If we toss seeds on hard packed ground the chances of them taking root and producing healthy plants is minimal. However, if we plough and till the ground (that is, mix it up, break it apart, make it “less” solid and more “loose”) the chances of a variety of seeds (both those we purposely sow and those that serendipitously fall) will find a way to grow in the loose soil.
In the same way, if we start a brainstorming session cold with a serious, uptight facilitator throwing out questions and problems to a stiff, conservative group, the chances of producing healthy ideas is minimal. Following are tips on how to loosen up the group to energize their creative thinking.
SYMBOL. Ask participants to draw a personal symbol that metaphorically symbolizes their view about creativity. It can be anything……..an eagle, a compass, a paint brush, the moon, etc. Then each participant displays his or her symbol and explains how or why it represents their view.
SIX WORD BOOKS. A recent book published by Smith Magazine carried the intriguing title, Not Quite What I was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. This book and similar collections of extremely short prose have been inspired by a six-word novel said to have been written by Ernest Hemingway on a dare. The novel read: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A six word memoir might read “For sale. Chastity belt. Never worn.” “For sale. Wedding ring. Seldom worn.” A six word description of creative thinking could be: “Last night confused. Slept. Morning. Eureka!”, or “At night all thoughts are gray.” Ask each participant to write a six word book that describes their perspective on creativity.
DIFFERENT WORDS. An activity to practice getting rid of preconceptions is to create different names for things. For example, “rainbow” might be named “painted rain.” Have the participants create different names for:
- creative thinking
Next have the participants rename the subject of the meeting with a different name. For example, if the meeting is about office morale, “morale” might be named “a spring flower”, or a “warm hug”, and so on.
As an aside, it’s always a good idea to habitually change the words in your challenge statement several times to get different perspectives. Toyota once posted a sign over their suggestion boxes that read “How can we become more productive?” They got few responses. When the sign was changed to “How can we make our jobs easier?”, they were inundated with ideas.
HEALTH AND HAPPINESS. By thinking and saying positive thoughts about and to others, you gradually can create a positive change not only in the other person, but also in yourself. Psychologists call this restructuring cognitions. An exercise to illustrate this follows. Tell the participants you are going to conduct an experiment.
- Have the participants count off by twos. Ask the One’s, “How many of you are in a positive mood today? How many of you are in a negative mood?” On the board I record these numbers. Ask the Two’s the same questions and again tally the results on the board.
- Next, tell the One’s to follow you out of the room. In the hallway, tell them to hang out for a few minutes, to talk to each other, and that you’ll come back to get them.
- Return to the classroom and say to the Two’s, “I wish you health and happiness”. They usually laugh. I tell them to get up and while shaking the hands of five people in the room and looking them in the eye, say, as earnestly as possible, “I wish you health and happiness.” Usually, they do this with little difficulty, although there is some awkwardness and giggling. Once they finish, have the group all says together, “I wish you health and happiness.”
- Call the One’s back into the room and again tally the positive and negative moods for both groups. It will become clear that the group that wished others health and happiness is now a much more positive, smiling group; whereas, the group in the hall doesn’t change much if at all. The effect of this little exercise is quite remarkable.
CREATIVE COLLAGES. A collage is an assembly of various pictures, either as wholes or fragments, arranged in such a way that each element loses its separate identity as it becomes part of the collage. The collage is greater than, and often different from, the sum of its parts.
When two or more dissimilar images collide in a collage, the imagination transforms them into an altogether new reality transcendent over the separate elements. For example, a picture of seals performing in a marine show next to a picture of a building may become a metaphor for salespeople performing for customers, a user-friendly computer program, or how to perform for a job interview, and so on. The imagination transforms the picture into a symbol for many different things. The guidelines are:
- Cut out several pictures or parts of pictures from magazines, newspapers, catalogs, flyers, and so on.
- Mix and match the pictures by moving them around into different patterns and associations. Play with the pictures until you get a feeling for possible ways to use these patterns. Form patterns and associations without forcing them. Continue until your collage feels complete. Make one large metaphorical picture by assigning a word or phrase to each picture and then completing the sentence, “My subject is a lot like (insert a word or phrase from the montage) because it—-“.
- Think metaphorically and analogically. The R&D staff for a furniture company looked for ways to develop a paint that does not fade, chip, or scratch. They made a collage that included pictures of various trees and plants. The collage triggered a discussion of how trees and plants get their color. Their subsequent research inspired the idea of “everlasting” color. They created the idea of injecting trees with dye additives that impregnates color to the plant cells which spreads the color throughout the tree. The tree is painted before it is cut down.
Another interesting way to collage your subject is to create two separate ones to represent two separate aspects of your subject. Suppose you want to improve corporate communications. You could create one collage to represent upper management and another one to represent employees. With the two sets of visuals, compare the common points and identify the gaps between upper management and the employees.
CROSS BREEDING. Conceptual inertia is the property of your mind that allows you to resist change. Just as physical objects resist changes in state, ideas resist movement from their current state, and change in direction of their movement. Thus, when people try to create new ideas, those ideas tend to resemble old ideas and new ideas do not move much from the old.
Practice to upset conceptual inertia and get a group’s imagination moving with the “bizarre” activity “Cross Breeding”. Encourage the group to wildly experiment by cross-breeding plants, objects, and animals. Have three boxes containing slips of paper with random names of “Plants”, “Objects”, and “Animals”. A variation is to use objects that are business related such as Xerox machine, product, phone, paperwork, desk, meeting room and so on; and people instead of animals. Each participant takes one of each. Then make hybrids out of two of them.
- bird x supervisor
- pony x patient
- customer x door
- watermelon x therapist
- key x plant
- meeting room x ballet dancer
- What does each look like? Draw a picture. Label and post it on a wall.
- What does each do?
- What sound does each make?
- What are the unique strengths of each (at least 3)?
- What are the unique weaknesses of each (at least 3)?
Finally create an idea about the cross breed strengths. One person cross bred a rose with a key. She thought a strength would be the availability of a key flowering in the garden. This made her think of a rose as the key which triggered the thought of “key chain plants”. A key chain plant is a clear plastic micro-mini case where plants grow in their own individual arboretum until they get too large, at which point they can be transplanted into bigger pots.
USE YOUR IMAGINATION. When we compare problems to something unusual, we tend to have a need to understand it. Consequently, we break it down and analyze the different parts to see if this will allow us to understand it or make it somehow familiar. When this happens, we form new links and relationships that may lead to breakthrough ideas. For example, years back, a group of designers were looking for ideas for a new light fixture. They compared a light fixture with a “monkey” and imagined a monkey running around a house with a light. This thought led them to conceive track lighting. Ask metaphoric questions to stimulate the group’s imagination. For example:
- What animal is like the problem? Why?
- A cold, half-eaten pizza is like the solution to the problem because….
- How is your problem like a flash light battery? How can the similarities spark new ideas?
- What famous historical figure comes closest to resembling the essence of the problem?
- What movie comes closest to representing your life? What movie character?
- Suppose your organization has a communications problem. Metaphoric scenario: Astronauts travel to Mars. While visiting Mars, their perception of events becomes different for each, depending on their prior history. They perceive everything differently. A sequence of events can be anything; quick or slow, orderly or random, causal or without cause, salty or sweet and so on. How can they work together in order to return to earth? What can be learned and applied to real life from the metaphoric scenario?
- Suppose your company is thinking about restructuring and reorganizing itself. Metaphoric scenario: A comet hits the earth and permanently wipes out everyone’s long-term memory, except the people in this room. How do we handle this global situation? How do you reorganize the people on earth? What can be learned and applied to real life from the scenario?
(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)