Join Jeff Dyer for an in-depth discussion in this video Association, part of Jeff Dyer on Innovation.
- So, when we started to study business innovators, the first thing we learned is that there was a cognitive skill that was really important to new ideas. We decided to call it associational thinking, because it was the ability to connect two ideas to solve a problem in a way that hadn't been done before. Let me give you an example. Jenn Hyman was a second year student at the Harvard Business School. She goes home for Thanksgiving dinner, she's having dinner with her family, talking with her sister, Becky, and she hears Becky complaining about what she's going to wear to a friend's wedding event, like "What should I wear?" And Jenn says, "Well, wait a minute, don't you have like "two or three designer dresses "that you've spent a lot of money for?" She said, "Yeah." "Just wear those." "I can't, I've been seen too many times "on Facebook, Instagram, and those, I need something new." And, so, Jen's thinking about this and she realizes there are a lot of young women who would like to wear designer dresses but can't afford them.
And then she thinks about the Netflix business model, which is a model to rent movies and ship them through the mail. And, so, she thinks, maybe I could take designer dresses, use a Netflix business model, and rent designer dresses, and basically ship them to people at a fraction of the cost that it would cost to buy them. That's how associational thinking works. Steve Jobs once said, "Creativity is connecting things." Creative people synthesize their experiences and when they see something new that connects something that they've done, something they've experienced, to help them solve the new.
I saw this firsthand as a consultant at Bain & Company. We had 60 to 70 hospital clients in the 1980s who were trying to reduce their costs. We became a very desirable consulting firm and it all started with a Bain consultant who was an expert in manufacturing. He happened to go to a client meeting with a hospital, because hospitals, at the time, were trying to reduce costs, because the government was putting pressure on them that they could only get a fixed cost reimbursement.
He walks into the meeting. He starts to ask them about throughput. He asks them about how quickly they get the widget, the patient, in through the plant and out of the plant. How many touches there are to the widget, how many times they add value. Of course, eyes are glazing over, because folks in hospitals haven't thought about this at all. And he brings lean manufacturing ideas to the hospital about how to reduce costs. And, all of a sudden, it's not about keeping the patient there as long as possible, it's getting them through the manufacturing plant as quickly as possible in order to add value and get them out.
That's associational thinking. You take an idea from one context, you apply it somewhere else to solve a problem, and it can create lots of value. So, associational thinking is really something that happens cognitively and it triggers the new ideas. What we learned and what we'll talk about next is that there are four behaviors that really are the triggers for associational thinking.