A Creative-Thinking Technique to Use When Looking for Ideas  


ferris wheel

Suppose you are elected to host a singles elimination tennis tournament. You have one hundred and seventeen entrants. What is the minimum number of tennis matches that would have to be arranged for this number of entrants?

When faced with this problem most people draw diagrams showing the actual pairings in each match and the number of byes. Others try to work it out mathematically. In fact the answer is one hundred and sixteen matches and one can work this out at once without any complicated diagrams or math. To work it out, reverse your thinking from the winners of each match to the losers. Since there can only be one winner in a singles elimination tennis tournament, there must be one hundred and sixteen losers. Each loser can only lose once so there must be one hundred and sixteen matches.

The assumption in the tennis problem is to focus on the winners and not the losers. Reversing your thinking leads us to consider the losers instead of the winners and the problem is rapidly solved. Reversing the way you look at things encourages you to consider things that may not be considered at all. During the middle Ages, a number of people in a French village were dying from the Black Plague. They discovered that they had buried some people who were still alive by mistake. Their problem as they framed it was how to make sure they did not bury people who were still alive. One imaginative soul solved the problem by reversing it. He proposed making sure people were dead before they were buried by putting a stake in the coffin lid above the heart. Reversing their problem reversed their viewpoint.

Reversals break your existing patterns of thought and provoke new ones. You take things as they are and then turn them around, inside out, upside down, and back to front to see what happens. In the illustration, Figure A shows two lines of equal length bounded by arrow-like angles. In Figure B, the arrow-like angles are reversed on one of the lines, which changes our perception and creates the illusion of the line being shorter. It’s not shorter, measure it and you will find it is still equal in length. The lines haven’t changed, your perception of them has.


                                            A                                                             B

In figure A the angles outward of the lines seem to open up a potentially limited space. Reversing the angles on the second line in B seems to close off and limit the area, which changes your perception of the length of the lines.

A simple reversal of angles dramatically changes what we see in the illustration. The lines in B are the same length as the lines in A. Prove it to yourself by measuring the lines with a ruler. By changing the angles on one line we have changed the way we perceive the length of the lines in the illustration. The same perceptual changes occur when we reverse our conventional thinking patterns about problems and situations.

When Henry Ford went into the automobile business, the conventional thinking was that you had to “bring people to the work.” He reversed this to “bring the work to the people” and accomplished this by inventing the assembly line. When Al Sloan became CEO of General Motors, the common assumption was that people had to pay for a car before they drove it. He reversed this to you can drive the car before you pay for it and, to accomplish this, he pioneered the idea of installment buying.

Years back, chemists had great difficulty putting a pleasant-tasting coating on aspirin tablets. Dipping tablets led to uneven and lumpy coats. They were stumped until they reversed their thinking. Instead of looking for ways to put something “on” the aspirin, they looked for ways to take something “off” the aspirin. This reversal led to one of the newer techniques for coating pills. The pills are immersed in a liquid which is passed onto a spinning disk. The centrifugal force on the fluid and the pills causes the two to separate, leaving a nice, even coating around the pill.

Physicist and philosopher David Bohm believed geniuses were able to think different thoughts because they could tolerate ambivalence between opposites or two incompatible subjects. Thomas Edison’s breakthrough invention of a practical system of lighting involved wiring his circuits in parallel and of using high-resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by conventional thinkers, in fact were not considered at all because of an assumed incompatibility. Because Edison could tolerate the ambivalence between the two incompatible things, he could see the relationship that led to his breakthrough.

Mathematician-philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once astounded his colleagues by demonstrating that in mathematical argument, every alternative leads to its opposite. You can provoke new ideas by considering the opposite of any subject or action. When bioengineers were looking for ways to improve the tomato, they identified the gene in tomatoes that ripens tomatoes. They thought that if the gene hastens ripening (black arrowhead), maybe they could use the gene to slow down the process by reversing it (white arrowhead). They copied the gene, put it in backwards and now the gene slows down ripening, making vine ripened tomatoes possible in winter.

REVERSING ASSUMPTIONS. Suppose you want to start a new restaurant and are having difficulty coming up with ideas. To initiate ideas, try the following reversals:

  1. List all your assumptions about your subject.

EXAMPLE:  Some common assumptions about restaurants are:

Restaurants have menus, either written, verbal or implied.

Restaurants charge money for food.

Restaurants serve food.

  1. Reverse each assumption. What is its opposite?

EXAMPLE: The assumptions reversed would be:

  1. Restaurants have no menus of any kind
  2. Restaurants give food away for free.
  3. Restaurants do not serve food of any kind.
  4. Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. How can we start a restaurant that has no menu of any kind and still have a viable business?


  1. A restaurant with no menu. IDEA: The chef informs each customer what he bought that day at the meat market, vegetable market and fish market. He asks the customer to select items that appeal and he will create a dish with those items, specifically for that customer.
  2. A restaurant that gives away food. IDEA: An outdoor cafe that charges for time instead of food. Use a time stamp and charge so much for time (minutes) spent. Selected food items and beverages are free or sold at cost.
  3. A restaurant that does not serve food. IDEA: Create a restaurant with a unique decor in an exotic environment and rent the location. People bring their own food and beverages (picnic baskets, etc.) and pay a service charge for the location.
  4. Select one and build it into a realistic idea. In our example, we decide to work with the “restaurant with no menu” reversal. We’ll call the restaurant “The Creative Chef.” The chef will create the dish out of the selected ingredients and name the dish after the customer. Each customer will receive a computer printout of the recipe the chef named after the customer.


Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and frees information to come together in provocative new ways. In San Francisco, there was a tight-knit community of poor artists who would organize or participate in a variety of gallery shows. It was always a lot of fun, but there was a problem. No one bought their art.

It is usual for famous artists to dabble in consumer goods that are more accessible to a wider audience. One of the artists suggested they reverse that formulation to selling consumer goods to draw attention to the art of the unknown artists. They decided, in addition to paintings, their exhibition include wallets. Wallets were selected because they are carried around, not hung on a wall at home. The wallets were all the same (stitched together vinyl and plastic, folding 4 by 4 inches. Each artist printed his or her design on a set of a dozen wallets, which were priced at $20 each and each contained an artist bio card.

It was a tremendous success. They were a media hit. They created a company and expanded their line to include a canvas artist bag modeled on a messenger bag, and again imprinted with designs from the artists. In addition, they were soon approached by various bands and musical groups to create wallets for their various fans. The company is becoming a prestigious destination for nationally-recognized artists and designers who want the company to carry their designs. In line with its original goal the company has helped a variety of artists and designers receive national attention and awards for their art.  ………………………………………………………………………………………………

Read Michael Michalko’s THINKERTOYS for a variety of practical creative-thinking techniques to help you get the ideas you need to improve your business and personal lives.



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