A. Rich, a famous inventor at GE, describes how he comes up with his new ideas this way: “I put myself in the middle of a problem; try to think like an electron whose course is being plotted or imagine myself as a light beam whose refraction is being measured.” Einstein imagined he was a beam of light hurtling through space, which led him to the theory of relativity.
A teaching colleague of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman at Cornell University once opened Richard’s office door without knocking. He found Feynman rolling around the room on the floor oblivious to his entrance. After he finally got his attention he asked what in hell was he doing? Was he sick? Crazy? Feynman said he was imagining what it would be like to be an “electron.”
Rich, Einstein and Feynman were identifying with some part of their problem and trying to see the challenge from its perspective. You can easily do this yourself by using a personal analogy with your challenges. The personal analogy demands that you lose yourself in the object of the challenge. Wear the problems’ clothes, talk its language, eat its food, sing its songs, and recite its slogan and mottos. Become a kind of blood-hyphen with the object.
The executives of the Polymer Technologies Division of Bausch & Lomb paired off in teams, with one person playing the eyeball and the other playing a rigid gas-permeable contact lens. The basic questions they asked were: “How would I feel if I were an eyeball about a contact lens. . . ?” or “What would an eyeball say to me if our positions were reversed?” or “What would a contact lens say about the way it is used?” The executives playing the eyeball kept asking for a pillow to cushion the hard and insensitive contact lens. The result was a new research effort by Polymer to bond a special space-age cushioning material directly onto the contact lens.
In another example a tiny company that markets wall coverings had the challenge of competing with enormous conglomerates. Fortunately for this tiny company, innovation is one of the few precious resources that can’t be bought. The CEO kept asking himself, “What would wall coverings say to me if they could talk?” “What would their concerns be?” “What would they worry about?” “How would I feel if I were a wall covering?” He asked himself these questions every day and was finally able to imagine himself as a wall covering. One concern he imagined wall coverings would have is the fear of fire. Wall coverings are often made of vinyl, polypropylene, and other fabrics that are highly toxic when burned. The giant wall covering companies were all selling these potentially dangerous products.
The tiny company developed its own nontoxic, fire-resistant fiberglass material. This company then sent flyers to distributors, architects, and others who choose or buy wall coverings. The flyers detailed the high toxicity of the giants’ vinyl and polypropylene wall coverings and emphasized the danger of litigation. In the event of fire, the victims or their estate could file a class action suit naming the property owner, the architect or engineer who specified the dangerous wall covering, the distributor, and the maker. Suddenly the tiny company was getting orders from nursing homes, hotels, casinos, prisons, hospitals, schools, and major hotel chains. The giant companies were rocked to their heels. The distributors and designers they’d done business with for years were questioning their products and moved their business to the safe little company.
WHAT WOULD SLIME MOLD SAY ABOUT THE POLITICS OF SCIENCE?
One of my favorite examples of the influence of the personal analogy is how biologist Evelyn Fox Keller, imagining herself as slime mold challenged the biological dogma for cell processes. In times of plenty, slime mold lives as an individual single-celled organism but, when food supplies are exhausted; it regroups…and traffics back and forth both between the one and the many. Imagining herself shrunk to cell size gave her a different way to think about how slime mold regroups and also a way for her to think about the politics of science.
At one time biologists argued that slime mold was triggered to change from a unicellular to a multicellular organism by a signal from “founder cells.” But Keller disagreed, suggesting instead that changes in the slime mold were to do with the dynamics of the cell population as a whole: there was no single command-and-control centre in charge of the process. Biologists resisted, but eventually the more dynamic view of slime mold became the dominant view.
Keller also came to see her work with slime mold as illustrative of how biology rejects theories that challenge the dogma of centralized causal factors. As Keller argues, scientists are not open to the discrepancies between their own predispositions and the range of possibilities inherent in natural phenomena. In short, we risk imposing on nature the very stories we like to hear. Those stories, Keller suggests, are often the most reassuring ones and those that confirm us in comfortable ways of thinking about causality in biology.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT Suppose you own an outdoor advertising business and are looking for creative new ways to advertise. Imagine that you are an outdoor billboard. What would you feel? What would your problems be? How would you advertise your products?
For example, if I were a billboard, I would like to talk to the passing motorists about my products; I would like a chance to sell them my products in person. This prompts an idea. Display a provocative back view of a male or female model with a phone number to call. Callers would find themselves listening to real or taped sales presentations from the sexy models, extolling the virtues of the product and implying that the model could be found on a certain beach using the product.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.