Creative Thinking Habits that Cultivate Genius for Innovation

EDISONThomas Edison was granted 1,093 patents for inventions that ranged from the lightbulb,  typewriter, electric pen, phonograph, motion picture camera and alkaline storage battery—to the talking doll and a concrete house that could be built in one day from a cast-iron mold. When he died in 1931, he left 3500 notebooks which are preserved today in the temperature-controlled vaults of the West Orange Laboratory Archives at the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey.

The notebooks read like a turbulent brainstorm and present a verbal and visual biography of Edison’s mind at work. Spanning most of his six-decade career, the notebooks are yielding fresh clues as to how Edison, who had virtually no formal education, could achieve such an astounding inventive record that is still unrivaled. The notebooks illustrate how Edison conceived his ideas from their earliest inceptions and show in great detail how he developed and implemented them. Following are some of Edison’s creative-thinking strategies:

1. QUANTITY. For starters, Edison believed to discover a good idea you had to generate many ideas. Out of quantity comes quality. He set idea quotas for all his workers. His own quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. It took over 50,000 experiments to invent the alkaline storage cell battery and 9000 to perfect the lightbulb. Edison looked at creativity as simply good, honest, hard work. Genius, he once said, is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. For every brilliant idea he had there was a dud like the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant.

Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses of for the common brick. No doubt, you would come up with some, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six ideas. However, if I asked you to list 40 uses for the brick as fast as you can you would have quite a few in a short period of time.

A specific quota focuses your energy in a competitive way that guarantees fluency and flexibility of thought. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.

Initial ideas are usually poorer in quality than later ideas. Just as water must run from a faucet for a while to be crystal- clear, cool and free of particles, so thought must flow before it becomes creative. Early ideas are usually not true ideas. Exactly why this is so is not known, but one hypothesis is that familiar and safe responses lie closest to the surface of our consciousness and therefore are naturally thought of first. Creative thinking depends on continuing the flow of ideas long enough to purge the common, habitual ones and produce the unusual and imaginative.

A way to guarantee productivity of your creative thought is to give yourself an idea quota. For example, an idea quota of 40 ideas if you’re looking for ideas alone or a quota 120 ideas if a group is brainstorming for ideas. By forcing yourself to come up with 40 ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity.

2. CHALLENGE ALL ASSUMPTIONS. Edison felt his lack of formal education was, in fact, “his blessing.”  This enabled him to approach his work of invention with far fewer assumptions than his more educated competitors, which included many theoretical scientists, renowned Ph.D.s, and engineers. He approached any idea or experience with wild enthusiasm and would try anything out of the ordinary, including even making phonograph needles out of compressed rainforest nuts and clamping his teeth onto a phonograph horn to use as a hearing aid, feeling the sound vibrate through his jaw. This wild enthusiasm inspired him to consistently challenge assumptions.

He felt that in some ways too much education corrupted people by prompting them to make so many assumptions that they were unable to see many of nature’s great possibilities. When Edison created a “system” of practical lighting, he conceived of wiring his circuits in parallel and of using high-resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by scientific experts, in fact, were not considered at all because they were assumed to be totally incompatible until Edison put them together.

Before Edison hired a research assistant, he would invite the candidate over for a bowl of soup. If the person seasoned the soup before tasting it, Edison would not hire the candidate. He did not want people who had so many built-in assumptions into their everyday life, that they would even assume the soup is not properly seasoned. He wanted people who consistently challenged assumptions and tried different things.

An easy way to challenge assumptions is to simply reverse them and try to make the reversal work. The guidelines are:

∙           List your assumptions about a subject.

∙           Challenge your fundamental assumptions by reversing them. Write down the opposite of each assumption.

∙           Ask yourself  how to accomplish each reversal.  List as many useful viewpoints as you can.

Suppose, for example, you want to start a novel restaurant.

1. You would begin by listing the assumptions you make about restaurants. One assumption might be: All restaurants have menus, either written, verbal or implied.

2. Next, you would reverse this to: I will start a restaurant that does not have a menu of any kind.

3. Now, look for ways to make the “reversal” work and list every idea you can. “How can I operate a viable restaurant that does not have a menu?”

4. One idea would be to have the chef come to the table and display what the chef bought that day at the meat market, fish market and vegetable market. The customer checks off the ingredients he or she likes and the chef prepares a special dish based on the “selected” ingredients. The chef also names the dish after the customer and prints out the recipe for the customer to take home. You might call the restaurant “The Creative Chef.”

