Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category




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?”

Leonardo Da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by approaching the problem on its own terms. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Da Vinci discovered that genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken.


By now most everyone has been challenged with the nine dot puzzle. If this is the first time you have seen it, spend a few minutes solving it before you read further. The challenge is to draw no more than four straight lines which will cross through all nine dots without lifting your hand from the paper.

nine dot














The first time a person tries to solve this puzzle they are stymied. This is because of our perception of the arrangement of the dots as a box or square. Once perceived as a box, most people will not exceed the imaginary boundaries of the imaginary box and are unable to solve the puzzle.

There is nothing in the challenge statement that defines the arrangement as a box and nothing demands the line must be drawn within the box, but people who make that assumption find the puzzle impossible.  The answer, as I’m sure you all now know by now, involves drawing a line that go beyond the limitations of the imagined box.  This is where the cliché “Think out of the box” comes from. To solve it, you have to start the line outside of the imaginary box.


The nine-dot puzzle was popularized by William North Jayme, a direct-mail copywriter who was hired by Esquire magazine in 1958 which wanted to abandon its unwholesome image for a more sophisticated one. Mr. Jayme came up with the ”puzzle letter”: an envelope with nine dots on it and a challenge to the recipient to connect them using no more than four uninterrupted lines. The enclosed letter showed that to do so, one had to go outside the box. Or, in other words, you had to break normal thinking patterns, something that the new Esquire said it could help modern men do. The letter was a phenomenal success, Esquire’s image was changed overnight and the subscriptions poured in.

Over time the puzzle became synonymous with creative thinking and the phrase “thinking outside the box” has now become a cliché for creativity. A cliché because the puzzle has become commonplace and most people remember the solution from their past experience with it. When the brain recognizes the pattern and we solve the problem it seems like a new insight has been sparked.

However when asked to search for other ways to solve the puzzle, the rationalizations begin. We think “If I can’t see it right away, it either isn’t there or not worth finding.” Apparently, if we think “outside the box” once, we are done and our thinking is done. Surrendering to this rationalization limits our thinking, our creativity, and our ability to apply ideas and skills to novel situations.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE AVERAGE PERSON AND THE CREATIVE GENIUS. Albert Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles. With creative thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can.

Most of us have been educated to think exclusively which means we think in deficit by focusing our attention on specific information and excluding all else.  In these instances, exclusive thinking leads us to neglect potentially important pieces of the puzzle. Exclusive thinking doesn’t merely inhibit irrelevant facts and perceptions it can also smother the imagination.

Creative thinking is inclusive thinking. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches, and you look for different ways to look at the problem. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one.

THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER. To begin with, the original “Think Outside the Box” solution was just one way to solve the puzzle. Reality is ambiguous. Aristotle said it is either (A) or (not-A). It cannot be both. The sky is either blue or not blue. This is black and white thinking as the sky is a billion different shades of blue. A beam of light is either a wave or not a wave (A or not-A). Physicists discovered that light can be either a wave or particle depending on the viewpoint of the observer. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. When trying to get ideas, do not censor or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select. The world is not black or white. It is grey.

Experimental psychologists like to tell a story about a professor who investigated the ability of chimpanzees to solve problems. A banana was suspended from the center of the ceiling, at a height that the chimp could not reach by jumping. The room was bare of all objects except several packing crates placed around the room at random. The test was to see whether you could teach the chimp to stack the crates and make them into steps to reach the banana.

The chimp sat quietly in a corner, watching the psychologist arrange the crates into steps and then distributed them randomly again. The chimp understood and performed the task. The professor invited his associates to watch the chimp conceptualize and build the steps to the banana. The chimp waited patiently until the professor crossed the middle of the room. When he was directly below the fruit, the chimp suddenly jumped on his shoulder, then leaped into the air and grabbed the banana.

Though the chimp had learned how to build steps out of boxes, when another more direct easier alternative presented itself the chimp did not hesitate. The chimp learned how to solve the problem but instinctively kept an open mind to other more effective solutions. In other words, building steps was just one of many ways to reach the banana. Humans, on the other hand, once we learn something or are taught to do something a particular way by someone in authority (teacher, boss, etc.), seem to keep repeating the one method we know — excluding all else from our thought.


