“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” William Pollard
Creators – be they artists, inventors or scientists – know that the best solutions don’t always come in the shape of new ideas, but by perfecting or restructuring existing ones.
One of the most powerful drivers of innovation is what’s sometimes known as ‘combinatorial creativity’ – the coming together of often unrelated ideas, products or services to create a better outcome than the individual parts.
Take, for example, Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of the printing press. In combining two existing, yet unrelated machines – a wine press and block printing – he changed the world of printed communication forever.
Combinatorial creativity has driven global development for centuries and often arises from collaboration between minds: partnerships between Bill Gates and Paul Allen (to form Microsoft), and between Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream) to name just two.
In the world of consumer brands, boardrooms have for years been filled with talk of partnerships and co-operations. The idea of two or more brands pooling resources, money and efforts to create products, build market share and extend consumer reach is not new, but especially prevalent today.
A quick lap of your local department store and you’ll notice co-branded AEG and Lavazza espresso machines, Nike/Apple gizmos and any number of fashion designers’ diffusion lines. You can get your hands on Hemingway Design’s 2012 G Plan Vintage furniture collection for John Lewis, and LG Electronics and Prada’s co-created high-end mobile phones.
Turn your TV to the sports channels, and you’ll see more instances of brand partnerships that drive mutual value. Motor racing is a prime example – where mechanical and technical collaboration between F1 teams and communications suppliers can result in fractions of seconds of performance efficiency.
Businesses too have joined forces to offer more dynamic products and services for their customers. Vodafone for example, recently acquired one of the UK’s largest fixed communications providers to create an integrated fixed and mobile network. This converged network is the next step in the evolution of communications. In other words, it’s much more than a simple aggregation of assets.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are ushering in a new era of mass collaboration, where millions of people around the world can come together to work together and achieve unprecedented results. Online platforms like Wikipedia have thrived on collaborative thinking. Mark Twain once said that, “substantially all ideas are second-hand… consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Just like mass production, mass distribution and mass marketing before it, mass collaboration is the next big evolution in the way we do business.
So, far from the so-called light bulb moment, creation is as often about connecting existing pieces of insight, technology and knowledge into new material and new interpretations of the world. Great innovation involves connecting the seemingly disconnected, seeing patterns where others see chaos, and cross-pollinating ideas.
But one thing is for sure. Whatever this ‘coming together’ involves, the real aim should be to create that special ‘magic’ that we’ve already seen from the likes of Gutenberg, Gates and their fellow creators. That the whole seems to vastly outweigh the sum of the constituent parts. When they work better together than alone.