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Mash-ups are an innovation power tool. Most breakthrough innovations are the result of combining concepts or ideas that at first glance would have no relationship with each other. Finding the relationship between concepts often breaks new ground. This article delves deeper into the concept of mashups and how you can work with it to achieve innovation success.

Mashup is slang for the blending of concepts or objects.

Mashups can be done at any scale, from single product to full-scale business model. A mashup can be as simple as combining two foods, like peanut butter and chocolate. Or it can take on something more complex.


In the 1970’s the cult hit movie Rocky Horror Picture Show mashed up two genres: the horror movie and the musical. The movie inspired a whole set of social rituals that extended the movie experience in new and unexpected ways. Back in the 1950’s somebody in America combined the concepts of car culture and movie culture. This resulted in the drive-in movie.

Mashup thinking isn’t new. But it remains important because it’s a proven creative technique. However simple or complex, mashing up two previously uncombined ideas or concepts often leads to entirely new and useful concepts. That’s why it’s an important method for innovators.

Why do mash-ups matter for innovation?

Mash-ups are an innovation power tool. Most breakthrough innovations are the result of combining concepts or ideas that at first glance would have no relationship with each other. (In this respect, the music examples of mashup can be misleading.) Finding the relationship between concepts often breaks new ground.

Here’s an example from the history of technology that shows how mashup thinking drove a truly breakthrough solution.

Michael Michalko in his book Creative Thinkering cites a classic example of a mash-up from scientific history. A teenage farm boy Philo Farnsworth was a budding genius who was well steeped in mechanical theory. A voracious reader, he’d been following the unsuccessful attempts to create the display technology for television. He thought long and hard about the challenge. One day while driving a tractor to till a potato field, as he turned a corner to plow another set of rows, it occurred to him that imagery on a display could be organized like the potato field, that is, in rows. He sketched a drawing and explained his idea to his science teacher at school, and indeed, it was a valid solution that he eventually implemented. In fact, for many years television engineers referred to a screen of scanned imagery as a “field”. Farnsworth mashed-up the concepts of a field and a display screen, and the resulting new concept was the key breakthrough in the development of television.

Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect and Click, delivered a keynote at the 2012 Intersection Event that KILN sponsored which included a great example of an unlikely mashup that has resulted in a popular consumer product, the Burqini. Aheda Zanetti was watching her niece play netball in a Hijab — the very modest, but heavy, clothing that is the standard in many Muslim communities. Aheda blended the concept of a two-piece bathing suit with the burka and hibjab and developed a much lighter weight and flexible garmet that sports loving Muslim women now wear all over the world. (

While Farnsworth and Zanetti solved real problems, other mashups are more fanciful. Take the “seedbom”. Now made by several different companies and sold under different brand names, this concept mashes up flower seeds, conventional compostable plant trays — and the hand-grenade.

But even the fanciful ideas can be real money spinners. In his book, The Opposable Mind, Rotman Business School dean Roger L. Martin tells the story of how the spinpop met the manual toothbrush. For a longer version, click here. Here’s how the story ends: the Spinbrush® becomes America’s favorite electric toothbrush, powered by double A batteries, priced under $10, and generating over $200 million in sales for Proctor & Gamble in a single year.

Why are mashups hard to do?

In the case of Spinbrush, the mashup was facilitated by Proctor & Gamble’s now famous “Connect & Develop” programme. The idea at the heart of Connect & Develop is that large corporations need the creativity of rough upstarts and entrepreneurs. In P&G’s case, the then-CEO A. J. Lafley had the goal of sourcing as many as one-third of the company’s new product ideas from outside.

Behind this kind of approach is the assumption that in-company teams cannot bring the creativity and lateral thinking required by front-end innovation thinking.

We at KILN challenge this assumption. But we recognize that there are some very good reasons why it persists. In terms of mashups, there are three reasons why they are hard to do well.

Against the grain

Blending things that aren’t normally blended is a bit of a mind-bender. Our cultural training has us wanting to change things around the edges, not deliberately colliding it with something completely different. If you’re not used to doing mashups it kind of makes your brain hurt – you don’t want to think in such a seemingly “illogical” way.

Logic’s stranglehold

Analytic intelligence compartmentalizes while mashing up is all about resonance, blending, and connections.

Over the years in the business world we’ve refined our ability to dissect, to break things into the component parts. It’s the model of scientific management. The problem is, if it’s a new idea, a genuinely new, breakthrough idea, the odds are that it only makes sense if you think of it as more than the sum of its parts. Going further, the best new ideas cross exactly the boundaries that analytic intelligence has set up. So we have to be very careful with the kind of logic that says things like: “this concept doesn’t belong in the consumer/B2B/etc. business space.” We need to hold off on analysis while creative thinking takes its time to breakthrough logical compartments and analytical categories.

