDVs? It shouldn’t be terribly hard to design a drone that could comfortably carry a couple from their house to the theater and back. We’ll be able to whip out our smart phones, call Uber or Lyft, and have a drone pick us up. (I hope Lyft has trademarked the term Air Lyft).

What else? How about combining self-flying drones with self-driving vehicles? Today’s paradigm for drone deliveries is that an individual drone goes to a warehouse, picks up a package, and delivers it to an individual address. Even if the warehouse is airborne and mobile, that’s horribly inefficient. Instead, let’s try this: a self-driving truck picks up hundreds of packages to be delivered along a given route. The truck also has dozens of drones on it. As the truck passes near an address, a drone picks up the right package, and flies it to the doorstep. We could only do this, of course, if drones are autonomous. The task is too complicated for a human operator.

I could go on … but let’s also investigate the knock-on effects. If what I’ve described comes to pass, what else will happen? Here are some challenges that will probably come up:

  • If drones can carry people as well as packages, we’ll need fewer roadways. What will we do with obsolete roads? We’ll probably need fewer airports, too. What will we do with them?
  • If people no longer buy personal vehicles but call transportation on demand:
    • We’ll need far fewer parking lots. How can cities use the space to revitalize themselves?
    • Automobile companies will implode. How do we retrain automobile executives and workers?
    • We’ll burn far less fossil fuel. This will be good for the environment but bad for, say, oil companies and oil workers. How do we share the burden?
  • If combined vehicles – drones and SDVs – deliver packages, millions of warehouse workers and drivers will lose their jobs. Again, how do we share the burden?
  • If autonomous drones can attack airborne targets, do we really need expensive, human-piloted fighter jets?

These are intriguing predictions as well as troublesome challenges. But the thought process for generating these ideas is quite simple – you simply mash up good ideas from multiple boxes. You, too, can predict the future.

Rabies and Burglaries

Architect or burglar?

Architect or burglar?

Long-time readers of this column know that I’m an advocate of mashup thinking. You take an idea from Column A and an idea from Column B and mash them together. So, for instance, X-rays (Column A) when mashed up with computerized image processing (Column B), yield an important new product called CT scanners.

A good way to brainstorm is simply to mash up ideas from different categories. You’re not thinking out of the box. Rather you’re thinking out of multiple boxes. What would you get if you mashed up, say paper with pasta? Would it be edible paper? Or maybe pasta that you could print messages on? Would it be useful? Maybe. Maybe not. What’s useful is the process of getting there.

So, I was delighted to see that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Denver has started a program called Mixed Taste. MCA describes the program as Tag Team Lectures On Unrelated Topics. The idea is simple – they choose two topics (seemingly out of thin air) that are completely unrelated. Then they get speakers to speak on each topic. They rent an auditorium, get a band, invite the public, and have at it.

Last night, the topics were rabies and burglary. I thought of these as two completely unrelated topics but, when you mash them up, you get some surprises. And that’s the point.

At the event, Monica Murphy and Bill Wasik spoke first. They’re good Brooklynites and also the authors of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. Here are some things you might not know about rabies.

  • It doesn’t travel through the blood but through the nervous system. So it outflanks the blood-brain barrier and heads for the brain.
  • It “wants” to get to your brain so it can change your behavior. Most importantly, it wants to stop you from drinking water, an activity that would weaken the virus. Thus, rabies victims develop hydrophobia, an extreme reluctance to drink water. (Here’s another virus that changes your behavior).
  • It’s been with us for a long time and it’s almost always fatal.

Geoff Manaugh, an architect who created the popular BLDG|BLOG, spoke next. Manaugh also has a book that will launch next spring called, A Burglar’s Guide To The City. Manaugh pointed out that architects are enablers of burglars. Burglars couldn’t operate without built environments. Architects may think they’re building useful or inspiring structures but they’re also creating a playground for burglars. A good burglar can identify patterns in buildings and use them to locate vulnerabilities. Burglars are often avid students of architectural codes.

