Associational Thinking – The Secret to Innovation

By February 8, 2024 No Comments

Most of the famous innovators in history, like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Tesla, possessed one unique skill: successfully connecting seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields

In their book, Innovator’s DNA, Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor and Jeff Dyer call this skill – Associational thinking.

The authors say, “Innovators “connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, technologies, and disciplines to dish up new and unusual innovations.”

Associating occurs at the intersection of diverse experience and culture with the following dynamics providing the best situations for new associations:

Creating Odd Combinations of seemingly uncommon and mismatched ideas.

Zooming In and Out between the details and the big picture perspectives.

Lego Thinking of creating and collecting many ideas to eventually find a good idea.

They also suggest, people with deep expertise in a specific field can generate innovative associations in two ways:

Importing an idea from a different field into their area of deep expertise or

Exporting an idea from their area of deep expertise to a less familiar field.

Steve Jobs, one of the famous innovators in history, had this ability to make surprising connections when he invented the iPhone and iPod.

Jobs recognized the potential for convergence between mobile communication technology and sleek, user-friendly design.

So, he brought together experts in industrial design, software engineering, and hardware development to create a device that seamlessly integrated cutting-edge technology with elegant aesthetics.

By marrying these traditionally disparate fields, Jobs was able to produce a device that not only functioned well but also appealed to consumers on an emotional level.

Instead of merely creating a phone, Jobs envisioned a device that could also serve as an iPod for music playback, a camera for capturing memories, and a mini-computer for accessing the internet.

That’s ‘associational thinking’ in action.

Finally, we tend to think innovators come up with novel ideas that never existed.

But it’s further from the truth.

There is nothing truly novel in this world.

It’s just about the combination of various things that already exist and synthesizing them into a new idea.

That’s the secret of innovation.

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