APPROACH THE PROBLEM ON ITS OWN TERMS. Approaching the puzzle and framing it with this wording “In what ways might I connect all nine dots with a continuous line without lifting my hand from the paper?” The phrase (“In what ways might I ….?”) is commonly used as an invitational stem by creative thinkers to shape their conscious and subconscious minds to actively search for alternatives.

Looking at the puzzle from this perspective gets you thinking about the number of lines, the lengths of the lines, the width of the lines, the box of dots, the size of the box and positions of the dots.

For instance, there is no requirement that you must use four consecutive straight lines. The puzzle states no more than four straight lines. Why not three, two or even one line? When linking things such as dots we are used to linking the centers and our first attempts are to draw lines through the centers of the dots. This is another false assumption based on past experiences. After a period of trials and errors we discover we can link the dots by having the line just touch the dots as illustrated.


GET RID OF THE BOX. Now, let’s look at from the perspective of the way the dots are arranged. There is nothing that prohibits us from rearranging the dots, so another solution is to cut out the dots and tape them into one straight row and draw one line straight through.


WHAT IS THE ESSENCE?  Over time we have cultivated an attitude which puts the major emphasis on separating human experience into different domains and universes. We’ve been tacitly taught that perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate parts followed by the activity of attaching standard labels to the parts. For example, in our nine-dot puzzle we tend to think of pre-established categories such as “dots must be in a box, the line must go through the center of the dots, there must be four lines, the line must be made with a pencil or pen, the size of the dots cannot be changed, the paper cannot be changed in any way, and so on.” This kind of thinking is exclusive. Its goal is to separate and exclude elements from thought based upon what exists now. The goal of exclusive thinking is to limit possibilities to the obvious. It discourages creative thought.

Creative thinkers are inclusive thinkers which means they think in terms of essences and principles. They then look in other domains for examples of these essences and then try to make metaphorical-analogical connections between their subject and something dissimilar. The essence of this problem is “connecting.” This motivates creative thinkers to look in other domains to see how things are connected. How does an artist connect different shapes? How does a painter connect unpainted boards? How wide can you make a connection? How long? What instruments can be used to connect things? What substances can be used lines?

Most people assume you must use a pencil or pen and draw a normal-sized line because of their past experiences. But there is nothing in the challenge statement that prohibits the person from using an alternative instrument and substance.  In the domain of house painting the painting connects unpainted boards with paint. One solution is to use a wide paint brush, dip it in paint and connect all nine dots with one straight continuous wide swipe of paint. You have now connected all nine dots with one line.

PAINT BRUSH SOLUTION                                                  

IMAGINATION.  Creative thinkers consider imagination to be more important than knowledge. One way a creative thinker would approach the problem is to ask “What is impossible to do with a line, but if it were possible would change the nature of the problem forever?”

There is no limit on how long you can draw a straight line. So, another solution is to imagine drawing the line around the world three times intersecting and linking up all nine dots.


This, of course, is impossible to do.  But it is not impossible to imagine. Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and a fantasy imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time. Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible. In the nine dot puzzle we take the impossible solution of going around the world three times and imaginer this idea into a solution that is realistic and practical as illustrated.

Imagineering  means you take an impossible or fantastical idea and engineer it into something realistic and feasible. How can I make this happen? What are the features and aspects of the idea? Can I build ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible?

In this case, we take the principle of going around the world and create a mini-world by rolling the paper up into a cylinder and then rotating a pencil around it connecting all nine dots.


An alternative solution is to place the paper with the dots on the center of a turntable and replace the needle at the tip of the recording arm with a tiny pen. Turn on the turntable and the pen will draw a line through all nine dots.


TAKE IT APART. The average person has been inculcated with a functional fixedness mindset, which is a movement in psychology that emphasizes holistic processing where the whole is seen as being separate from the sum of its parts. Functional fixedness can be defined as mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem. This block then limits that ability of an individual to use the components given to them to make a specific item, as they cannot move past the original intention of the object.

