Count the “F’s” in the following sentence:
FINISHED FILES ARE THE RE-
SULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIF-
IC STUDY COMBINED WITH
THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.
If you found less than six, you probably ignored the F’s in the word “of.” If so, you are probably thinking, “Of course, it was right before my eyes the whole time.” Ordinarily we do not make the fullest use of our ability to see. We look at a subject and do not see the details. And the details sometime contain the germ of an idea that will lead to a creative breakthrough.
George Westinghouse took the workings of a simple well in his backyard apart and examined the separate parts. Moving from one detail to another led Westinghouse to a multiplication of new perspectives about how substances can be transmitted. He then modified some of the parts and reassembled them into an efficient way to transmit clean, natural gas to homes and industry creating the natural gas industry
Try getting ideas by taking your subject apart by listing the attributes (attributes are characteristics, parts, or dimensions) of your subject. Then focus your attention on each attribute in turn. Think of ways to change or improve each attribute. Suppose you wanted to improve the common screwdriver. You would:
1. List the attributes on a sheet of paper. E.g., some of the attributes of a screwdriver are: (1) round, (2) steel shaft, (3) wooden handle, (4) wedge-shaped tip, (5) manually operated, and (6) operated by a twisting action.
2. For each attribute, ask:
SUBSTITUTE? What can you substitute?
COMBINE? Can you combine this with something?
ADAPT? Can you adapt something from somewhere else?
MAGNIFY? Can you add something?
MODIFY? Change it in some way?
PUT IT TO SOME OTHER USE? Other uses if modified?
ELIMINATE? Take something away?
REARRANGE? Rearrange the components?
REVERSE? Turn it around?
Always ask: “How else can this be accomplished?” and “Why does this have to be this way?”
You might end up with something like a bendable electric screwdriver with a super-flexible shaft which can reach things positioned at odd angles, or you might end up with a screwdriver with a handle with space for both hands to make it easier to power manually.
Listing attributes helps you think beyond your stereotypical notion of things. We usually describe an object by its function which grows out of our experience and observation. But the function of an object is not inherent in the object itself, instead it comes from our association with it. In the same way, listing the attributes of a subject and then focusing on one attribute at a time helps us to break our stereotypical notion of a subject as a continuous whole and to discover relationships that we likely would otherwise miss. For example, suppose we want to improve the revolving door of the kind used in office buildings and department stores. We could list the attributes of a revolving door and then focus on each attribute one at a time. The attributes might be listed as:
has individual compartments
pushing it manually creates the energy to move it
made of glass to see through
one or more people pushing it around at a time
The attribute “pushing it manually creates the energy” inspires one to think of ways to harness all that energy that is being voluntarily created by thousands of people pushing through the door each day. This triggers the idea of modifying the revolving door to make electricity from the force of people pushing it around. Separating the revolving door into attributes broke our stereotypical notion of a revolving door and inspired us to think of energy and of a creative way to use the door to harness it.
To discover more creative thinking techniques read THINKERTOYS: HANDBOOK OF CREATIVE THINKING TECHNIQUES by Michael Michalko