This is an article length, comprehensive post on Mash-Ups for Innovation. To say the least Mash-Ups hold great promise in helping people and organizations find useful and sometimes breakthrough innovations.
This article will likely be part of a book on the front end of innovation that’s in development, stay tuned. Meanwhile I hope you find this guide useful.
To digest this in bits, simply use the index to go to the section that interests you. There is value to reading these sections in order, but for those with an urgent need, you’ll find instructions for facilitation in the Continuum of Mash-Ups and How To sections below. Generally, if you’re looking for more breakthrough results you’ll be wanting to use the more complex Mash-Up types. If your looking for a quick way to jostle up fresh ideas, go with the simpler ones. As always, please write or call if you’re looking for specific advice or facilitation assistance.
- Introduction to the Value of Mash-Ups, the Big Picture
- Background — Mash-Ups in Pop Culture, Invention,, and Innovation
- Start by Asking Your Mind for New Combinations
- Stimulus and Scaffolding, the Foundations of Mash-Up Thinking
- The Continuum of Mash-Up Types and How To
Mash-Ups, put simply, are combinations. In innovation work the desire in doing a Mash-Up is to get to that wonderful fresh snow of new thinking. It’s new thinking that creates new products and services. When solving a complex business challenge it’s difficult to get to that lovely off-piste mental space where nobody has ever been before. It certainly doesn’t happen in most brainstorming sessions. Mash-Ups, in its various permutations, is a power tool and a fast path for combining disparate elements to creatively problem solve. Mash-Ups can indeed get you to that elusive fresh thinking that leads to innovative solutions.
Even though Mash-Ups are a natural part of human thinking we are often challenged to do them deliberately. How to effectively do Mash-Ups, either alone or with a team, is not a simple answer. As far as I know there really isn’t a comprehensive framework or a guide for doing Mash-Ups. If you look about you’ll find a smattering of tips from various websites, books, and online video’s. What’s missing is an overall approach that guides you through the various types of mashed-up combinations. In this article I’ll provide a guide, and a straw man holistic framework for doing Mash-Ups from simple to complex.
Make no mistake, no matter what type of Mash-Up you do, awareness of how Mash-Ups work and practicing the skill on real world challenges can lead to dramatic results. Innovation effectiveness is difficult under the best of circumstances and using Mash-Ups deliberately can be a huge boost to initiatives. The problem is how. When Mash-Ups are presented to groups who are unfamiliar with the technique many people just don’t get it. The term “deer in the headlights” comes to mind. In any given group, the tools and approach I describe are not fool proof for all participating. Yet, they often work. Sometimes Mash-Ups work so well it’s shocking and delightful. To get to that wonderful place, you need to practice the techniques (that’s plural). You will improve over time. Practice helps gain facility. If you want to be a Mash-Up Master you’ve got to practice.
What to practice? Well, there are various kinds of Mash-Ups and they come with different sets of instructions. In general the approach for doing them changes with the complexity. Mash-Ups range from simple and intuitive combinations to complex and deliberate concept blends. As we get into the more complex types of Mash-Ups more methodological “scaffolding” – more process steps — are required to elevate your thinking to new levels.
Background – Mash-Ups in Pop Culture and Invention
I said that Mash-Ups are combinations and that’s true, but let’s revisit the definition of a Mash-Up. The colloquial usage of the term usually refers to music or video. They don’t use a hyphen in the music industry, it’s “mashup.” An example is Janet Jackson’s “Got Till It’s Gone” (done with rapper Q-Tip) which creatively, and overtly, samples Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. It also mimics the melody from Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me”. It’s a gorgeous new musical creation. I’ve heard the term “Bastard Pop” because the song clips combined in mashups are often unofficial, that is, unauthorized. An earlier example is Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s 1962 hit “Monster Mash” which combines the concepts of a horror movie and a dance song.I was working in the lab, late one night When my eyes beheld an eerie sight For my monster from his slab, began to rise And suddenly to my surprise — He did the mash, he did the monster mash
Note that Janet Jackson’s song combined actual audio clips, whereas Bobby Pickett’s song combined two concepts. You can dance to both!