3. NOTHING IS WASTED. When an experiment failed, Edison would always ask what the failure revealed and would enthusiastically record what he had learned. His notebooks contain pages of material on what he learned from his abortive ideas, including his many experiments on will power (he conducted countless experiments with rubber tubes extended from his forehead trying to will the physical movement of a pendulum). Once when an assistant asked why he continued to persist trying to discover a long-lasting filament for the light bulb after failing thousands of times, Edison explained that he didn’t understand the question. In his mind he hadn’t failed once. Instead, he said he discovered thousands of things that didn’t work. Finally, he completed Patent 251,539 for the light bulb that ensured his fame and fortune.

He had an enormous talent for appropriating ideas that may have failed in one instance and using them for something else. For example, when it became clear in 1900 that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison was financially committed was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend studying the company’s resources and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same equipment, materials and distribution systems of the iron-ore company.

Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every problem worked on in his notebooks. Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison would review his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he’s abandoned in the past in the light of what he’d recently learned. If he was mentally blocked working on a new idea, he would review his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, Edison’s unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable ultimately led to a breakthrough on a telephone transmitter. He took the principle for the unsuccessful undersea telegraph cable— variable resistence— and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller’s voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.

Edison would often jot down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He would also routinely comb a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest and record them in his notebooks. He advised his assistants to make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.

Edison’s lesson is to record your ideas and other novel ideas in a notebook— call it “The Bright Ideas Notebook.”  When confronted with a problem, review your notebook and look for ways to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next.

4. CONSTANTLY IMPROVE YOUR IDEAS AND PRODUCTS AND THE IDEAS AND PRODUCTS OF OTHERS. Contrary to popular belief, Edison did not invent the light bulb: his genius, rather, was to perfect the bulb as a consumer item. Edison also studied all his inventions and ideas as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. To Edison, the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn’t it? Genius usually is.

Einstein believed that every new idea is some addition or modification to something that already exists. You take a subject and manipulate or change it into something else. There are nine principle ways you can manipulate a subject. These ways were first formally suggested by Alex Osborn, the father of brainstorming, and later arranged by Bob Eberle into the mnemonic SCAMPER.

S = Substitute?

C = Combine?

A = Adapt?

M = Magnify? = Modify?

P = Put to other uses?

E = Eliminate?

R = Rearrange? = Reverse?

You isolate the subject you want to think about and ask the checklist of SCAMPER questions to see what new ideas and thoughts emerge. Think about any subject from improving the ordinary paperclip to reorganizing your corporation and apply the “Scamper” checklist of questions. You’ll find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily, as you ask:

Can you substitute something?

Can you combine your subject with something else?

Can you adapt something to your subject?

Can you magnify or add to it?

Can you modify or change it in some fashion?

Can you put it to some other use?

Can you eliminate something from it?

Can you rearrange it?

What happens when you reverse it?

Edison was tireless in his persistence to change a subject into something else through “trial and error” until he found the idea that worked. In Edison’s laboratory there is a staggering display of hundreds of phonograph horns of every shape, size and material. Some are round, square, angular, thin, short, squat while others are curved and as long as six feet tall. This collection of rejected ideas is a visual testament to Edison’s approach to creativity— which was, in essence, to try out every possible design he could possibly conceive of. Once asked to describe the key to creativity, he reportedly said to never quit working on your subject until you get what you’re after.

Finally, if you want to become more creative, start acting like you are creative. Suppose that you wanted to be an artist: You would begin behaving like an artist by painting every day. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you’ll become more of an artist than someone who has never tried. Similarly, to increase your creativity start acting like Thomas Edison. Cultivate the following creative-thinking habits:

  • When looking for ideas, create lots of ideas.
  • Consistently challenge assumptions.
  • Record your ideas and the ideas of others in a notebook.
  • Learn from your failures and the failures of others.
  • Constantly look for ways to improve your ideas and products and the ideas and products of others.

You may not become the next Thomas Edison but you’ll become much more creative than someone who has never tried.


Read Michael Michalko’ Cracking Creativity: Secrets of Creative Genius for more creative thinking habits of creative geniuses.


