April 17, 2024

Hybrid Innovation: The Secret Weapon for Breakthrough Ideas

What do cars and candy bars have in common?  

Some of the best-sellers in each category are hybrids.

It is not a secret that hybrid cars are far surpassing electric cars in terms of sales in today’s market. There are many reasons involving price, efficiency, reliability, and relative familiarity that could be attributed to this difference

Now, journey back to 1981 to a famous commercial whose punchline was: “You got peanut butter in my chocolate.” The commercial features one person, with an open jar of peanut butter, and another with a chocolate bar bumping into each other and inadvertently combining their snacks to form something new. At first, they seem irritated, but when they try the new treat, they rave about what we know as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Watch the original TVC here.

The Unexpected Power of Hybrids

We can talk economics, technology, quality, social influence, or a raft of other reasons attributed to why these two vastly different hybrid models worked. We could also argue whether these things are breakthrough innovations that will fundamentally transform the world. But I invite you down a different track of thinking. 

Consider four things: 

  1. Untapped Market Potential: Hybrid approaches unlock significant opportunities in under-recognized market segments.
  2. Innovation Engine:  Hybrids fuel future breakthroughs by creating a springboard for future breakthroughs through spin-off innovations.
  3. Creative Resource Efficiency: Forget starting from scratch! Combine existing ideas for surprising results and fast-track innovation.
  4. Smoother Innovation Adoption: Hybrids act as a stepping stone, making people comfortable with new ideas and paving the way for groundbreaking innovation.

The Psychology of Innovation: How Our Brains Make Sense of New Things

Hybrids work with people because they leverage an under appreciated theory from cognitive psychology proposed by David Rumelhart and Don Norman called the Modes of Learning Theory (MLT). The theory simply states that when we come across something new, our brains try to relate it to things we already know. This helps us understand the new information better by organizing it in our minds in three different ways:

Three levels:

  • accretion - adding data to what they already know and believe
  • tuning – tweaking what they know, believe, how they think about something
  • restructuring – having to form an entire new structure in the mind to accept and retain the new information, and using this new structure to reinterpret what was already known and believed

Accretion might be likened to incremental innovation. For example, now when we are presented with the option of Reese’s Peanut Butter Pieces, it is not a shock to the system, because we already have the basic concept in our minds about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the convenience of small bites.

Restructuring might be likened to breakthrough innovation and is why Elon Musk advocates using first principle thinking when you really want to do something new. Having no analogies that the new thing fits, first principles in physics and other areas help us go back to basic levels of knowledge and create from there. 

Tuning might be likened to a hybrid innovation. It leverages the value in thinking like a hybrid innovator (and marketer). In hybrid innovation, you are taking two or more different sources that are usually not thought of together, but are somewhat familiar, at least conceptually (e.g., electric motors and internal combustion engines as sources of power) and linking them together in creative, practical ways. 

Not All Innovation Is a Giant Leap

There's a place for small improvements (incremental), mind-blowing inventions (breakthrough), and something in between: hybrids. Hybrids take familiar ideas and combine them in new ways, making them easier for people to accept.

Train your eye to see hybrid potential everywhere.  Imagine fitness trackers with fashion flair, or gamified education. The possibilities are endless!

Hybrid thinking is a win-win. We get excited about the new, but feel comfortable because it builds on what we know. This opens doors for smoother adoption and even paves the way for future breakthroughs.

Ready to become a hybrid innovation champion? Start looking, spark your creativity, and unearth the next big thing!