Mash-Ups are a bigger idea than musical creations. The dictionary defines a Mash-Up as the combining of elements from two or more sources. Yes, and focus on that word elements, because the elements can be nearly anything, from actual objects or ingredients to esoteric concepts. At the sophisticated end of the Mash-Up continuum, there is the “concept blend.” Conceptual blending was brought to my attention by Michael Michalko in his fine book Creative Thinkering, but the idea of concept blending was first articulated by Arthur Koestler back in the 50’s. In his seminal book The Act of Creation, Koestler called concept blends “bisociative thinking”. This concept was further elucidated by scholars Giles Fauconnier and Mark Turner in their article Conceptual Integration and Formal Expression. They talk about the conceptual blending of many mental spaces into a new mental space. That’s interesting reading folks — suffice to say Mash-Ups are more than just blending Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi with a hip hop beat.
Mash-Ups, or concept blends, are something we do in our heads all the time at the subconscious level. Human beings are optimized to see patterns and that’s usually done below the surface of conscious thought and at a very rapid pace. We are somewhat less skilled at creating new patterns – and new concepts — because once we get a pattern down pat we like to file it away and forget about it, at least at a conscious level. This is what allows us to move through the world without having to think about everything we’re experiencing. Imagine how tough it would be to have to think consciously about every step you take?
It’s that new pattern thinking, that new concept creation, that holds a lot of creative power. That’s what we need to become better at doing if we want to leverage Mash-Ups for innovation.
Here’s the thing: nearly every major innovation in human history is a blend of two or more previously unconnected concepts, or things, that have never been combined before. A great example is the Printing Press which combined two technologies, the wine press, and the concept of moveable type. Good old Gutenberg had his hands – and his head — in both of those concepts and he was the first to create a massively more flexible printing system.
Another example is from the life of inventor Philo Farnsworth. Farnsworth, a farm boy of 14 at the time, combined the concept of a potato field and the need for a way to transmit an electronic television signal. Farnsworth was, even at 14, knowledgeable about mechanics and electricity. He’d read about the quest for “how to” do television in a Popular Mechanics article. He became obsessed thinking about it and he pondered the question for some time. The idea of a scanned, or traced field on a cathode ray tube came to him when he was plowing a field. While steering a tractor, he looked back over his newly plowed field and noticed how the lines were traced by the plow in his Idaho potato field. He realized in a flash of insight — that’s how a visual display could be organized, like a row traced on a field. He made a connection of the two concepts. This blended concept enabled the first working television. Notice that a potato field is a very different concept than the concept/challenge of how to transmit a moving image. For some reason, when trying to do deliberate mash-ups we want to combine related concepts – because it seems logical to do so. This is not a bad thing to do, but realize that the clash of two unrelated concepts that have never been combined before is much more likely to lead you to new and different thinking, ideas, and inventions. Combining similar concepts tends to lead to incremental innovation.
For creativity and innovation purposes we want to be deliberate about what we combine and how we combine it. The challenge for an innovator is that you often don’t have the time, or the trust, to simply wait around until your subconscious provides you with a great new idea. What makes it difficult is that by trying to bring the process into the logical-analytical-conscious world, you reduce the power of your brain to come up with something highly creative. Your conscious mind is quite powerful, but it has limits that your subconscious mind does not. Intuitive leaps spring from the subconscious. Logical connections come from your conscious mind.
Start By Asking Your Mind for New Combinations
Mash-Ups are best done with a prepared mind. If you want your subconscious mind to work on a challenge a simple step is to ask. Yes, ask yourself to come up with a solution through combinations and mash-ups. Have a dialog with yourself, perhaps even spoken out loud. First, recognize a challenge state. What is it you’re looking for? Then wish, ask, and expect ideas to be delivered to you at some point in the future. You might ask nicely, as the human mind responds more creatively when it’s relaxed. I suggest this knowing some people will find it silly, stupid, or not helpful. That’s okay. Think about it though. Everyone has a subconscious, and it’s a given that it works in the background (you have dreams right?) Why not give that background computer a task, a job? You already do when you wish for a solution to a problem – even if done in panic mode. Just be more deliberate and positive about it, ask more specific questions. You may get back, sooner or later, more specific answers. What have you got to lose?