We Are Taught What to Think not How

Originally posted on Imagineer7's Weblog:

We’ve been educated to process information based upon what has happened in the past, what past thinkers thought, what worked before, and what exists now. Once we think we know how to get the answer, based on what we have been taught, we stop thinking. The Spanish word for “to answer” is “respuesta,” and it has the same etymological root as “responso” (responsatory), the song people sing to the dead. It’s to say: to what has no life, anymore. In other words, when you think you know the answers, based on what has happened in the past, your thinking dies.

We are conditioned to circumvent deliberative and creative thinking wherever possible through rote memorization and robotic learning of formulas and principles. Albert Einstein had an aversion to public education and complained that “he had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for examinations, whether one liked it or not…

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We Are Taught What to Think not How

We’ve been educated to process information based upon what has happened in the past, what past thinkers thought, what worked before, and what exists now. Once we think we know how to get the answer, based on what we have been taught, we stop thinking. The Spanish word for “to answer” is “respuesta,” and it has the same etymological root as “responso” (responsatory), the song people sing to the dead. It’s to say: to what has no life, anymore. In other words, when you think you know the answers, based on what has happened in the past, your thinking dies.

We are conditioned to circumvent deliberative and creative thinking wherever possible through rote memorization and robotic learning of formulas and principles. Albert Einstein had an aversion to public education and complained that “he had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect [upon me] that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.” It is no wonder that Einstein learned to ignore educators and teach himself how to think. (“Autobiographical Notes,” in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Paul Schilpp, ed. (1951), pp. 17-19 © 1951 by the Library of Living Philosophers, Inc.)

Dr. John Gurdon learned that he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work demonstrating that each cell in a body contains the same genes. What is remarkable is that at the age of 15 he ranked last in his Eton year group at biology and was at the bottom in every other science subject. Here is the assessment high school biology teacher, Mr. Gaddum, offered of Gurdon’s work and prospects as reported by science correspondent Nick Collins for The Telegraph in the UK.

“It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory. He prepared stuff has been badly learnt, and several of his test pieces have been torn over; one of such pieces of prepared work scored 2 marks out of a possible 50. His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, and will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time both on his part, and on those who have to teach him.”
After learning of the Nobel prize, Gurdon revealed that the disparaging report card is mounted above his desk at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. It is, he says, the only item he has ever framed. This year’s Nobel Prize is not the first major award Gurdon has won for his scientific work. Gurdon also received a share of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in nuclear reprogramming. Scientists are trying to build on the work of Gurdon to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Educators discourage us from looking for alternatives to prevailing wisdom. When confronted with a problem, we are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.
We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Once when I was a young student, I was asked by my teacher, “What is one-half of thirteen?” I answered six and one half or 6.5. However, I exclaimed there are many different ways to express thirteen and many different to halve something. For example, you can spell thirteen, then halve it (e.g., thir teen). Now half of thirteen becomes four (four letters in each half). Or, you can express it numerically as 13, and now halving 13 gives you 1 and 3. Another way to express a 13 is to express it in Roman numerals as XIII and now halving XIII gives you XI and II, or eleven and two. Consequently one-half of thirteen is now eleven and two. Or you can even take XIII, divide it horizontally in two ( XIII ) and half of thirteen becomes VIII or 8.

My teacher scolded me for being silly and wasting the class’s time by playing games. She said there is only one right answer to the question about thirteen. It is six and one-half or 6.5. All others are wrong. I’ll never forget what she said “When I ask you a question, answer it the way you were taught or say you don’t know. If you want to get a passing grade, stop making stuff up.”

When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives.
Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence.

2     4     6

He would then ask subjects to write other examples of triads that follow the number rule and explain the number rule for the sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “32, 34, 36″ or “50, 52, 54″ and so on– all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5,4,3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

On the other hand, creative thinkers have a vivid awareness of the world around them and when they think, they seek to include rather than exclude alternatives and possibilities. They have a “lantern awareness” that brings the whole environment to the forefront of their attention. So, by the way, do children before they are educated. This kind of awareness is how you feel when you visit a foreign country; you focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar.
To learn how to think creatively, visit Michael Michalko’s website at

Describe your Life in Six Words

ImageErnst Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words. He wrote “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Legend has it that Hemingway called it his best work. Hemingway’s story spawned the six word story popularized by Smith Magazine which celebrates personal storytelling. Editors asked their readers to submit six word memoirs of their life and were mesmerized with the offerings, some of which follow:

“Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.”

“Love me or leave me alone.”

“I still make coffee for two.”

