Stealing Prototypes


“Good artists borrow, great artist steal.” — attributed to several people, but it was probably W.H. Davenport Adams  

If you are pushing yourself to develop new, original ideas, trying to come up with that one thing that no one has thought of before... you might be working too hard.

The ultimate innovation icon, Steve Jobs, said, "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."

Creativity doesn’t necessarily involve the birth of a brand-new idea out of thin air, it can also be the application of an existing solution in one field to a problem in another. Consider the classic example of the emergency healthcare staff who visited a NASCAR racetrack to learn about high-pressure team collaboration from pit crews, who can change four tires and fill up the gas tank in ten seconds. The noisy competitive environment at the track is far removed from the sterile hospital environment, yet operating room teams, emergency medical technicians, and other critical-care providers were able to gain insights and critical knowledge that revolutionized healthcare operations around the world.

For example, they realized that the pit crew made pre-assembled kits for dealing with every possible repair scenario: as the driver rolled into the pit, they had the kit pulled out and laid open, with direct access to the tools and parts necessary for that specific repair. In contrast, the emergency-room procedure required the team to assemble the materials and equipment only after the patient’s condition was diagnosed, often wasting critical time in treatment.

Here’s another example. When you think of a cheesecake, health is not the first thing that comes to mind, right? Innovationship facilitated a project in which we guided healthcare professionals through the journey of improving services at community health clinics. In our search for new ways of thinking we found inspiration in an article by the surgeon Atul Gawande*, and decided to visit the same unusual, fast-paced business he used as an example of efficiency: the Cheesecake Factory. How did we make this connection? By reframing the problem statement from “optimizing service efficiency at a medical clinic” to “creating a delightful patient experience” we quickly came to the conclusion that visiting a busy restaurant might provide us with some insights.

While enjoying a meal and a behind-the-scenes tour we had arranged with the manager, several ideas came to mind. The “greeter” at the entrance to the restaurant inspired a new and personal procedure for welcoming patients to a newly designed children’s clinic, and watching kitchen staff handle a huge variety of menu choices led to a new approach to guiding patients during intake. In the end, learning from the restaurant setting helped create a delightful experience for people who usually expect the worst when checking into a clinic.

To make your own unexpected connections, follow this process:

  1. Learn to rephrase the focus of your observation in a way that captures the experience underlying your challenge. Consider the examples above: stepping back from the specific setting of the emergency room, the problem was defined as “where do teams respond to a situation with great speed?” Rephrasing the clinic problem as one of “delightful service” allowed us to learn from a leading restaurant.
  2. Consider who has already solved this newly defined problem in a different industry.
  3. Go on your learning journey with an open mind: immerse yourself in this other experience and let your mind make connections that inspire new ideas.

The world is full of products, processes, and experiences that others have spent time and money developing which may provide answers to your challenges. Instead of trying to think of a solution no one else has ever thought of before, try to find solutions that work in other fields but have never been applied to your particular challenge.

Remember: “Innovation begins with an eye.” Keep your eyes open, find new places to look, and you will find inspiration for original connections that lead to innovative solutions.


*Atul Gawande, “What Big Medicine Can Learn from the Cheesecake Factory”