Stimulus and Scaffolding, the Foundations of Mash-Up Thinking
Beyond asking your mind for answers, how does one inspire new mashed-up ideas? How do you actually do a Mash-Up? In two words, doing Mash-Ups requires Stimulus and Scaffolding. Stimulus is anything that might trigger fresh thinking. It starts with a fresh concept to clash with your challenge, but it could be music, an object, or a reflective walk in the woods. Scaffolding is a gradual process – or thinking step — to put your mind in the space to make new connections. Scaffolding is a term borrowed from the field of education and psychology and generally refers to an expert teacher helping students learn by providing graduated steps. In innovation scaffolding is provided by an expert facilitator. I say “expert” here because this is not a concept every brainstorming facilitator knows or can do, it’s an advanced technique. However, if you know the principle you can facilitate yourself or a team using stimulus and scaffolding. Stimulus and scaffolding help you get in touch with your subconscious. By putting the possible dots to connect out there in a more deliberate way you enable yourself to access the magic of your mind – and make new connections.
Sometimes Mash-Ups are quite easy and don’t require much stimulus or scaffolding. Many new product ideas are simple combinations. Think a Reese’s cup – it’s just peanut butter and chocolate. It’s a simple mash-up but a very effective one – it’s tasty and it has sold like crazy for years. The idea for that product didn’t require a lot of thought did it? Inventor Harry Reese experimented with different confections in his basement, combining various ingredients with chocolate. The combination was a happy, and probable, accident of someone deliberately seeking combinations. The result — stock in Hershey worth over a billion dollars today, and eating pleasure for millions of people over the years.
So, innovators should look around for things to combine with existing products and services as an early step. The results will tend to be incremental but sometimes that’s exactly what you want. Incremental ideas get a bad rap, sometimes they are absolute home runs with low financial risk – what’s wrong with that? In the innovation mix of an organization you really want a lot of incremental ideas along with the harder to find breakthrough ideas.
Breakthrough ideas are elusive. That’s where more deliberate process that includes a great deal of stimulus and a lot of mental scaffolding is required.
As you progress towards more holistic and complex Mash-Ups, there are more steps; more writing, more visualization and in general more multi-mode thinking. When I say multi-mode (or multi-modality) what I’m referring to are different ways of thinking, such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and hopefully thinking done with some kind of emotional component. These modes go beyond our usual information processing bias of reading and writing. As you might suspect, it takes more time to invoke more modes. Sadly, it also goes against certain cultural norms and social conventions. For instance, taking time during your busy day at work to lie on the floor, have an “image streaming” session, while speaking out loud about the images being presented in your minds eye, with a recording device turned on – might be taken for the actions of a crazy person. It’s not crazy at all, image streaming (as described by Win Wenger in his book Discovering the Obvious) is a great way to bypass your conscious mind.
Or, if your boss asked you to do an interpretive dance of your marketing challenge you might tell him to take a flying leap through a rolling doughnut! Do the dance. To think differently one must Do Differently.
The trend is towards greater acceptance of these unusual stimulus as scaffolding tools. In corporate America (and in many formal organizations around the globe) improvisation games are sneaking their way into highly structured corporate meetings. Invoking a form of play to invent is a method that works – and it’s being explored, and used effectively by companies like IDEO, Pixar, Clear Channel and many more. Improvisation sessions are now part of the mix at innovation conferences. So, your team would be well advised to do that interpretive dance!
The Continuum of Mash-Up Types and How To
Intention/Intuition… Deliberate Combinations… Forced Associations… Scaffolding… Concept Blends… Kinesthetic/Whole Brained… Trend Stimulus…Curated and Multi-Modal Scaffolding (KILN’s IdeaKeg)
1. Intention and Intuition
- When trying to think up ideas to solve a problem, make your intention clear to yourself. State what you wish for out loud, write it down, and make a request of yourself, that is to your own mind, to come up with answers. This sets your thinking in motion and it’s not a bad idea to do for anything you are trying to work out. It’s your intention and it starts your intuition engine. Perhaps you want to improve the water quality in your man-made pond. Setting that intention starts an exploration, both deliberate and also intuitive that can lead you through research, ideas, and solution finding. In a way this is a pre-Mash-Up.
