What do Clarence Birdseye, Alexander Graham Bell and George de Mestral have in common? As Paul Sloane explains, it has to do with a unique way of looking at the world around them with a creative eye.

Adapting ideas that have worked in one environment and using them in another is one of the most successful of innovation techniques. Let’s look at some examples.

In 1916, a young American scientist and inventor called Clarence Birdseye went to Canada as a fur trader. He noticed that people in Labrador kept their food frozen in the snow for extended periods in the winter. When he returned to the U.S. he developed this idea and launched a line of quick-frozen foods and persuaded retailers to stock them in freezers. He created the frozen food industry. Birdseye subsequently sold his business to General Foods Corporation and made his fortune. He saw a good idea, adapted it to his business environment and implemented it.

Alexander Graham Bell studied the workings of the human ear. He adapted the idea of the eardrum vibrating with sounds into the workings of a metal diaphragm which led to his invention of the telephone.

The motto of the Round Table is adopt, adapt, improve and it is an excellent guideline for implementing new ideas in your business. Taking ideas from other environments and adapting them for use in your situation is one of the best ways of implementing novel solutions. Amar Bhide of the Harvard Business School studied the origin and evolution of new businesses. He found that over 70% of successful start-ups were based on ideas that the founders had adopted from their previous employments. They took a promising idea in a field they understood and made it better.

The person who invented the roll-on deodorant was looking for a new way to apply a liquid. He copied an idea from another field, writing, where the same problem is solved. He adapted the concept of the ballpoint pen to create the roll-on deodorant.

Samuel Morse was the inventor of morse code. He encountered a problem sending signals over long distances on the telegraph – the signal became attenuated and weak. Then one day when he was travelling by stagecoach he noticed how the coach changed horses at relay stations.  He adapted this idea to put in relay stations for telegraphs that boosted the signal.

In 1941 George de Mestral went for a walk with his dog in the Jura mountains in Switzerland. On their return he noticed that many plant burrs were attached to his trousers and to the dog’s coat. They were hard to remove. He examined them under the microscope and saw that they contained tiny hooks that caught in the loops of his clothes and in the dog’s hair. He developed an artificial material to mimic nature and in doing so he invented Velcro.

Putting this creativity technique to work

Tips for finding ideas you can adopt and adapt:

  • Deliberately gather inputs from unrelated settings.
  • Take time out to discuss your problem with people from entirely different backgrounds. If you are a businessman then ask a teacher or a priest or a musician.
  • Read a different magazine, visit a different environment, see a foreign movie, drive a new route home, find some new inspiration in a different source.
  • Place yourself in a different environment and it will help you see concepts and ideas you can adapt. If you visit an Eskimo in his igloo, like Clarence Birdseye, you may come back with an idea as good as the one that built the frozen food industry.
  • Identify analogous situations in other fields and ask how they would be handled.

If you have a problem try to force fit a link with a random event or animal or institution. Then adapt some ideas from that environment. Say your problem is how to motivate a lethargic team and you choose at random the Olympic Games, a tiger and a Ballet school. What sorts of ideas would that trigger? You might offer medals as recognition for top performers. You could keep records of who has achieved the fastest qualified lead or the fastest assembly time and post them on the wall or the extranet in the form of Olympic records. The tiger might suggest face painting as a trick for raising morale or it might suggest hunting – you could have a treasure hunt in the office or organise a ‘hunt for sales’ competition. And so on. The ballet school students practice all their exercises each day before they perform a dance. This might suggest a high-energy group practice session each morning before work proper begins. Ballet dancers practice in front of mirrors – what if we installed systems that gave us feedback to build the team’s motivation?

Alternatively, try to adapt a combination between your organization’s main strength and that of other organizations or people. Say you provide high level training courses and you choose at random a hospital then you might come up with the idea of a consulting accident and emergency clinic where people turn up with their problems and you help diagnose them on the spot. Or you may ponder that many people forget what they learn on training courses. In a hospital patients have ongoing physiotherapy sessions to aid recovery. This idea could be adapted so that you send out “physio trainers” to top up the learning of participants after they have completed their courses. Alternatively, if you think of the Boy Scouts then you might imagine a summer camp for some of your top clients or a “bob a job” campaign where you offer short introductory courses for new clients.

Lateral thinking is about finding new ways to solve problems. It is very likely that the current problem you face at work today has been faced and solved by other people. Maybe they were in your line of business or maybe they confronted a similar problem but in an entirely different walk of life. Why do all the brain work yourself when you can adapt someone else’s idea and make it work for you?

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Unit. His website is

Main image: painting a fresh red wet apple from