One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.” Many cultural historians agree with Edison in that a whole host of new objects and ideas are based on objects and ideas already in existence. Adaptation is a common and inescapable practice in creativity. Even the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was written in defiance of England, was essentially the same as a popular tune sung in English pubs.

To become an expert at adaptation, ask:

  • What else is like this?
  • What other idea does this suggest?
  • Does the past offer a parallel?
  • What could I copy?
  • Whom could I emulate?
  • What idea could I incorporate?
  • What other process could be adapted?
  • What else could be adapted?
  • What different contexts can I put my concept in?
  • What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?
  • What ideas inside my field can I incorporate?

I have a friend who is a chef. One day he and I had a discussion about creative thinking and I brought up the principle of adaptation. A month or so later, I ran into him and he told me that he was getting a patent for his invention of an olive oil dispenser.

It’s easy to overdo the olive oil, both in terms of application and health implications, which is why he said he decided to look around his world for an idea he could adapt to solve his problem. One day he was thinking about his olive oil problem while he played with his ball point pen. He suddenly realized he could adapt an idea from the principle of a ball point pen.

He made an olive oil dispenser from a simple glass vessel topped with a hollow cork stopper that’s sealed with a rolling wooden ball that soaks up the oil and then dispenses it easily and evenly across breads, meats, and other foods. The device makes it easy to spread an even layer of olive oil on meat and bread without any of the mess.


Phillip Reiss, a German, invented a machine that could transmit music in 1861. He was days away from inventing the telephone. Every communication expert in Germany persuaded him there was no market for such a device as the telegraph was good enough. Fifteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell adapted Reiss’s work and invented the telephone and became a multi-millionaire with Germany as his first most enthusiastic customer.


Consider the incredible opportunity that the U.S. Postal Service and UPS both missed by failing to create an “overnight” delivery service. Their entire focus was on using established systems and theories to create the service.  If, for instance, using the established system you want to connect one hundred markets with one another, and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take one hundred times ninety-nine — or 9,900 — direct deliveries. They failed to look for alternative ideas and simply concluded that the cost was prohibitive. There was no way they could make it economically feasible.

It took an individual who looked at the problem in a different way to solve the problem. After a tour of duty with the Marines in Vietnam, Fred Smith returned home in 1971 to find that computers were becoming an indispensable part of doing business and delivery systems were not keeping up with the increased demand for speed and reliability when delivering computer parts.

Fred abstracted the problem from delivery services to one of “movement.” How do things move?

He thought about how information is moved, and how banks move money around the world. Both information systems and banks, he discovered, put all points in a network and connect them through a central hub. He decided to create a delivery system — Federal Express, now known as FedEx — that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do. He realized that a hub-and-spoke network could create an enormous number of connections more efficiently than a point-to-point delivery system. The delivery system he conceived used both airplanes and trucks, which was unheard of at the time. His system was 100 times more efficient than existing systems at the time and was subsequently employed in, of course, all air cargo delivery systems in the airline industry.

GECKO GLOVES. After watching Spider-Man, researchers at the University of Manchester played with the idea of developing adhesives that would help people climb and cling to vertical surfaces. They brainstormed by considering ways that animals, reptiles, insects, and birds attach themselves to plants and trees. They were most intrigued by geckos, which have tiny hairs on the soles of their feet that allow them to climb slick surfaces. The researchers adapted this feature into an adhesive that mimics geckos’ feet, demonstrating the feasibility of self-cleaning, reattachable dry adhesives. These artificial micro-hair adhesives are being developed into gecko gloves, which will enable humans to climb vertical walls as easily as a gecko or Spider-Man.


Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at the Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, thought he knew how to minimize human error. It was, as Dr. Atul Gawande describes it in his provocative new book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” an idea so simple that it seemed downright loopy.

In 2001 Dr. Pronovost borrowed a concept from the aviation industry: a checklist, the kind that pilots use to clear their planes for takeoff. In an experiment Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the I.C.U., infections in patients with central intravenous lines (catheters that deliver medications or fluids directly into a major vein). Central lines can be breeding grounds for pathogens; in the Hopkins I.C.U. at the time, about one line in nine became infected, increasing the likelihood of prolonged illness, further surgery or death.

Dr. Pronovost wrote down the five things that doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid subsequent infection: wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic; cover the patient’s entire body with sterile drapes; wear a mask, hat, sterile gown and gloves; and put a sterile dressing over the insertion site after the line was in. Many of his colleagues thought his idea was a no-brainer. It seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.”

But Dr. Pronovost knew that about one-third of the time doctors were skipping at least one of these critical steps. What would happen if they never skipped any? He gave the five-point checklist to the nurses in the I.C.U. and, with the encouragement of hospital administrators, told them to check off each item when a doctor inserted a central line — and to call out any doctor who was cutting corners. The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

The nurses were strict, the doctors toed the line, and within one year the central line infection rate in the Hopkins I.C.U. had dropped from 11 percent to zero. Two years after the checklist was introduced, Dr. Pronovost calculated, it had prevented 43 infections, avoided 8 I.C.U. deaths and saved the hospital millions of dollars.

Based on this success, Dr. Pronovost and his colleagues wrote up checklists for other situations in the I.C.U., like mechanical ventilation. (Were antacids prescribed to prevent stomach ulcers? Was the bed propped up 30 degrees to keep the windpipe clear of saliva?) The average length of stay in the I.C.U. dropped by half, and 21 fewer I.C.U. patients died than had died the previous year.


A couple of brothers named Jacuzzi, who sold water pumps for farm use, designed a special whirlpool bath as a treatment for their cousin’s arthritis. They did little with this new product until Roy Jacuzzi put the concept in a different context—the luxury bath market—and bathrooms were never the same again. The Jacuzzi sold like crazy across the country, from California to the White House.


Medical doctors working with geneticists have discovered a way to use fire-flies to fight cancer. The gene that activates a firefly’s bioluminescence is inserted into cancer cells, causing them to glow. A photosensitizing agent is added, making the cells produce toxic substances and causes them to self-destruct. This principle is already used in photodynamic therapy, which uses bursts of light to attack tumors. Inserting the light source directly into the cells makes it possible to attack tumors deep in the body without using an outside light source that could damage healthy tissue on the way.


To help his experiments, Thomas Edison designed a laboratory model of a transatlantic cable, in which cheap powdered carbon was used to simulate the electrical resistance of thousands of miles of wires. Alas, the rumble of traffic outdoors, clattering in the machine shop, or even the scientists’ footsteps shook the equipment enough to change the pressure of the connecting wires on the carbon, thus altering its resistance. Since the accuracy of the model depended upon constant resistance in the carbon, Edison finally abandoned this approach. But later, when confronted with the problem of how to improve the transmission of voices over the telephone, he adapted his failed work on variable resistance with the undersea cable to his work on a telephone transmitter. used a funnel-shaped mouthpiece to focus sound waves on a carbon button. The pressure of those vibrations altered the resistance in the circuit in synchrony with the speaker’s voice. In other words, the material that ruined Edison’s underwater-telegraphy experiments is exactly what made his telephone transmitter such a triumph. Indeed, this innovative transmitter rendered Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone practical–so much so that it became the industry standard.




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