When you need ideas a simple way to break through into more interesting ideas is to do the simplest possible mash-up, which is a Combination.
- What can you combine with your current solution, or, what can you combine to create a solution, to create value? Going back to the definition of a Mash-Up, look for new elements you can add, or old elements you can combine into a new combination.
- Example: A software company offering an off-the-shelf package for managing medical records was looking for a leg up on the competition. To enhance the value of their package they combined the software with a low-priced-flat-fee installation service.
- Example: Roller shoes that combine a standard gym shoe with retractable wheels. This simple combination created a market-leading brand for Skechers.
- Remember to write down your ideas.
In order to jar the mind to “different” thinking try a Forced Association Mash-Up. A Forced Association is the first real Mash-Up of unrelated elements or concepts.
- To do a Forced Association find an object, or concept, that has nothing to do with your challenge. The tendency is to want to select something that has some relationship to your challenge. Resist that urge and pick some random physical object, or concept. It’s the surprise factor that does some of the heavy lifting (scaffolding) to get your mind thinking differently.
- Ask yourself: What ideas does the object suggest for your challenge?
- Sometimes ideas are immediately apparent, often they are not.
- Example: Let’s say you’re looking for ways to improve the value of a home you are selling. You know all the typical ways and want ideas that go beyond that.
- The object you pick, randomly, is an abstract oil painting, and you ask, what ideas does this oil painting suggest?
- You have these ideas:
- There are several rooms that could use painting.
- Noticing the spare aspects of the painting, the white space, you decide to remove several pieces of furniture from the living room and dining room.
- The painting is done in an abstract style. You think that the landscaping of the house could be done in a more artistic way. You also think it might be useful to remove the ticky-tacky terra cotta statues the previous owner left in the garden.
- The painting reminds you of the old friend who gave it to you. You wonder what “old Max” would do to enhance the value of the house and you remember he’s a great cook. Your idea is to upgrade the stove and install a smoke-removing hood.
- As you can see the painting as the forced connect object sets off some free-associating that gives you several useful ideas. The scaffolding in this case is all done in your head. Are any of these ideas miraculous? Probably not but it did get you some new and useful ones.
- If you’re in a group encourage people to say what they’re thinking or associating even if those thoughts are not specific ideas. Ideas often come to other people when you help them bridge their thinking. This is a type of verbal scaffolding. Remember also the classic brainstorming rule of deferring judgment while diverging. When free-associating it’s not the time to put on the mental breaks by critiquing or analyzing. With many groups staying in divergent mode takes practice, it’s not something people normally do. Getting groups into truly generative mode is a key to successful brainstorming.
- Experienced ideators are comfortable free-associating and they are likely to have some ideas with this simple Forced Association. Inexperienced ideators, or, people who are restrained in their self-expression, need more help – scaffolding — to make meaningful connections.
Because Forced Associations are not always easy it’s helpful to provide a more deliberate thinking stepping stone, or scaffold, to assist in making connections and inspiring ideas. The simplest type of scaffolding is Attribute Listing.
- Before you ask yourself the question of what ideas are suggested, take the object you are force connecting and make a simple list of attributes about the object.
- For example, if I’m looking for ideas for a new type of credit card and I’m using a coffee mug as the unrelated or forced object to collide with the credit card challenge, the attribute list might look something like this:
- Has a Handle
- Russell Wright design
- Made in China
- Notice the attributes describing the coffee mug have nothing to do with the credit card challenge.
- You could make a very long list of attributes or do just a few. In general, the more the better.
- Next, you pick an intriguing attribute and ask yourself, what does, say, “Container” suggest to me in the way of a new idea for a credit card. Your choice of which attribute word to start with here is intuitive.
