I believe ‘reverse engineering’ is essential for producing creative ideas. The video clip below is a cool visual description of the terminology. This clip is the first 23 seconds of the movie trailer for Pay Check (2003) starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman.
I wrote a couple of blog posts a few years ago on creativity and reverse engineering. Though I have included relevant excerpts from both posts in this post, I would recommend that you click the links for these posts to read the full texts.
The first post titled “Creative Leadership 6” was published in 2010:
King Solomon, in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, said that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything is an adaption of something that has previously existed. Google and Facebook were not the first search engine or social network platform in their industry, but their founders adapted what existed before and then created something better than the rest. Today, both companies dominate their industries. Steve Johnson argued, in his September Wall Street Journal essay, that “big new ideas more often result from recycling and combining old ideas than from eureka moments.” Creative leaders are lifelong learners. They expose themselves to a diverse range of old and new ideas in order to make connections that they can adapt to produce innovative solutions.
The second one was in 2012 and titled “Why stealing is sometimes good”:
The goal of good creative stealing is not to plagiarise what you find interesting or inspiring but to steal the thinking behind it which you can then repurpose in your own style. This is the difference between ripping off something and remixing it. This requires you to take apart (reverse-engineering) the interesting idea, concept or object in order to figure out the thinking behind it as well as identifying how it works. This knowledge helps you come up with ways to take the idea or object forward.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, describes in an essay how he developed his own writing style by reverse engineering the styles of numerous great writers.
Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Oberman…That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way. . . . Perhaps I hear someone cry out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your originality. (“A College Magazine.” Memories and Portraits, 1887)