Do The Mash — for Breakthrough Ideas

This was the drawing done by the 14 year old Philo Farnsworth, depicting the concept that created the first all electronic TV.

When In Doubt, Do The Mash

Not so many people remember his name anymore — Philo Farnsworth.

The very short bio of Philo Farnsworth is that he created the first working all-electronic television. He conceived the basic idea at the age of 14. Understand, this was leading edge electronics of the time. He made his idea real in his early 20’s. He went on to have 165 patents.

The coolest part of the Philo Farnsworth story, to me, is how his thinking evolved and worked in creating the television display tube. First of all he had an “intense preoccupation” with the idea of pictures over the air. Philo was a farm boy, raised in Utah and Idaho and you’ll see in a moment why that matters here. To create his TV system, he combined or blended two unrelated concepts.  The two concepts were: a Hay Field and Visual Display. While mowing his father’s hay field he came up with the idea that a refresh-able image could be displayed on a tube if you traced the lines back and forth across the tube — like the field he was mowing. His Aha moment came when he took a rest and then looked back on his neatly mowed field with the neat rows.

Some people call this type of thinking conceptual blending, forced associations, or mash-ups. I call it simply The Mash. I did a short video on this tool if you have time to watch. Otherwise, here are instructions for all you Guerilla Innovators out there.

The Mash is essentially a collision of two very different concepts — to create something entirely new. It’s a great shortcut to breakthrough innovation, You can, and should, do it yourself, or with your team. Here’s the drill:

  1. Have a challenge area in mind. This is your loosely defined business problem, challenge, or market-area opportunity. Call this “Concept A.”
  2. Pick five concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with your industry area, that is, as far away as you can get from Concept A. If you’re not sure what to use, get a newspaper and pick out the ‘concept’ that underlies any given story, such as “political activism” or “celebrity” or “achievement”. Explore each concept visually (such as with a Mind Map) and with words. Attribute lists and diagrams also work. Use a nice big sheet of 20 by 24 paper for each. These are “Concept(s) B”.
  3. Explore your own challenge, Concept A, in the same fashion. So, now you have a visual and word based worksheet for each concept.
  4. Now, put your worksheet for Concept A, and one of your worksheets from Concept B side by side. Then, gaze, think, imagine, and allow your intuition to speak to you. Sometimes you’ll feel a connection and not really know why. Make a note of those mysterious connections. If you make some direct connections as in “concept A and concept B are similar in that they both relate to communication…” — you’ll want to notebook those direct connections.
  5. Continue to review your worksheets. If nothing is happening with Concept B, switch to another one. Keep asking yourself how the dis-similar concept(s) might be combined, morphed, or “one-offed” to apply to your challenge. Sometimes magic happens doing this — in other words an amazing idea pops up — but if nothing comes to mind immediately, keep asking, keep noodling, keep doodling, keep thinking about it — in time something will occur to you (you need an intense preoccupation like Philo Farnsworth).
  6. You’ll probably need to put these worksheets aside and let your thoughts incubate. Remind yourself with an alarm (literally, set an alarm, use your smart phone) to come back to thinking about them now and then. Ideas pop up when you keep after yourself to think of something.
  7. A connection between the two concepts is just a start. You want to brainstorm ideas on those connections — specific ways the connection can be used to create a breakthrough innovation, ala Philo Farnsworth.

You might be thinking — this is a lot of trouble to get to fresh ideas. You’d be right, it is a lot of trouble, but we’re not all geniuses like Philo who could do The Mash in his head while driving on a tractor. Most of us are average and we’ve got to Scaffold our way to great innovation ideas. Innovation is complex work — do you have an intense preoccupation with something? I would suggest that if you don’t, you might not care enough to innovate.


This post is the 10th in a series of  posts related to innovation for small business, and is essentially an online, blogged, book. If you want to start at the beginning and read the entire book, start at the introduction, here.

The pre-cursor book to this online book on small business innovation (aka Guerrilla Innovation) is Jack’s Notebook, a business novel about creative problem solving.  This is a great story that blends all the concepts of Guerrilla Innovation into one fast-paced, thriller type book. Yes, Jack does Notebooking and a form of Scaffolding as part of the story. Stories are a great way to integrate learning!

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Posted in Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Entrepreneurial, Idea Generation, Innovation, Start-ups