- The word “Container” might suggest a card that bundles a packaged set of services that go beyond standard credit card offerings, like, small business loans, or, discounts at Brooks Brothers.
- The word phrase “Has a Handle” might suggest a new physical component or physical design for a card — maybe combining standard card functionality with a Fitbit, or a smart phone/iPhone.
- You have the idea that credit cards don’t always have a physical bank associated with the account, at least not one you’d ever enter. You recall that brick and mortar banks offer services like secure lock boxes. Your idea is to offer a lock box service that goes with the card, in association with a new company that offers that typed of locked storage.
- Facilitators should work the team through the entire attribute list and get as many ideas as possible. When an individual, or a group, runs out of ideas and hits that mental wall, start over with another random object.
- Of course, write all ideas down in some fashion.
Going beyond Forced Associations, a more sophisticated Mash-Up is a Concept Blend, with the scaffolding of a visual exploration of each concept prior to attempting to bridge to new concepts. This is a collision of two, or more, very different concepts. The visual component is creating a Mind Map of each concept prior to seeking ideas.
Here are the steps:
A. Have a challenge area in mind. This is your business problem, challenge, or market-area opportunity. It’s a good idea to frame the problem with the phrase “How Might We…” (or How Might I…” if it’s an individual challenge). Call this “Concept A.”
B. Pick three to five concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with your challenge, that is, as far away as you can get from Concept A. If you’re not sure what concept to use, get a newspaper and pick out the ‘concept’ that underlies any given story, such as “political activism” or “celebrity” or “achievement”. Or, access one of the many free online trend decks (such as TrendHunter) to pick out some trends. After all, a trend is a concept.
C. Then Explore each selected concept visually using the Mind Map technique. Mind Maps are visual diagrams which mix images and words. Attribute lists and other types of diagrams can also work. Use a nice big sheet of 20 by 24 paper for each. These are “Concept(s) B”. Alternatively, the attribute lists and diagrams could be done very large so as to be more visible to a group – create a huge wall mural. Buy wall mural paper and make it as large as you like.
- D. Explore your own challenge, Concept A, in the same fashion. So, now you have a visual and word based worksheet (or wall mural) for each concept.
E. Now, put your worksheet for Concept A, and one of your worksheets or Mind Maps from Concept B side by side. Then, gaze, read the data points, 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, say, communication…” — you’ll want to notebook those direct connections in some fashion. Teams can brainstorm ideas directly onto the worksheets, or around them on the wall mural.
F. Continue to review your worksheets. If nothing is happening (no ideas spring to mind) with Concept B, switch to another one. Keep asking yourself how the dissimilar 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, and keep thinking about it — in time something will occur to you (you need an intense preoccupation like Philo Farnsworth).
G. You’ll probably need to put these worksheets aside and let your thoughts incubate. Remind yourself with an alarm (literally, set an alarm) to come back to thinking about them now and then. Ideas pop up when you keep after yourself to think of something. If this is a team project, have the team meet again later to reconsider and add on more ideas.
H. Elaborate the ideas. 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. There are other techniques for idea elaboration, such as simple discussion, using the PPCO tool (Positives, Potentials, Concerns, ideas for Overcoming concerns), future tense story telling, or concept writing (using concept forms).
I. And don’t forget to record your ideas in some fashion as you go.
This type of Mash-Up is the most holistic in terms of invoking every possible way to stimulate different thinking. What I’m about to describe may sound and feel “wonky” – that is overly structured — but in a way it mimics what famous inventors and innovators do naturally, organically. Folks like Edison and Einstein explored challenges in every possible way – in essence they played with concepts.
Scholars such as Harvard’s Howard Gardner, who conceived of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, inform us that intelligence is not simply one general ability, but there are many intelligence modalities. The most advanced type of Mash-Up is done by making an effort to touch upon each intelligence, or thinking modality, in exploring concepts in search of a radically new connection.
In addition to scaffolding of multiple modes of thinking, there is a conscious effort made to find very different kinds of stimulus. Mashing-Up trend-based concepts, outside your challenge area, have such rich potential. They represent things people are already doing behaviors that are new but on the upswing. By looking at these concepts you stand a good chance of being first to combine two very different things into something new and useful.
