The Magic of Mashups

Feb. 11, 2014
Can you imagine a connection between a gardening weed eater and the heart? It seems ridiculous, yet today, there is a clear link.

By Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

Can you imagine a connection between a gardening weed eater and the heart? It seems ridiculous, yet today, there is a clear link. The weed eater has inspired a new life-saving heart pump. Using the same design as a weed whacker with a motor on one end and an impeller at the other, a miniature computer-controlled heart pump has been designed to help patients waiting on the transplant list. This "mashup" is a life-saving device!

Mashups are considered the caffeine of innovation. This technique, whereby new ideas, products, or processes are created by combining two unlikely concepts, gives a jolt to our thinking process. Today, mashups are being actively revitalized in the corporate world, offering new innovations to help businesses bounce back from recession and achieve breakthroughs. The result of this combinational creativity is often powerful, arresting, and surprising.


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One notable example of a mashup was the innovation of Johannes Gutenberg, who in 1450 combined a wine press and a die/punch to make the printing press. This particular mashup changed history. An example of recent phenomena is Cirque du Soleil, the mashup of two genres: the dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment. The social rituals that the combination inspires extend the circus experience in new and unexpected ways. Steve Jobs implemented yet another mashup by combining fonts and calligraphy in computing, which was just one achievement that helped to catapult him to success.

Interestingly, businesses are seeing the benefits of the creative innovation in both designing their business models and developing singular products. Even in dentistry, mashups can result in breakthrough. A mashup is recognized with clinical personnel in the dental operatory scheduling patients' subsequent appointments vs. the scheduling occurring at the reception desk.

Probably the most successful mashup in recent corporate history is the SpinBrush,1 the breakaway hit toothbrush for the youth market. Since its introduction in October 2000, it has become the nation's best-selling toothbrush, manual or electric. In Procter & Gamble's last fiscal year, it posted more than $200 million in global sales, helping Crest reclaim the title as No. 1 oral-care brand in the U.S., a position it lost to Colgate-Palmolive's Colgate brand in 2000. Over 10 million SpinBrush units have sold worldwide, more than triple the existing 3 million U.S. electric toothbrush markets.

How did Procter & Gamble get to the mashup? It used the analogy: if teenagers like the spin pop candies, why not sell them and their younger siblings toothbrushes using the same technology to make a battery-powered electric toothbrush?

If mashups are so successful, then why are they so hard to do?3 Understandably, it is mentally tiring to attempt to make connections between two unlike concepts, because you are thinking in unexplored territory. Logic won't help to bridge the gap because recognizing any connection is an intuitive leap. Most people aren't trained or comfortable with intuitive thinking, and although in the long run, the new connection will be logical, you won't recognize that until after the fact. Logical thinking is an analytic intelligence. It narrows down possibilities and compartmentalizes ideas while mashing up is all about opening you to possibilities. It blends connections and allows a broadening of ideas that offer a unique resonance.

In addition, few people are good at lateral thinking.2 There is an understanding that creative thinking leads to new ideas, but lateral thinking solves problems through an indirect approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious. An example of lateral thinking is to find the answer to the following statement: Name three consecutive days in English without using the words Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday. At first it seems impossible, but if you think differently in an indirect, lateral way, you can arrive at the answer: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

When trying to do mashups, it feels as if you are swimming upstream. Melding things that are not alike is going against the flow. Your training wants to adjust things at the edges, not to deliberately collide them with different things. Your brain screams when you link peanut butter and mango – it just does not seem the logical way to think.

The corporate and dental worlds are based on science, which emphasizes the logical, linear thinking processes designed to dissect challenges. This management style, although important, is limiting. Breakthrough occurs when you cross the boundaries that analytic intelligence has set up. Mashups require a different discipline, the ability to hold off ensconced analytical thinking and offer time and space for new ideas to breathe.

In order to orchestrate mashups successfully you need to implement:

  • Delving in -- In this process, thinkers learn all that they can about the problem but also learn of other seemingly unrelated aspects. This delving in is the only way to achieve a thorough understanding of the concepts at play across domains. It is similar to "homework," yet not only applies book learning but triggers direct experiential learning through the senses as well. Problem framing is key to determining what factors you need to be immersed in. When framed creatively, you'll find your responses range much more widely, pushing your thinking toward a breakthrough.
  • Scaffolding -- The word "scaffolding" is what psychologists refer to when we bridge the logic gap and find connections that at first glance do not appear to have any link. In order to build the bridge, you first need an understanding of the concepts involved, hence the importance of delving in. Lateral thinking is provoked and the blending of concepts is the result. Asking yourself strategic questions relating to the concept can "scaffold" you toward discerning leaps. Bringing in a facilitator, who can stimulate thinking and ask out-of-the-box questions, is often required.
  • Investigation -- Whole-brain thinking is important for kinesthetic experiences, helping to stimulate different areas of the brain simultaneously. Mashups, brainstorming, and mind-mapping enhance the mind's willingness to blend. Successful mashups employ multiple methods to activate the brain.

When it comes to innovation, breakthrough is where you want to be heading. Incremental ideas are easier to generate and gather. The ideas generated may seem strange and unlikely, but to get to breakthrough, you sometimes need to make a leap of faith. Ingenuity involves risks; however, each of the risks can be addressed constructively and effectively in a team setting. When a team is successful in making the leap to an innovative mashup, the benefits far outweigh the risks, and amazing creations are the result!

Steps for Mashups

1. Create a climate for mashups: Creative thinking is about creating a space where in-depth divergent thinking can happen without being condemned by an analytical mindset.

2. Take lateral leaps: 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 think creatively and laterally.

3. Borrow and blend: Be open to concepts that make you uncomfortable. Use comparisons in selecting which concepts to mash up, but don't be afraid to take risks.

DOROTHY GARLOUGH, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] .


2Webster's New World Dictionary – Nielson, Foster and Scott Ltd. ISBN: 67-31333