“Hockey is not just for boys.”

“I like big butts, can’t lie.”

“Should never have bought that ring.”

“Ex-wife and contractor now have house.”


Steven Pinker’s six word memoir published in Smith Magazine’s book “Not Quite What I Was Planning” reads: “Struggled with how the mind works.” His memoir inspired me to request my seminar and Think Tank participant’s to voluntarily write six word stories on certain subjects. The results have been humorous and edifying. Following are some of the six word responses describing being involved with innovation.


They asked. I thought. I created.

Ideas; I get them in excess.

Look at it from different perspectives.

How would a child do this?

Successful when ignoring what happened before

Made many mistakes before I succeeded

Followed logic, not intuition, never again

I’m enjoying even this horrific problem

Doing more for less is creativity

In and out of many ideas

Others quit early. I continue looking.

Time to start over again, again

To succeed, learn how to fail.

Work but spend time doing nothing.

I am still not seeing everything.

Approach problems on their own terms.

Many bad before one good idea.

Think about it in a different way.

Always work on the next idea.

Left brain job, work right brain.

The proof is in the pudding.


Here are some six word responses describing creative inspiration.


Last night confused. Slept. Morning. Eureka!

Dancing with ideas of infinite possibilities.

Think, dream, persevere, gain new perspectives.

Ideas have sex in my imagination

Took rocks, pounded them into sculptures.

Find great ideas in what’s discarded.

Connect the unconnected to create ideas.

I am trying in every way.

Waiting quietly for that special thought.

Bring it to a boil, often.

Tombstone won’t say, did not try.

I learned to expect the unexpected.

Learn to color outside the lines.

I’m not afraid of problems anymore.

Learn to be tolerant of ambiguity.

Learn to make the familiar unfamiliar.


What six-word memoir represents your life?



For more information about creative thinking visit Michael Michalko at



In What Ways Might We Formulate a Problem Statement?

questionmark.The initial statement of a problem often reflects a preconceived solution. Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. What if the crippled man who invented the motorized cart had defined his problem as: “How to occupy my time while lying in bed?” rather than “How to get out of bed and move around the house?”

Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “In what ways might we make railroad traffic safer? was the flanged wheel invented.

INVITATIONAL STEM: The formulation of a problem determines the range of choices: the questions you ask determine the answers you receive. To start with, it’s helpful to coin problems in a particular way. Write the problems you want to solve as a definite question. Use the phrase “In what ways might I…?” to start a problem statement. This is sometimes known as the invitational stem and helps keep you from settling on a problem statement that may reflect only one perception of the problem.

For example, in the series of letters below, cross out six letters to make a common word.


If you state the problem as: “How to cross out six letters to form a common word?” you’ll find it difficult to solve. If, instead, you framed it: “In what ways might I cross out six letters to form a common word?” you will likely find yourself inspired to think of many alternative possible solutions, including the solution which is to literally cross out the letters “S,” “I,” “X,” “L,” “E,” “T,” “T,” “ and so on, leaving the word CREATE.

Before you brainstorm any problem, restate the problem at least five to ten times to generate multiple perspectives. The emphasis is not so much on the right problem definition but on alternative problem definitions. Sooner or later, you’ll find one that you are comfortable with. Following are some different ways to look at your problem.

GLOBAL AND SPECIFIC: One can always look at a system from different levels of abstraction. A very fine-grained description of a beach would include every position of every grain of sand. Viewed from a higher vantage point, the details become smeared together, the grains become a smooth expanse of brown. At this level of description, different qualities emerge: the shape of the coastline, the height of the dunes, and so on.

The idea is to look for the appropriate level of abstraction, the best viewpoint from which to gather ideas. In the 1950s, experts believed that the ocean-going freighter was dying. Costs were rising, and it took longer and longer to get merchandise delivered.

The shipping industry experts built faster ships that required less fuel and downsized the crew. Costs still kept going up, but the industry kept focusing its efforts on reducing specific costs related to ships while at sea and doing work.

A ship is capital equipment and the biggest cost for the capital equipment is the cost of not working, because interest has to be paid without income being generated to pay for it. Finally, an outside consultant globalized the challenge to: “In what ways might the shipping industry reduce costs?”

