New ideas are generated as a result of associational thinking, which includes four behaviors—questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—that trigger thinking and new ideas.
- So, about 15 years ago I was having a conversation with Clayton Christensen, who's well known for disruptive innovation. Clay and Hal Gregersen and I were having this conversation about where do these disruptive ideas come from in the first place. Who comes up with them and are these people different than the rest of us? We thought, let's study business innovators and see if we can figure out what it is that triggers new ideas. We decided to study dozens and dozens of business innovators, folks like Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, like Marc Benioff, the founder of SalesForce.com, Jen Hyman, founder of Rent the Runway, Michael Dell, founder of Dell, and we basically asked them, tell us the exact moment that you came up with the idea for Amazon or Dell or Rent the Runway.
Do you remember? Do you remember what triggered the idea? What this allowed us to do was then create a set of categories of triggers for the new ideas. Some people, like Marc Benioff, talked about asking a question that triggered the idea. Marc was literally swimming with dolphins, he said, in Hawaii when he asked himself why can't I deliver software to customers the same way Amazon's delivering product to customers over the internet instead of on CDs.
So questioning was often the trigger for folks to come up with a new idea for a new business. Others like Jeff Bezos were out observing something. Jeff was literally basically surfing the internet. He says, I came across this site that showed internet usage basically increasing exponentially so I started to ask myself, what could I sell over the internet that might work? So, observing was a trigger for many people.
Others it was networking. Jen Hyman, founder of Rent the Runway, was literally just talking to her sister about her sister's desire to rent a designer dress or to buy a designer dress that she couldn't afford and Jen came up with this idea with well maybe I could rent it to you instead. And others were just out experimenting. Michael Dell talks about the fact that his idea for Dell computer really came from taking apart computers, putting them back together, and he said one day I'd just done this and I realized I could buy every part for an IBM computer for about $700 and they're selling them in the stores for $2,500, hmm, maybe I could actually build these and sell these.
So what we learned was that there were four behaviors that triggered new ideas, or what we call associational thinking, which is connecting two ideas that haven't been put together before. These behaviors are questioning, observing, networking with others, and then experimenting and we learned that these behaviors are more pronounced in innovators and if you can engage these behaviors more frequently than maybe you can sort of connect with the secret sauce of these business innovators.