How to Breed an Innovative Business Idea — #8 of 31 Proven Skills [Research]

Skill #8: Copy by Observing People

Simply observing what others are engaged in can help us innovate to remove an obstacle that has been preventing us from achieving a goal. Understanding more generally what people are doing in a particular situation opens up other specific applications for the overarching behavior or activity that is discerned. One of these specific applications can become a valuable innovative idea

Innovative Eskimos

In talking about the previous Skill #7, Copying by Observation or Creating through Generation, I argued that the metaphor of climbing a mountain was a helpful way of understanding how we innovate by copying something.

The image above utilizes the mountain metaphor again and tells the following story.

In 1916, a young American scientist and inventor Clarence Birdseye went to Labrador, Canada as a fur trader. He noticed that the Eskimos preserved their food by keeping it frozen in snow for extended periods in the winter. Birdseye pondered more broadly about the capability of snow to freeze and preserve food naturally and this led him to invent a container (a ‘freezer’) that froze and preserved food artificially. When he returned to the USA, he started a business that led to the establishment of the frozen food industry.

In climbing the breeding mountain, Birdseye casually observed what Eskimos did to their food to preserve it and graduated to a more general realization on the mountain top that freezing food is an effective capability for safeguarding fresh victuals. From there, he moved down the other side of the mountain to deciding that this could be done without relying on nature. Copying what he saw people doing in a natural setting propelled him into replicating it very successfully in another, engineered setting. The frozen food industry was the result.

Innovators such as Clarence Birdseye achieved what they did from the simple pastime of observing people. Crucially, innovators perceive something being accomplished in a particular situation — a specific capability — and then recognize that it can work in another situation that has entered their minds. They are using the well-known (but not so well-understood) technique of having ‘ideas by association’.

Having ‘ideas by association’ occurs because typically the mind organizes information into categories. One of these categories can link to something else in such a way that a completely new thought is formed, even though the two thoughts are not necessarily connected to each other.

There are four skills that are grounded upon the phenomenon of having ‘ideas by association’. In addition to Copying by Observing People (which we are studying here), in the following articles I will show that we can also:

· Copy by Observing Things

· Copy by Observing Yourself

· Copy by Observing Best Practice.

Research that I have completed into thousands of innovative business ideas reveals that these four skills are part of 31 personal skills that we can employ to generate such ideas.

Another Example of Copying by Observing People*

Around 1950, an American typist and commercial artist, Bette Nesmith Graham, was frustrated by her inability to erase mistakes made while she was using her electric typewriter. Because she was constantly thinking about this, in due course she began to reflect that artists did not seem to have this problem. They simply painted over mistakes they made on their canvas. By seeking to replicate the capability that the artists employed, Nesmith Graham went on to develop a paper-colored paint-on liquid — the iconic Liquid Paper — which typists use to paint over their mistakes.

The breeding mountain journey Bette Nesmith Graham embarked upon is depicted below.

A Final Proviso …

Along with the three other skills based on Copying by Observation, Copying by Observing People contains a fundamental disadvantage. It relies on a fortuitous experience, a lucky accident if you will. It relies on serendipity. This means that — superficially at least — it is not a skill that is readily controllable.

But there are things that can be done to hone the skill of Copying by Observation. We can prepare our minds to put ourselves in the path of serendipity. We can take a hint from Louis Pasteur who was responsible for many remarkable discoveries in the causes and prevention of diseases. He said: “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”

To ‘prepare our minds’, we must mentally visualize the circumstances surrounding a problem we are trying to resolve. Then, the moment analogous circumstances present themselves, there is a much-improved chance that we will recognize an opportunity to copy from them.


*Thousands of categorized, innovative business ideas can be found at



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