This allowed them to consider all aspects of shipping, including loading and stowing. The innovation that saved the industry was to separate loading from stowing, by doing the loading on land, before the ship is in port. It is much quicker to put on and take off preloaded freight. The answer was the roll-on, roll-off ship and the container ship. Port time has been reduced by three quarters, and with it, congestion and theft. Freighter traffic has increased fivefold in the last thirty years, and costs are down by 60%.

One of the keys to Freud’s genius was his ability to find the appropriate level of abstraction of his problem so that he could operate beyond the usual assumptions and interpretations. To find the appropriate level of abstraction, ask “Why?” four or five times, until you find the level where you’re comfortable.

Suppose your challenge is: “In what ways might I sell more Chevrolet Luminas?”
Step One: Why do you want to sell more Luminas? “Because my car sales are down”
Step Two: Why do you want to sell more cars? “To improve my overall sales.”
Step Three: Why do you want to improve overall sales? “To improve my business.
Step Four: Why do you want to improve your business? “To increase my personal wealth.”
Step Five: Why do you want to improve your personal wealth? “To lead the good life.”

Now you shape your challenge in a variety of ways including:
In what ways might I sell more Luminas?
In what ways might I sell more cars?
In what ways might I improve overall sales?
In what ways might I improve my business?
In what ways might I improve my personal wealth?
In what ways might I lead the good life?

You may choose to stick with the original challenge of selling more Luminas or you may choose a more global challenge of improving your personal wealth. Improving your personal wealth allows your thinking to embrace more opportunities. You could negotiate a higher commission return for each vehicle sold, go into another business, make investments, sell other products and so on.

SEPARATE THE PARTS FROM THE WHOLE. Seeing is one of the most comprehensive operations possible: your vison embraces an infinity of forms and objects, yet it fixes on but one object at a time. Similarly, when Leonardo Da Vinci embraced a subject, he would see the whole but would move from one detail to another seeking the origin or cause of each detail. He believed you gained knowledge by separating the parts from the whole and examining all the relationships and key factors that may influence a given situation.

Professor Kaoru Ishikawa of the University of Tokyo incorporated this strategy in his Ishikawa diagram, which is commonly known as the “fishbone” diagram because of its unique shape. The “fishbone” diagaram is a way to visually organize and examine all the factors that may influence a given situation by identifying all the possible causes that produce an effect. An effect is a desirable or undesirable result produced by a series of causes. In teaching this tool, the Japanese often use as an effect a “perfect plate of rice.” In a typical diagram, minor causes are clustered around four major cause categories. For example, common major cause categories in the manufacturing process might be materials, people, methods, and machinery, and major cause categories in public education might be teachers, methods, environment, students, and policies.

Suppose we want to improve creativity in our organization. Following are guidelines for fishboning the situation:

1. Our effect would be “perfect organizational creativity.”We would write this in the box on the right (the fish’s head). A straight line is drawn to the left to resemble the backbone of the fish.
2. The next step is to brainstorm the major cause categories. What are the major causes that would produce perfect organizational creativity? You can have as many major causes as are warranted. There are typically three to six. We decide that the four major categories for organizational creativity are: people, environment, materials and policies. The major cause categories become the ribs of the fish.
3. Minor causes are then grouped around the major causes as fish bones. E.g., “train to be creative” would be a bone attached to the “People” rib, and “stimulating” would be a bone attached to the “Environment” rib.
4. For each minor cause, ask “How can we make this happen?” and post the response as branches off the bones. E.g., “hire an outside expert to conduct the training” would be a branch off the “train” bone.

[NOTE: Click on diagram]

Fishboning allows you to see the relationships between causes and effects, allows you to consider all the different parts of a situation, and allows you to identify those areas where you need more data or information. It also triggers your subconscious. Ishikawa described the process as one in which you fishbone your problem and let it cook overnight. When you come back to it, you’ll be amazed at the new thoughts and ideas that your subconscious has cooked up.

REPHRASE THE PROBLEM IN YOUR OWN WORDS. Richard Feynman once reviewed his children’s school books. One book began with pictures of a mechanical wind-up dog, a real dog, and a motorcycle, and for each the same question: “What makes it move?” The proposed answer–”Energy makes it move”– enraged him.

That was tautology, he argued–empty definition. Feynman, having made a career of understanding the deep abstractions of energy, said it would be better to begin a science course by taking apart a toy dog, revealing the cleverness of the gears and ratchets. To tell a first-grader that “energy makes it move” would be no more helpful, he said, than saying “God makes it move” or “moveability” makes it move. He proposed teaching students how to rephrase what they learn in their own language without using definitions. For instance, without using the word energy, tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.

