How To Create Innovations By Re-purposing Old Ideas

If you look up the Merriam-Webster’s definition, it says that innovation is “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.” However, in a world of continuous technological and ideological advancement, how much is really new? The truth is we are creative beings, but we don’t create alone. While some will try to make the claim of being the sole creator of an innovation, the majority of our ideas are inspired by things and processes already in existence.

This is true of one of history’s most important innovations: Henry Ford’s creation of the assembly line. This innovation has changed countless industries by altering the universal production process and it came from an unlikely source.

How Did Ford Invent The Assembly Line?

Many people may think it was simply a stroke of genius, but the assembly line actually came about through re-purposing: taking something we already know and altering it to create something completely different. Henry Ford designed and executed the very first assembly line while creating his famed Model T, but the idea wasn’t something that he truly came up with on his own.

Ford found his inspiration in the efficiency of Chicago meat-packing houses. The story goes that in watching the production process at one of these plants, he was mesmerized by the efficiency achieved when the meat was being cut down a line, each butcher executing a different cut as the meat continued its journey. Ford realized it could be reverse engineered: he could build his cars by having each employee place a different part on the car as it moved through the factory. Thus the assembly line was created, leading to one of the biggest increases in productivity in industrial history.

In a more recent example of inspiration, Ford used the idea of “simulation” from the aerospace industry to prototype and test new dashboard ideas. In a podcast from December 2009, I interviewed Dave Watson from Ford and Steve Bishop from IDEO where they shared their co-innovation project on theFord Fusion and the inspiration to use digital cockpits in airplanes as an inspiration for the first all digital digital dashboard for cars.

Innovation Isn’t Just “Ford Tough”

Ford isn’t the only example.

Nike was also born through cross-industry innovation, a field in which they remain one of the leaders. How? They look for unlikely solutions to problems, ultimately finding unique innovations.

Nike originated in the 1960s when Oregon’s coach, Bill Bowerman, was trying to design new soles with better grip for his track athletes. He found inspiration for his solution in a plain old waffle iron (he ruined his wife’s when he made the first pair of Nike running shoes!). Nike didn’t stop there: the company has made innovation and reverse engineering part of their company values. One of their top-selling models, Nike Shox, were designed using Formula 1 race cars as inspiration. While some of Nike’s innovation inspirations seem to come from way out in left field, that’s one of the factors that has differentiated them from the rest of their industry for decades.

Learn to Innovate Like Ford and Bowerman

These two great innovators came up with their revolutionary ideas via unlikely sources in industries seemingly unrelated to their own. So the first step is to stop thinking of any other industry as irrelevant to yours. Where there is success, there is something to learn and possibly adapt or some would say – steal!

Make a habit of dissecting notable innovative successes – everything from successful start-ups likeUber and Airbnb to the popular food truck in your neighborhood. What exactly are they doing that works so well? What differentiates them from others in their field?

In order to open yourself up to new concepts you may be able to adapt to your field, do some research on industries you know nothing about. Figure out what is driving those other industries, and identify what intrigues you about them.

And if you ever need some encouragement or inspiration, do some research on top innovators in history and learn how they found their inspiration. Find out how they tinkered, failed and played with their ideas until they reached success.

That’s what repurposing is all about — figuring out what has worked for others and using it in your next innovation.

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