A guy walks into a bar with jumper cables. The bartender says, “You can have a drink, but you better not start anything.”
When do most people laugh at a joke? When they hear the punch line, of course. That’s when the joke makes sense – at the end. There’s no context to laugh at the start of the joke. But once we hear it, our minds work backward to make sense of it, and we laugh, or, in some cases, groan.
Humor is caused by the sudden collision of two previously unrelated themes. Innovation works in the same way. When two unrelated themes suddenly collide, you have the potential makings of an innovation. This theoretical concept remains abstract until our minds work backward to make sense of it. Only then do we see the concept’s value and the problem it solves. Edward de Bono describes this phenomenon in his book Think! Before It's Too Late when he states, "All creative ideas will be logical in hindsight."
Why does this matter? Successfully innovative individuals must be able to automate their thinking in two ways. First, they need to be able to come up with these abstract configurations in a systematic, repeatable way. Methods based on patterns can help channel your mind and regulate the way you create combinations.
Second, they must be able to see logic in hindsight. Both are skills that can be learned, strengthened and perfected when practiced over time so that they can innovate on demand.
Here’s an example. Suppose you want to create something innovative about a refrigerator. To start the exercise, imagine the refrigerator in a different configuration than what you’re used to. Let’s imagine there’s an extra door on the side of the refrigerator. Sounds weird? Well, if we force ourselves to ask what would be the benefit, we might see a useful innovation. For example, a side door could make it easier to get stuff from the back of the fridge. It might make it easier to clean. Or, perhaps it could make it easier to load groceries inside. In hindsight, it seems obvious.
Contrary to common belief, creativity does not rely on random brainstorming, consumer insights or even one individual’s superior cognitive abilities. Instead, use thinking tools to create abstract combinations. Then, all you need to do then is see the value, in hindsight, just as you do with a good joke.
A lady sits down on a train. A man sitting next to her says, “Lady, that is the ugliest baby I have ever seen!”
The woman, horrified, stands up and shouts, “Conductor, this man has insulted me.”
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” the conductor replies. “I will deal with him later, but for now, please come with me. We’ll give you a nice seat in the first-class carriage — and a banana for your monkey.”
Drew Boyd is a 30-year industry veteran. He spent 17 years at Johnson & Johnson in marketing, mergers and acquisitions, and international development. Today, he trains, consults and speaks widely in the fields of innovation, persuasion and social media. He is the executive director of the Master of Science in Marketing Program and assistant professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. Drew’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Industry Week, Psychology Today and Strategy+Business. Visit his blog, Inside the Box Innovation.Drew is part of The Opener, an exclusive, invite-only contributor network that will bring the best food, culture, and innovation writing to the pages of