Other standard explanations were just as hollow to Feynman. When someone told him that friction makes shoe leather wear out, his response was “Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off.” That is knowledge. To simply say, “It is because of friction,” is sad, because it is empty definition.

Always try to rephrase the problem in your words without using definitions. In another famous Feynman example, he was working with NASA engineers on a serious problem and they kept defining the problem as a “pressure-induced vorticity oscillatory wa-wa or something.” After considerable time and discussion had passed, a confused Feynman finally asked them if they were trying to describe a whistle? To his amazement they were. The problem they were trying to communicate to him exhibited the characteristics of a simple whistle. Once he understood what they were trying to do, he solved it instantly.

CHANGE THE WORDS. For every word a person uses, psychologists say there is a mediating response which provides the meaning of that concept for that individual. Just what the mediating responses are for all words is not known. Many times they may not be responses in the usual sense but all provide meaning of that concept for that individual. When you change the words in your problem statement, you initiate an unobservable process in your mind that may lead to a new thought or idea.

A few years back, Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive. They received few suggestions. They reworded the question to: “How can you make your job easier?” They were inundated with ideas.

A simple change of words or the order of words in a problem statement will stimulate your
imagination by adding new dimensions of meaning. Consider the statement “Two hundred were killed out of six hundred,” as compared to “Four hundred were spared out of six hundred.”

Examine your problem statement, identify the key words, and change them five to ten times to see what results. One of the easiest words to change is the verb. Suppose you want to increase sales. Look at the changing perspectives as the verb is changed in the following:
In what ways might I increase sales?
In what ways might I attract sales?
In what ways might I develop sales?
In what ways might I extend sales?
In what ways might I repeat sales?
In what ways might I keep sales? Magnify sales? Restore sales? Target sales? Inspire sales? Cycle sales? Encourage sales? Grow sales? Copy sales? Complement sales? Acquire sales? Vary sales? Spotlight sales? Motivate sales? Prepare sales? Renew sales? Force sales? Organize sales? And so on.

PLAYING WITH VERBS AND NOUNS. Playing with verbs and nouns encourages you to think of perspectives that you would probably not think of spontaneously. Try changing the nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in your problem statement. For example, a problem might be “How to sell more bottles ?” Changing the verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs makes this into “How to bottle more sales?” Bottling sales now suggests looking for ways to close sales, instead of ways to sell more bottles.

The problem “How to improve customer relations?” becomes “How to customize related improvements?” This new perspective leads one to consider customizing products and services for customers, customizing all relevant aspects of the customer relations department, and so on.

The problem “How to motivate employees?” becomes “How to employ motivated people?”

TRANSPOSE THE WORDS. One of Aristotle’s favorite ways to test a premise was what he called “convertibility.” He felt that if a premise were true than the negative premise should be convertible. For example, if every pleasure is good, some good must be pleasure. Sometimes changing the order of words in a problem statement will create a verbal-conceptual chain that may trigger a different perspective.

In the following illustration, words were arranged in two different series, “A” and “B,” and subjects were asked to solve certain situations. When “skyscraper” was listed first, subjects
tended to come up architectural concepts, and when “prayer” was transposed with “skyscraper” and listed first, it increased the likelihood of a religious direction.


To change the order, transpose the words in your problem. Following are some examples:
In what ways might I get a promotion?
To: In what ways might I promote myself?
In what ways might I advertise my T-shirts?
In what ways might I use my T-shirts to advertise?
In what ways might I learn how to use the Internet?
In what ways might I use the Internet to learn more?

A very simple change in the way something is looked at can have a profound effect. One of the most effective medical discoveries of all time came about when Edward Jenner transposed his problem from why people got small pox to why dairymaids apparently did not. From the discovery that harmless cowpox gave protection against deadly smallpox came vaccination and the end of smallpox as a scourge in the western world.

POSITIVE ACTION STATEMENTS. In the Universe Within, Morton Hunt details experiments conducted by Herbert Clark at Stanford University that demonstrate how thinking positively facilitates and speeds up thinking. In the Figure below, are the statements true or false?

The square is above the plus =

The square is above the plus =

Notice how much longer it takes to reply to the false statement than to the true one. We instinctively assume statements are true. If they are, we do no further thinking and move on. If they are not true, we have to step back and revise our assumption, thus answering more slowly. It takes approximately a half-second or longer to verify denials than affirmations. We are programmed to think more easily about what is than what is not.