So what’s the similarity here? The one I took away is this: Burglars are to buildings as rabies is to humans. Here are some similarities:

  • Both take structures (buildings, the human body) developed for one purpose and twist them to their own ends.
  • Both have evolved the ability to avoid or overcome sophisticated security measures.
  • Both spread in similar ways. A rabid animal creates additional rabid animals. A burglar creates additional burglars.
  • Both evolve and adapt to changing situations.

I never would have thought of these similarities if MCA hadn’t mashed them up for me. I found it fascinating. But is any of it practical or useful? I’m not sure … but perhaps we can adapt the techniques we use to control viruses to also control burglars (or vice-versa). But even if that’s not the outcome, we’re practicing the art of mashups — an intriguing thinking process that can produce surprising insights and innovations. For that, I thank the MCA.

(By the way, Monica Murphy, Bill Wasik, and Geoff Manaugh are all very good speakers and I recommend them highly to you).

Water Bras and Multiple Sclerosis

It's not a water bra. It's a cooling vest.

It’s not a water bra.
It’s a cooling vest.

When we discuss brand extensions in my branding class, we like to look at both successes and failures. Successful brand extensions include Honda lawn mowers, Hershey’s chocolate milk, Jeep strollers, and Dove shampoo. Failures include Harley-Davidson wine coolers, Kleenex diapers, and Bic perfumes.

Perhaps the most notable failure that we discussed this quarter was the Evian Water Bra. Yes, Evian actually designed a bra that you can fill with water – Evian, one supposes. Why Evian did this, no one seems to know. The company has been skewered on many branding and marketing websites. Everyone who can write a snarky sentence seems to have done so. When I first saw the bra, I thought, “What were they thinking?”

Then I considered  mashup thinking and multiple sclerosis. It may seem like an odd combination but, well … that’s the point of mashups. As Frans Johansson notes, the best innovations come from the intersection of very different ideas.

People with MS don’t process heat very well. They become overheated quite easily. They often need to wear cooling garments to disperse the heat and keep their MS symptoms under control. And those cooling garments are often filled with … water.

My friend, Cathey Riechers, maintains an online store to sell cooling vests and similar garments. Roughly three-quarters of those who live with MS are women, so many of the garments are in women’s shapes and sizes.

Cooling garments work well but – let’s be honest – they’re not very fashionable. They’re like orthopedic shoes. They’re helpful but you wouldn’t want to wear them to the prom.

I’ve occasionally wondered why we couldn’t design fashionable cooling garments. As I pondered the Evian water bra, it struck me that Evian has done exactly that. Only they called it a water bra. That’s bad positioning. Let’s re-position it as a fashionable cooling garment for women who have MS. There’s a market there. And perhaps it’s the tip of an iceberg … perhaps there are many other women who don’t have MS but still would like to stay cool.

Here’s my proposal. Let’s ask Evian if they will re-position their product and allow it to be sold as a cooling garment. This could be a huge PR bonanza for Evian. They can take something that was widely mocked and convert into something that helps millions of women. It was a product searching for a problem to solve. Now we’ve found the problem.

If Evian will do that, I’m sure that we can find distribution and sales outlets throughout the MS community worldwide. We probably can’t pay much for the licensing but we can sure talk up Evian and buy lots of Evian product.

So, what do you think Evian? How about it?

Innovation and Collisions

Want me to mash something up?

Want me to mash something up?

As I’ve written on several occasions (here, here, and here), mashup thinking is often the driver behind breakthrough innovations. Mashup thinking is not the same as thinking out of the box. Rather, it’s thinking out of several different boxes.

Wheeled luggage is a good example. There’s a box called wheels. There’s another box called luggage. You take an idea from each box, mash them up, and create a third box called wheeled luggage. Now we can select an idea from yet another box called power supplies. We mash that up with wheeled luggage and we get yet another new product: self-propelled wheeled luggage.