Intuition is the poor relation

When attempting to make connections between two dis-similar concepts, it’s mentally daunting because you are thinking in unexplored territory. Logic will not help you bridge the gap. Instead, seeing the connections is an intuitive leap. Most managers aren’t trained or comfortable with intuitive thinking. The new connection will be logical, but that will only be realized after the fact.

We don’t deny that these factors are real. However we do know first hand that each of them can be addressed constructively and effectively in company settings.

How do you do mashups?

Creating a climate for mashup creative thinking is about creating a space where in-depth divergent thinking can happen without being condemned by an analytic mindset.

Actually doing mashups involves a process that we at KILN describe in three overlapping processes.

  1. Immersion
  2. Scaffolding
  3. Exploration

Because these are processes not discrete steps, you could think of it as “Breaking the ISE”.


In this process, thinkers are immersed in the problem domain and also in adjacent, apparently unrelated areas. Immersion is the only way to achieve a thorough understanding of the concepts at play across domains.

Immersion is the aspect of fuzzy front-end-of-innovation work sometimes referred to as “ homework”. But the word can be misleading. It’s not just about “book learning”. Rather, direct experience through the senses can be a really valuable dimension of Immersion.


The key to bridging the logic gap and finding connections between two concepts is what psychologists call “scaffolding”. Building a bridge between concepts means first having a thorough understanding of the concepts involved — hence the importance of Immersion. However, scaffolding is what provokes lateral thinking and the blending of concepts that’s core to mashups.

So learning how to scaffold well is key. Asking yourself well-framed, brave, strategic questions related to each concept can “scaffold” your brain towards that intuitive leap.


Kinesthetic experiences stimulate different areas of the brain simultaneously. That’s why creative work calls for whole-brain thinking. Mashups are no exception. Visual exploration techniques like Mind-Mapping can also enhance the mind’s willingness to blend.

So you want better mashups?

This is possible, regardless of the setting in which you work, as long as you’re willing to “break the ISE”.

The lateral leaps that make up mashups aren’t easy to do if you don’t know how or you’ve never practiced. The good news is: practice does improve your mind’s ability to borrow and blend.

Scaffolding is key. If your team doesn’t have someone with the skills to scaffold thinking with stimulus and brave, out-of-the-box questions, bring in a facilitator who does.

Problem framing is a key phase of the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving method, which is practiced widely especially in the USA. Where scaffolding (in the sense we’re describing here) goes one better is this: a vanilla problem statement will give you run-of-the-mill responses. Spice up the problem statement, and suddenly you’ll find your responses range much more widely…pushing your thinking towards breakthrough.

And when it comes to innovation, breakthrough is where you want to be heading. Incremental ideas are easier to generate and gather. But to get to breakthrough ideas, you need to Break the ISE. For more ideas on how to do, so please visit KILN at

By Gregg Fraley, Kate Hammer and Indy Neogy

Borrow and blend: A short history of the term mashup

The term “mashup” emerged in music in the late 1990s. In music, a mashup is a remix, combining two or more tracks from different sources that share some underlying attributes.

For example, Indian novelist Amit Chadhuri has explored the relationship between jazz and blues musical themes and classical Indian ragas, in a project he calls This is Not Fusion. In this project, Chadhuri has been keen to create “a meeting-point… in which musical lineages intersect, and renovate themselves and become altered by this contact.” You can experience a similar intersection in a unique track by the Axis of Awesomeness comedy band. It’s called Four Chords, and it demonstrates how just four chords are combined in so many familiar pop songs. What Four Chords demonstrates is that the mashup isn’t simply a derivative: the combination actually creates something new.

From music the term mashup drifted into the digital arena in the early 2000s. In the world of the web, mashup found a couple of different meanings. So a web application that combines data or functionality from external sources (think: Salesforce) is a mashup enabled by APIs. In web culture, when two kinds of media are blended together, that’s a mashup. So when a map from one source is populated with data from another source, the result is, technically, a mashup.

About the authors

Gregg Fraley is a serial entrepreneur and international expert in creative problem solving. Author of Jack’s Notebook, he advises Fortune 500 corporations and speaks internationally on themes relating to company innovation and commercial creativity. As board member for the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) in the USA from 2003-2007 when he moved to Britain, Gregg trained scores of professionals in Creative Problem Solving (CPS) using the Osborn-Parnes model. He continues this work through KILN, a firm he co-founded in 2010 with….

Kate Hammer PhD is a commercial storyteller. She catalyses innovation in companies of all sizes, stokes people’s courage to attempt what is unfamiliar, and crafts stories that change what people choose. In 2012, culture anthropologist Grant McCracken dubbed Kate an honorary Chief Culture Officer. She is a Fellow of the RSA in London.

Indy Neogy is an expert in culture, both anthropological and organizational. He earned an MBA from Leeds after studying rocket science at MIT. His book When Culture Matters: A 55-Minute Guide to Better Cross Cultural Communication has just been published. Like Kate, Indy also has been named honorary Chief Culture Officer, and is an RSA Fellow.

Photo: Apple and Orange from