- Activities associated with touching upon each intelligence should be carefully orchestrated to invoke as many modalities as possible, and, in different combinations.
- If you are designing this type of Mash-Up for a group, the keys to success are:
- Careful planning of the session, you’ll need to allow at least a couple of hours.
- Pre-work for participants that involve them in thinking about the challenge ahead of time
- Knowledge of trends inside your industry and trends outside your industry – in other words you need something of a “global cultural radar.”
- Representation of concepts (not your challenge) in as many forms as possible, visual, three dimensional (actual objects that represent trends), auditory, etc, see below for curated objects*
- Ways in which to invoke emotions related to concepts in the participants in the session. This can be done using games, drawing, and movement in addition to writing and speaking.
- Like the attribute listing done in earlier steps, the scaffolding necessary would start with simple observation.
- After a round of observation you need to ask what meaning the object has, to you, or to your organization.
- The next round would ask what trends are embodied in the object
- The curation notes or background data about the object might stimulate further ideas about trends represented in the object
- Finally, participants in the session are asked to pose ideation questions in the form of “How might we…” as inspired by the many rounds of scaffolded data. Or, if a challenge question is already in place, for ideas to answer that question.
Is this a lot of work to get to fresh connections? Yes.
Is it worth taking this much trouble? If you’re motivated to get to breakthrough ideas, yes, it is worth that much trouble.
*Curated objects for this type of Mash-Up is a rather new concept in innovation, but it has some precedence. Of course, you can curate trend-objects yourself if you have the global cultural radar. It’s not trivial to track global trends, and even the online trend deck companies, while helpful, are one step short of providing physical innovation stimulus. Nor do they provide a scaffolded process to help you turn the stimuli into ideas. As we’ve said before connecting dots unconnected before is not intuitive for all. As early as the 1960’s Aspen was offering a three dimensional magazine complete with Super8 film clips, and art from Andy Warhol. Aspen was not intended as stimulus for Mash-Ups, but it would have been great to do so. Faith Popcorn, the futurist, briefly offered a subscription service of various trend items in a TrendBox sometime in the 1990’s. It was discontinued – it’s a lot of work to put one together. Faith’s box was intended for strategists, brand managers and other innovationists at larger companies. Material Connexion offers a curated set of materials (that is new physical materials you could Mash-Up) called ActiveMATTER. You can buy collections of curated objects from third party vendors, such as KILN with their IdeaKeg service, which is specifically curated to be innovation stimuli. KILN (Disclosure: I am a KILN founding partner) offers stimulus products and carefully thought through processes to enable Mash-Ups that engage visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and written modes coupled with emotions. Here’s more information about IdeaKeg.
- IdeaKeg is a subscription service that provides a box of seven curated objects every eight weeks. Each object is selected to represent on or more consumer, cultural, or behavioral trends. It comes with pre-done Mind-Maps and curation notes for each object. A subscription also includes a process guide that integrates the IdeaKeg interaction with a front-end-of-innovation cycle, FuseTrail. FuseTrail is a guide for the entire cycle.
- Each object is considered in turn in a four round process that is similar to a concept blend with scaffolding – just additional scaffolding and additional modes. Because the objects are in-hand and can be examined and played with, it has a kinesthetic and play elements in addition to dimensionalization of each objects attributes, trends, personal meanings.
- IdeaKeg is also available as a single, non-subscription box, for one-time usage.
Mash-Ups are both an art and a science. While there is still much we don’t know about how the brain works, recent research has made clear that holistic mash-ups model how the brain invents. Using many different kinds of stimulus and many kinds of mental scaffolding help you bridge from logic to an intuitive leap. If you intend to use Mash-Ups this article can serve as a guide. Start with the simpler combinations first, then work your way towards multi-modal Mash-Ups with curated or random stimuli. Best of luck, you may find that it’s what’s been missing in your efforts to find truly new and fresh ideas. Do us one favor – when you do breakthrough to something interesting — play The Monster Mash to celebrate — just for fun.