When creative thinkers embrace a subject, they see the whole but would move from one detail to another and examine each separately. By mentally taking the subject apart they are able to break out of his stereotypical notion of a subject as a continuous whole and to discover new relationships and ways to use the items that are available to them at the givens.

The dots and the paper that dots are drawn on are two of the major components of the puzzle. Paper can be rearranged into new forms by folding. Taking the puzzle apart by folding the paper as shown below enables you to discover new relationships between the dots and ways to fold the paper until the dots are arranged in a row. Now simply draw a straight line through the dots.


Once observed and accepted, thoughts become loose and move freely around in your mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you set in random motion combining and recombining into different combinations and associations. These thoughts breed intuitive guesses and hunches. Previous solutions of rearranging the dots into one straight line sparks the idea of cutting out the dots, arranging them in a stack and then punching a pencil through the center of the dots linking all nine dots.


The more ideas you generate, the more connections you make. These connections and their associated ideas often spark new ideas and new questions. The creative mind synthesizes all that is created and goes beyond them to create more creative products. For example, the above idea of stabbing a pencil through the cut our dots triggers another idea. That is to rumple up the puzzle into a small wad of paper and punch a pencil through the wad. You may have to do this several times, but probability being what it is sooner or later, you will punch the pencil through the dots linking them together.


In genius, there is a patience for the odd and the unusual avenues of thought. This intellectual tolerance for the unpredictable allows geniuses to bring side by side what others had never sought to connect. Think of how Albert Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by fantasizing about people going to the center of time in order to freeze their lovers or their children in century-long embraces. This space he imagined is clearly reminiscent of a black hole, where, theoretically, gravity would stop time. Einstein also fantasized about a woman’s heart leaping and falling in love two weeks before she has met the man she loves, which lead him to the understanding of acausality, a feature of quantum mechanics. A caricature of special relativity (the relativistic idea that people in motion appear to age more slowly) is based on his fantasy of a world in which all the houses and offices are on wheels, constantly zooming around the streets (with advance collision-avoidance systems).

Even the “Many worlds” interpretation which is espoused by some physicists, including Stephen Hawkins is based on Einstein’s fantasy of a world where time has three dimensions, instead of one, where every moment branches into three futures. Einstein summarized value of using your imagination to fantasize best when he said “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

In genius, there is a patience for the odd and the unusual avenues of thought. This intellectual tolerance for the unpredictable allows geniuses to bring side by side what others had never sought to connect. An unusual and imaginative solution is to widen the dots with a pencil so that each dot touches the adjacent dots?  Now the nine dots are linked together with no lines.


The playful openness of creative geniuses is what allows them to explore unthinkable ideas. Once Wolfgang Pauli, the discoverer of electron spin, was presenting a new theory of elementary particles before a professional audience. An extended discussion followed. Niels Bohr summarized it for Pauli’s benefit by saying that everyone had agreed his theory was crazy. The question that divided them, he claimed, was whether it was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. Bohr said his own feeling was that it wasn’t crazy enough.

Logic hides in Bohr’s illogic. In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. The result of unpredictable thinking may be just what is needed to shift the context and lead to a new perspective.

Another unusual solution is to light a match and burn the paper with the puzzle into a pile of ashes. Then carefully form the ashes into one straight line.

MATCH Within a short time, we came up with a quantity of solutions because we approached the problem on its own terms, looked at the problem from several different perspectives, did not settle for the first good idea, did not censor ideas because they looked silly or stupid and consequently created several ideas, thought unconventionally, changed the way we looked at the puzzle, worked with the essence of the problem, thought discontinuously and used our imagination.


Creative thinking expert and author, Michael Michalko






horses or woman

  It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, only a few patterns dominate your thinking. These patterns produce predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and combine your subject with something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. 

Try an experiment. Pick eight random words (or use the following words) and give the list to someone or to a small group (for example: flower pot, baby, glass, grasshopper, coffee pot, box, toast and garage). Ask them to divide the words into two groups without giving them any rationale for the division. You’ll discover that people will come up with some very creative classifications. They’ll group them according to “words with the letter,” “things that touch water,” “objects made in factories,” and so on. No one ever says there is no connection, they invent them. 

