Re:Thinking the Ordinary


We devote a lot of brainpower at futurethink to devising new ways to teach and practice innovation. Two things we speak about frequently with organizations are: 1) the power of harnessing a diverse set of eclectic minds, rather than just expert minds to more quickly solve a problem or better generate ideas, and 2) the importance of looking at things from a different perspective.

That’s why I was so glad to read abut the recent Stanford University Innovation contest.

Each year, Stanford’s Technology Ventures group selects an everyday object (this year:

a ball of rubber bands) that entrants must ‘add value to.’ Essentially, entrants must take something ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary.

What I find fascinating about the contest isn’t the amount of ideas that result, but the sheer diversity of them.

Participants’ ideas this year ranged from the typical: bracelets that can raise money for a cause (a la LiveStrong); to the topical: branded bands that promote locally grown/organic produce; to the completely different: a rubber band model of the universe to be used for educational purposes.

What can this contest teach organizations? First, the contest shows the sheer power of combining diverse perspectives. If a group of people can come up with so many different ways to use a ball of rubber bands, think what a diverse group can do when the same constraint-free thinking is applied to your current products or services. Getting an eclectic group of employees involved in innovation is critical to innovation’s success. That’s why leading innovators involve employees at every level and department to attack innovation challenges. The power of perspective wins every time.

Second, the contest reminds us to keep asking question, like: “What else?” We are always in search of creating the next iPod, but we constantly forget that we can innovate by simply leveraging the things we already have and thinking about them in new ways. We spend so much time accepting what we are given, rather than asking the fundamental questions that make innovation happen: I call these fundamental questions: “What if?, “How else?”, “Where else?”, “When else”, “Who else?”, “What else?” and most importantly, “Why not?”

For years we’ve used a similar exercise in our innovation skills workshops called “Re:Think”. We give teams of people everyday objects (scissors, paper clips, Post-it Notes) and tell them this: “Your R&D department has just created this (point to the object you’ve selected for them) new groundbreaking invention. They don’t know what it really is or does – but they know that it has tremendous potential. Your job as a business person is to name the invention, decide what it does, and tell us how it creates value for the audience it serves.” I never knew there were so many new ways to use paperclips, for example (my favorite: package 100 of them a children’s game called “ThinkLinks”, where players have to link colored paperclips in new ways to create patterns and designs.)

So, here’s my challenge to you: try to Re:Think something today. Take the first everyday object you can find. Pretend you’ve never heard of it or seen it before. Spend a few minutes looking at it closely. Now, come up with 10 ideas for how to use it differently.

Can you do it?

At our next Monday morning status meeting here at futurethink, I’m going to challenge my team to Re:Think homework. My son will be rooting for a breakthrough solution, I’m sure.



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