Creativity at Work: Innovation Exercise – Borrow & Balance

In the last Creativity at Work: Innovation Exercises post, I shared the practice of using questions related to What’s Broken? What’s Brilliant? as a way to lay the groundwork for innovation (developing a new idea, creation, offering or process that adds value).

Broken & Brilliant types of questions prepare you to come up with ideas that add value by helping you find the gaps (what’s missing) within the space in which you want to innovate.

While you’ll likely begin to come up with innovative ideas just by playing with Broken & Brilliant questions alone, the next exercise – Borrow & Balance – will give you just a little more structure for starting the innovative idea generation process.

Borrow & Balance types of questions work particularly well as a second step toward innovating because:

  • They’re all about making new connections, which is a tried and true cornerstone of creative thinking; and,
  • They point the innovator toward the types of new connections that have been the foundation for countless past innovations – the types of connections that specifically add value.

Borrow & Balance questions explore:

What can I borrow from another industry, field, market, category, etc., and apply to mine?

What can I balance this with that might add a new and valuable dimension to what I’m doing?

What can I Borrow?

On a recent episode of ABC’s Shark Tank, entrepreneurs pitched a new way of protecting digital devices. They had asked themselves, what if we applied the way cars, health and homes are protected to what we’re doing?

By “borrowing” from the insurance industry, they innovated a whole new way for consumers to protect their cell phones, tablets and other digital devices, an idea with the potential to change the digital protection industry completely. The fact that the sharks thought they were out of their minds – that the innovation opened the door to all kinds of problems – doesn’t negate that the idea was developed via borrowing.

Ask yourself: What can I borrow from the _________ industry/category/field, etc? (generate multiple possibilities for filling in that blank, borrowing from spaces that are both similar and vastly different from yours).

Then, in relation to the gaps or missing pieces you uncovered in your Broken & Brilliant exercise, ask yourself: In what industry/category/field, etc., has this missing piece (or challenge) already been solved? AND: What would it look like if I borrowed from that solution?

You can also borrow from things besides industries, categories and fields.

Ask yourself: What can I borrow from the animal or insect world? What can I borrow from color? From the idea of celebrity? From love?

Get even more specific: From the insect world, what can I borrow from ants?

Go further still by examining concepts, objects, ideas, etc., that are extremely related to what you’re working on.

As an example, let’s say you’re a business consultant who provides strategic support to clients and you’re looking to innovate. You might explore those animal categories that have an inherent connection to support, such as Canada Geese, a bird that honks its support to the “team” as it migrates; or Meerkats, an animal that takes turns it turn standing watch for other members of its mob.

In borrowing from other places, you can find new solutions that might add value to what you’re doing and that lead to innovation.

What can I Balance?

Classic examples of balancing for innovation can be found in the culinary category. Chefs ask themselves: What would happen if I balanced the sweetness of chocolate with the spiciness of jalapeno pepper? 

While balancing is not solely game of opposites, balancing with an opposite can be a great place to start.

Ask yourself: What are the qualities or attributes of what I’m working on or what I already have? Then ask: What are the exact opposites of those qualities or attributes?

Once you have your opposites, ask: What would the balance of these two qualities look like?

More examples of balancing for innovation:

Coming up with an innovative concept for a TV show: What would the reality TV show Survivor look like if it were balanced by the real working world? (The Apprentice).

Coming up with an innovative idea for transportation: What would driving look like balanced by a library? (car sharing).

Just as What’s Brilliant? questions are valuable, in part, because they shift your perspective and allow you to find more What’s Broken? answers (thus, more gaps and missing pieces which can be filled by your innovation), What can I Balance? questions, in a big way, simply provide a perspective shift for finding more combinations than you might uncover using What can I Borrow? questions alone.

Which points to the two underlying concepts that are behind everything we’ve discussed so far – and to what are probably the most important tools for enhancing creative thinking and coming up with innovative ideas:

Looking at things from various perspectives and making new connections.

The problem is that just saying I’ve got to look at this differently, or I’ve got to make a new connection, isn’t enough. You have to get specific: What new perspectives? What new connections?

Exercises like Broken & Brilliant and Borrow & Balance provide a concrete starting point for innovating, by giving you specific perspectives to explore and new connections to make.

And, really, this is where your creativity comes in – and why working on enhancing your creativity is actually the most important step toward being able to innovate.

Do you have your own What can I Borrow? What can I Balance? questions or examples that have helped you innovate, or that might help someone else?

I hope you’ll share them in a comment to this post.

To borrowing and balancing for new combinations.

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