If you've ever wondered where creative ideas come from, here's a one-word answer: combinations.
Specifically, ideas emerge when "someone sees a problem in a new way--often by combining disparate elements that initially seemed unrelated," writes marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark in her new book, "Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It."
How can you tap into the power of combinatorial thinking? One way is to make sure your project teams include open-minded people whose personalities and strengths are in disparate areas. The blending of their traits is bound to yield creative fruit. Here are seven combinations sure to spark ideas:
1. Designers and MBAs.
Kate Dill, head of experience design at Airbnb, recently explained to Fast Company that designers and MBAs make "perfect power combos." While she was studying industrial design at Art Center College of Design, she did a study abroad at the INSEAD business school in Singapore. It was then that she first realized the power of this combination:
I saw how MBA students would tackle problems a designer could tackle, but in a different way. And I saw their way of thinking versus our way of thinking, and how together we could do something really great. That energized me to unite the fields. Because it's not enough to just imagine a beautiful thing. It's all about: how does that thing fit in the larger ecosystem? What's the impact going to be on the community? What's the impact going to be on the business?
2. Quants and Traditionalists.
Eric Schadt, professor of genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, began his career as a mathematician. The math background "was perfect training for his eventual role disrupting the field of biology," Clark writes.
Here's why: In the late 90s, technology emerged enabling researchers to rapidly sequence RNA and DNA--giving them the ability to isolate and record the activity of single genes. To Schadt's math-trained perspective, there was one obvious ramification: biology was going to change from a qualitative to a highly quantitative discipline.
His outsider status is what enabled him to have a fresh perspective on how the field of biology was about to undergo a tectonic shift.
3. Project Managers and Deadline Breakers.
Most projects don't get done--or even started--without deadlines. At the same time, surprise and experimentation are crucial to creativity.
Tom Kelley, partner at iconic innovation firm IDEO, explained to Inc. how the combination of deadlines and experimentation should work: Instead of beginning with a six-month planning cycle, project managers should give teams a fast deadline--one day--"to do the whole thing."
The fast deadline is bound to jumpstart creativity. Here's the key: After the creativity is sparked by the urgency of the one-day deadline, the project manager can give the team an extension of a few more days. That way, by the time the six-month mark actually rolls around, your team "can be on the twentieth iteration instead of the first iteration," says Kelley. "And it will be better."
4. Champions and Challengers.
One key to Pixar's creativity, co-founder Ed Catmull tells Inc., is that its Braintrust idea meetings boast a mixture of champion storytellers like John Lasseter--and a whole bunch of employees unafraid to challenge him, even though he's the John Lasseter, the director of the first two Toy Story films.
In a Braintrust meeting, who you are and what you've done doesn't matter. All that matters is the open, nonjudgmental discussion of ideas. This is one reason Pixar's teams have been unabashed about proposing "far out" concepts like a rat that can cook or an old man who goes off in a house attached to balloons. "These are not obviously commercial ideas," says Catmull.
5. Mess-makers and Organizers.
Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota with an extensive psychology background, has demonstrated in multiple experiments that you get a creativity boost when you work in a messy space.
I asked Vohs to speculate about how her research might apply to business settings. She said that while a setting with visual disorder might facilitate brainstorming, an orderly setting might be better for a fast meeting where an immediate decision is required.
In other words: Messy spaces have their place in work settings, and neat ones have theirs. That's why any project would benefit from yin-and-yang presence of both mess-makers and organizers on the same team.
6. Doodlers and Engineers.
The evidence that doodling can abet creativity is voluminous. But it's the combination of doodlers (or team members with visual arts credentials) with nuts-and-bolts engineers that can really make sparks fly.
This is one reason Steve Jobs often cited his college course in calligraphy as an influence. Mind you, Jobs' creativity had little to do with the isolated act of drawing fancy letters. It was his application of calligraphy's design and visual tenets to the then-clunky world of computers--a pre-Macintosh world in dire need of aesthetic principles--that yielded the creative magic.
7. Diplomats and Troublemakers.
Author Joshua Wolf Shenk, an expert on creative combinations (specifically, creative pairings), believes the Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney tandem excelled because of how complementary their skills were. Here's how Geoff Emerick, the principal engineer for many major Beatles records, describes it:
Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a right loudmouth and quite rude. Paul was willing to put in long hours to get a part right; John was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing.
Tellingly, Lennon and McCartney also embody some other power combos on this list. For instance, McCartney was organized, logging his lyrics and chord changes in a notebook; Lennon was always searching for scrap paper.
Your teams might not have the creative chops of a Lennon or McCartney. But your team members certainly possess their traits: diplomatic or agitating, neat or messy. Put them on the same team, and results will follow.