Note that the originating ideas (wheels, luggage, power supplies) are not breakthrough ideas in and of themselves. Indeed, they’re rather mundane. It’s only by mashing them up that they become, new, different, and valuable.

How do you promote mashup thinking in your organization? The simple answer is collisions. You need to get people, ideas, and concepts to collide. Think of it as an atom smasher. When two atoms collide at high speed, they produce a very interesting array of new particles. You want to produce similarly productive collisions in your organization.

Here are some tips on creating productive collisions:

Diversity – let’s say you get two engineers to collide. That’s interesting but not usually productive. After all, they’re in the same box. The trick is to get two people from different boxes to collide. That requires diversity. This includes ethnic and geographic diversity. Some very innovative companies have found that putting together people from, say, Africa, Europe, South America, Japan and the USA can produce very interesting results. Age diversity – old people mixed with young – can also create productive collisions. For me educational diversity is equally important. Indeed, I tell my clients that one of the reasons they should hire me is because I don’t have an MBA. I think differently.

Seating arrangements – why do so many companies put engineers in one area, marketers in another, finance people in another and human resources folks in yet another? That practically guarantees that all collisions will be same-box collisions. Randomize your seating chart. You’ll be surprised.

Architecture – the way you organize your space can either promote or prevent collisions. Fewer bathrooms, fewer coffee stations, and fewer lunchrooms all promote collisions. Rather than providing lots of places to congregate, offer fewer. You’ll get larger congregations.

Policies – earlier this year, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! announced that employees would need to come to the office. No more working from home all the time. The policy got a lot of pushback. But I’m sure that it also produced a lot more collisions.

Where You Stand Depends On Where You Sit

Stand by me.

Stand by me.

I walk our dog, Bella, two or three times a day. I enjoy it almost as much as she does. I’ve also found that walking a dog is a great way to meet people. (If only I had known when I was single). It’s nice to meet the neighbors.  But what’s frightening is that we all think alike.

As Bill Bishop pointed out in The Big Sort, we’ve sorted ourselves out by political viewpoints. Republicans live in Republican neighborhoods and Democrats live with Democrats. We don’t mix and mingle much. When we meet people, we tend to hear things that confirm rather than challenge our views. We live in echo chambers. Tom Friedman calls these monocultures as opposed to polycultures.

Monocultures can make you crazy. If you only read and hear ideas that you agree with, you’ll only reinforce pre-existing connections in your brain. You won’t create new connections. From everything I’ve read, the brain thrives on connections. The more, the merrier. Tom Friedman writes that polycultures are much more sustainable than monocultures. I suspect that a polycultural brain is much healthier than a monocultural brain.

We also know that mashup thinking is one of the best ways to stimulate innovation. You take ideas from different boxes and mash them up. This is not out-of-the-box thinking. It’s multiple-box thinking. Take X-rays and mash them up with computer processing and you get CT scans. Take phones and mash them up with computers and you get smart phones. Take MTV and mash it up with cop shows and you get Miami Vice.

The more we have monocultures, the less we’ll have mashups. The more we talk to people just like ourselves, the fewer innovations we’ll have. It’s by putting different things – products or ideas – together that we get innovation. We all have partially formed ideas. Only by interacting with people who have complementary ideas can we develop bright new innovations. (I suspect this is why Apple recently hired Angela Ahrendts from Burberry).

Given all this, I’m constantly amazed that companies deliberately create monocultures throughout their facilities. Engineers sit with engineers. Finance folks sit with finance folks. Marketers sit with marketers. Each little zone is a monoculture. People with the same outlook, backgrounds, education, and conditioning sit together. They don’t talk to people with complementary ideas. They talk to people with the same ideas.

If you want to stimulate innovation in your company, mix it up a bit. Even a random seating chart is probably better than a department-by-department arrangement. Group people with different interests and backgrounds together. Then change it every now and then to establish new patterns and innovative connections. Just remember, where you stand depends on where you sit.



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