Though we seldom think about it, making random connections in such a manner are conceptual creative acts. Making random connections were popular techniques used by Jackson Pollock and other Surrealist artists to create conceptual combinations in art. Artists in a group would take turns, each contributing any word that occurred to them in a “sentence” without seeing what the others had written. The resulting sentence would eventually become a combination of concepts that they would study and interpret hoping to get a novel insight or a glimpse of some deeper meaning. The technique is named “The Exquisite Corpse” after a sentence which happened to contain those words. 


Have the group bounce ideas and thoughts about the subject off each other for five to ten minutes. 

  • Then, ask the participants to think about what was discussed and silently write one word that occurs to them on a card.
  • Collect the cards have the group combine the words into a sentence (words can be added by the group to help the sentence make sense).
  • Then invite the group to study the final sentence and build an idea or ideas from it. 

An Alzheimer’s organization planned to have an auction to raise money for their cause. They planned an elaborate, sophisticated evening and looked for unusual items they could auction. They tried the “exquisite corpse” technique. Some of the words they came up with were people, cruises, creative, furniture, charity, designer, custom, art, thin air, and celebrities. One of the connections was: create—-art—-thin air. 

This triggered their idea which was the sensation of the auction. They sold an idea for an artwork that doesn’t exist. They talked a well-known conceptual artist into describing an idea for an artwork. The idea was placed in an envelope and auctioned off for $5,000. Legal ownership was indicated by a typed certificate, which specified that the artwork (10, 0000 lines, each ten inches long, covering a wall) be drawn with black and red pencils. The artist and the owner will have one meeting where the artist will describe his vision for the painting with the owner. The owner has the right to reproduce this piece as many times as he likes.




What Flies and Bees Can Teach Us About Problem Solving?



If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, until they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover an issue through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the neck on the opposite side.

Scientists believe that it is the bees’ knowledge of light; it is their very intelligence that is their undoing in this experiment. They evidently imagine that the escape from every prison must be there when the light shines clearest; and they act in accordance, and persist in what seems to be a logical action. To them glass is a supernatural mystery they never have met in nature; they have had no experience of this suddenly impenetrable atmosphere; and the greater their intelligence, the more inadmissible, more incomprehensible, will the strange obstacle appear and the greater will be their persistence to penetrate the bottom of the bottle.

Whereas the feather-brained flies, careless of logic, disregarding the call of the light, flutter wildly, hither and thither, hitting the bottom and walls of the glass through trial and error until they find the opening to freedom. It is by pursuing every imaginable alternative do the flies escape while the bees perish because they believe the light is the only way out because, after all, generations of bees were successful following the light. Here the good fortune that often waits on the simple, who find salvation where the wiser will perish because they feel there is only the one way they know.

The bees in the experiment remind me of the paradox of expertise. It seems that the more expert one becomes in an area of specialization, the less creative and innovative that person becomes. The paradox is that people who know more, see less; and the people who know less, see more. Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs attempted without success to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. As Steve recounts, “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary; we’ll come work for you.’ And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. Go to college and then come back and apply for a job.”

What is it that freezes the expert’s thought and makes it difficult to consider new things that deviate from their theories? Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes. Pierrre Pachet a renowned physiology professor and expert declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”

It seems that if an expert experiences any strain in imagining a possibility, they quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the expert. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years. Think, for a moment, about Philo Farnsworth who invented television when he was twelve years old while he was working on his father’s farm.

Imagine 12 year old Philo Farnsworth tilling a potato field back and forth with a horse-drawn harrow in Rigby, Idaho while at the same time thinking about what his chemistry teacher taught him about the electron and electricity. Philo conceptually blended tilling a potato field with the attributes of electronic beams and realized that an electron beam could scan images the same way farmers till a field, row by row or read a book, line by line. Amazingly, this was 1921 and a 12 year-old Farnsworth conceived the idea of television.

