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Mashups and Metaphors:
The Secret to Successful Ideation

by Peter Bürgi

One of the most common techniques used in ideation activities is the “mashup” asking people to deliberately bring together two unrelated categories of things or topics to help them generate new ideas.

At Sylver Consulting, we use “mashups” frequently in ideation workshops. But we’re sometimes met with outright puzzlement and confusion from participants in these ideations. “You’re asking me to do what?” “How do I do that?” “Why are we doing this?” These are just some of the questions that we have been asked when we start a “mashup” activity.

Well, there are some very good – and very deep – reasons why we do mashups, and why they work so well as a technique for generating new ideas. It all starts with analogies and metaphors…

For some people in the business world, metaphors or analogies are suspect.

These folks usually believe and say that words used should be direct and unambiguous, not evocative, poetic, or indirect. These are people who often distrust or reject metaphors as inappropriate or even misleading, and view analogies as propositions that have just not yet been stated clearly. But there have been many great minds that have insisted that metaphors are at the core of human understanding (Aristotle) or are inescapably embedded in how we talk and think (see for example George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s 1980 book “Metaphors We Live By”).

When analogies and metaphors are used appropriately, they become generative and support cognitive translation.

A famous example of this comes from the work of a Harvard researcher Donald Schön. He was observing a group of product researchers trying to improve the paintbrushes that their company manufactured using synthetic bristles, and Schön had seen firsthand that the group was stuck – unable to come up with new ideas. Or at least they were stuck until one of the researchers made the comment: “You know, a paintbrush is a kind of a pump.” The rest of the group began to explore some new directions based on this statement and ultimately did come up with a new and successful paintbrush.

Schön called the statement a “generative metaphor,” because the aspects of one domain of experience (“pumps”) were carried over and imposed on another domain of experience (“paintbrushes”). Once the product researchers had this new way of looking at paintbrushes, they were able to see the challenges and problem differently. Another way of putting this is that they “re-framed” the issues. And this is fundamentally what metaphors are: they take one set of references (a “source domain”) and they project it onto something else (a “target domain”) to “re-frame” it. Once we break out of the habitual frames of thinking, we can see new options we haven’t seen or noticed before.

So, what about mashups?

Well, it can be helpful to think of a mashup as a forced metaphor – where we are forcing people to see one thing in terms of another, second thing. For example, at Sylver Consulting we recently facilitated an ideation about a new online banking service using the following mashup: “What if we thought about the account opening process as a form of yoga?” When participants began to identify how yoga “simplifies” things and brings clarity, they began to be able to see new ways in which they could simplify the account opening process. Just like the paintbrush researchers, they took the references and attributes of a source domain (“yoga”) and carried them over to a target domain (“process of opening an account”), and in so doing they were able to reframe their problem and discover new solutions.

Ideation is an intrinsic part of the innovation process because innovating requires coming up with new things, services, behaviors, or processes. Mashups are a great technique for ideation work because metaphors and analogies are so central to the way that people create meaning.

Q: “You’re asking me to do what?”
A: “To use a forced metaphor to reframe your problem in a new way.”

Q: “How do I do that?”
A: “By carrying over the references of one domain to another.”

Q: “Why are we doing this?”
A: “To come up with new ideas using a way of thinking that’s at the core of what makes us human.”

Want to learn how to use mashups for your project?

We'd love to have a conversation about your needs.

Additional Reading

To further explore how metaphor and analogy play a role in organizations, here are some starter links to show how deeply they run.

About the Author

Peter Bürgi is an anthropologist with extensive business knowledge. Peter is a project lead experienced in qualitative market and organizational research, design/facilitation of workshops and ideation retreats, and consultation on intercultural and corporate culture issues. His background includes working as Vice President at Research International/TNS and at Beall Research, Inc. He has conducted market research, organizational research, and consulting projects for nearly 25 years on four continents. He is Sylver Consulting's Senior Director.

  • 2022
  • Customer Insight
  • Innovation
  • Design Thinking
  • Methods
  • Workshops

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