Read the following sentences, pausing briefly between them.
Should we allow gays to serve in the military?
Should we not allow gays to serve in the military?

Did you feel your mind slowing down to interpret the second statement? Negatives give us pause and slow down our thinking process. Suppose you misplaced your watch somewhere in your house. If you search for it and keep searching, you will eventually find it. This is a different perspective from “Did I misplace my watch in the house or did I misplace it somewhere else?” The belief that the watch is in the house speeds up your thinking and keeps you focused on your goal. Positive, active statements speed up our thinking and keep us focused on our goal. Try framing your problem statement as a positive action statement. A positive action statement has four parts:

1. THE ACTION. The thing you want to do.
2. THE OBJECT. A thing or person you want to change.
3. THE QUALIFIER. The kind of action change you want.
4. THE END RESULT. The result you expect to follow.

EXAMPLE: In what ways might I package (ACTION) my book (OBJECT) more appealingly (QUALIFIER) so that people will buy more (END RESULT).

This is a convenient way to transform your thoughts into words that will shape the kinds of action you need to take to solve the problem.

Michael Michalko

Change Your Words and Change Your Life

Linguist research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

Joseph Campbell wrote that there is a “curious, extremely interesting term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as “play language,” (asobase kotoba), whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, “I see that you have come to Tokyo,” one would express the observation by saying, “I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo” — the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is a play, a game. He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease.” What a glorious way to approach life. What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally “in play.” “I am playing at being fired from my job.” “My wife is playing being mad at me for not helping her paint the room.” This attitude that “play” language cultivates is the attitude described by Nietzsche as love of one’s fate.

Ralph Summy, who directs the Matsunaga Institute for Peace, is well aware of the influence of language and encourages students to replace violent emotions by replacing violent expressions with nonviolent language. Instead of describing someone as “shooting a hole in an argument,” he suggests, that this person could be described as “unraveling a ball of yarn.” Summy also recommends that the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” be replaced by “to stroke two birds with one hand.” “Dressed to kill,” he adds, might become “dressed to thrill.” Substituting new language, Summy concludes, “arrests people’s attention and paves the way for discussion on a range of peace topics.” His work with language suggests that by paying attention and substituting nonviolent for violent words can change attitudes and make for a kinder dialogue.

You can also use language to prime how an individual thinks. In a pair of studies about the influence of language, researchers at the University of British Columbia had participants play a “dictator game.” The game is simple: you’re offered ten one one-dollar coins and told to take as many as you want and leave the rest for the player in the other room (who is, unbeknown to you, a research confederate). The fair split, of course, is fifth-fifty, but most anonymous “dictators” play selfishly, leaving little or nothing for the other player.

In the control group the vast majority of participants kept everything or nearly everything.
In the experimental condition, the researchers next prompted thoughts of God by using a well-established “priming” technique: participants, who again included both theists and atheists, first had to unscramble sentences containing words such as God, divine, love, and sacred. That way, going into the dictator game again, players had God on their minds without being consciously aware of it. Sure enough, the “God prime” worked like a charm leading to fairer splits. Without the God prime, only a few of the participants split the money evenly, but when primed with the religious, 69 percent did.

The language you use can even change your relationship with animals. We typically regard ourselves as superior to other animals, which we see as lower forms of life. We see them as “its.” “Look a bear. It is looking for food.” In contrast to our relationship to animals, the native American Algonquin and Lakota Sioux regarded the animals as equal to humans, and in many ways superior, as expressed in their language. They addressed all animal life—as “thou,” as objects of reverence: the trout, the buffalo, the snake were all “thou.”

The ego that perceives “thou” is not the same ego that perceives “it.” Whenever you see a dog, cat or bird, silently think the word “Thou.” Try it for a day or so and discover for yourself how a simple word change can dramatically change your perception of all life.

This One has a Story to Tell

Try another exercise that demonstrates the power of words. Write a long story about something that has happened to you. Do not write “I” or “me,” but instead write “this one” or “this body” to represent you, and “that body” or “that person,” to represent other people in the story. For example, “This one remembers a Christmas with other bodies when this one was young that was the most disappointing Christmas of this one’s life.” “This body received no gifts from the other bodies which made this one sad and depressed.”

The words you use will have let you feel you are writing a story about someone else, even though it’s about you. You will feel strange and start thinking thoughts about yourself that you have never thought before.

Language patterns affect our perception, attitude, behavior and how we live our lives. Words convey certain qualities of subjective experience that makes them unique and indispensable in understanding the current psychodynamics out of which an individual is operating. These subtle, yet utterly compelling differences are immediately evident when you apply different verbs to the same content. For example, you ask six people if they believe they can become creative. They each respond differently. Here are the six responses:

• I want to be creative.
• I can be creative.
• I’m able to be creative.
• I should be creative.
• I need to be creative.
• I will be creative.
Which of the six has the best chance of becoming a creative thinker? I think you will agree with me that it is the one who said, “I will be creative.” Just a simple verb change provides a different psychodynamic for each statement that you can feel as you read the statements.
For more information about you can become more creative in your personal and business life read Michael Michalko’s book Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius.

The Main Ingredient in the Recipe for Corporate Innovation Successes

INNOVATIVE WORKER3M’s legendary Dick Drew invented many products, including the ubiquitous masking tape. Stories about him and his incredible creativity and drive are often told at 3M gatherings to inspire new employees. These stories are actually more than stories; they are important ingredients in 3M’s recipe for achieving innovation. Drew is 3M’s personal example of how individual creativity generates corporate accomplishment. Former 3M Chairman and CEO, Lewis Lehr, said, at a creativity awards ceremony, that if Dick Drew had not worked at 3M, 3M might not exist today or, if it did, it would be a lot smaller than it is.

Drew was a consummate risk-taker, constantly pushing to and beyond the edge the envelope. He ignored his boss when he was summarily ordered to quit working on masking tape and get back to work on improving a brand of Wet-or-Dry sandpaper. That Drew ignored management and wasn’t fired, speaks volumes not only about Drew but about 3M’s management philosophy even back then. It tells you that Drew would pursue his belief in the face of any obstacle, and it tells you that 3M’s management genius included an intuitive understanding of the need to let creative talent alone and to gamble on their ideas.

After creating the initial version of masking tape, Drew asked an executive for permission to buy a thirty-seven thousand dollar paper maker. He said it would help improve the masking tape, which has a crepe-like paper backing. The executive, Edgar Ober, told Drew to hold off for a while because finances were tight, and he didn’t feel the paper maker was worth the expenditure. Six months later, Drew took Ober into the laboratory and there was the paper maker, working away productively, turning out a vastly improved backing for the masking tape. Ober was flabbergasted and angry! He asked Drew where the hardware came from. Drew explained that he simply submitted a blizzard of 100 dollar purchase orders over a six-month period of time. The machine was paid for in the small amounts he was authorized to spend on his own. The paper maker helped make masking tape into a phenomenal commercial success for 3M.

Drew also encouraged his own workers to attack their goals as relentlessly as he pursued his own. One day, one of his subordinates went to Drew with an idea he was very excited about. He presented his idea enthusiastically and sat back to wait for Drew’s response. Drew paused thoughtfully and then he replied, “Your idea leaves me colder than a Billy goat in hell.” Before disappointment could set in, however, he told him, “You obviously believe in your idea so strongly that I’ll fire you if you don’t continue to work on it, regardless of what I or anyone else here think.”

Dick Drew’s basic beliefs about creativity were:
• He believed in serendipity, the gift of finding something you’re not looking for.
• He favored the concept of “constructive ignorance.” By that he meant that you only needed to know enough to start something, but not so much that you know it can’t work.
• He intuitively understood that management can’t order creativity. Management can only create the environment where creativity can flourish.

3M once undertook a study of creativity and innovation. The study revealed these facts about innovation:

• Do it now, innovation must be timely, or it won’t get done.
• Keep the process going. Innovation is like riding a bicycle; you’ve got to keep pedaling, or you will coast. And the only way you can coast is downhill.
• Teach innovation. Not everyone will be a Dick Drew, but most people can improve their level of innovation.
• Hire creative people. Look for people who want to do something with their careers rather than merely securing a comfortable job.

The most important conclusion of 3M’s study was simple. Find people like Dick Drew, and figure out how to cultivate them, even though they may appear, at times, to be the weed in the flower garden. 3M has long understood that true innovation is not found in the middle of the status quo. Innovation always starts at the edge where the landscape is uncertain and unstable and rife with risks. But, the edge is also home to the beginning of the future.


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