We are educated to think reproductively like the bees in the experiment. Whenever we are confronted with a problem, we fixate on something in our past that has worked before and we apply it to the problem. If it does not work, we conclude it’s not possible to solve. The flies resemble productive thinkers as they fly hither and thither exploring every possibility and through trial and error find the way to safety. The lesson to us is to always approach a problem on its own terms and to consider all alternatives including the least obvious ones.

Michael Michalko creativity expert and author of books on creative thinking.







How to Find What You’re Not Looking for


Frog or horse?

Be prepared for the chance or accidental discovery when brainstorming for ideas.

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order.

Even when people set out to act purposefully and rationally to do something, they wind up doing things they did not intend. John Wesley Hyatt, an Albany printer and mechanic, worked long and hard trying to find a substitute for billiard-ball ivory, then coming into short supply. He invented, instead, celluloid— the first commercially successful plastic.

B.F. Skinner advised people that when you are working on something and find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. In fact, he emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of “creative failure methodology.”

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate physicist, had an interesting practical test that he applied when reaching a judgment about a new idea: for example, did it explain something unrelated to the original problem. E.g., “What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain?”and, “What did you discover that you didn’t set out to discover?” In 1938, 27 year old Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this “unexpected” material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, “Teflon.”

In principle, the unexpected event that gives rise to a creative invention is not all that different from the unexpected automobile breakdown that forces us to spend a night in a new and interesting town, the book sent to us in error that excites our imagination, or the closed restaurant that forces us to explore a different cuisine. But when looking for ideas or creative solutions, many of us ignore the unexpected and, consequently, loose the opportunity to turn chance into a creative opportunity.

Years back, 3M invented a new adhesive for industry. No industry was interested and management ordered an engineer to burn the samples. The engineer, instead, thought the adhesive had “interesting” aspects and took some samples home. He observed his teenage daughters setting their hair with it and using the adhesive in various other ways around the home. He went to management and convinced them that what they had was a consumer product, not an industrial one. 3M manufactured and marketed it as Scotch Tape.

You have to give yourself the freedom to see what you are not looking for. In 1839, Charles Goodyear was looking for a way to make rubber easier to work and accidentally spilled a mixture that hardened but was still useable. By allowing himself to go in an unanticipated direction, he invented a practical vulcanization process. By focusing on the “interesting” aspects of the idea, he discovered it’s potential.
PMI. To explore a subject with our intellect, we need to “will” ourselves to direct our attention in a different way. A tool to help you achieve this is the PMI. The PMI is an attention-directing tool that was first introduced by Edward de Bono, an international authority on thinking. It is designed to deliberately direct your attention to all the positive, negative and interesting aspects about your subject. Carrying out a PMI is simple. What is not simple is to deliberately concentrate your attention in one direction after another when your emotions and prejudices have already decided how you should feel about your subject.

You need to “will” yourself to look in different directions. Once you have the “will” to do a PMI, then the natural challenge to your intelligence is to find as many positive, negative, and interesting points as you can. Instead of using intelligence to support your emotions and prejudices, you are now using it to explore the subject matter.
The guidelines for doing a PMI are:

  1. Make three columns on a sheet of paper. Title the columns “Plus,” “Minus,” and “Interesting.”
    2. Under the “Plus” column, list all the positive aspects about the subject that you can.
    3. Under the “Minus” column, list all the negative aspects that you can.
    4. Under the “Interesting” column, list all those things that are worth noting but do not fit under either “Plus” or “Minus.” The “Interesting” items helps us to react to the interest in an idea and not just to judgment feelings and emotions about the idea. “I do not like the idea but there are interesting aspects to it….”

With the PMI, you use your intelligence to explore the subject matter. At the end of the exploration, emotions and feelings can be used to make a decision about the matter. The difference is that the emotions are now applied after the exploration instead of being applied before and so preventing exploration. With a PMI, one of three things can happen:
•             You may decide that it is a viable idea.
•             You may  reject the idea as unsound.
•             You may move from the idea to another idea. By exploring the “positive” and “interesting” aspects of an idea, you may be able to recycle it into something else.
When you put down the P, M, and I points, you react to what you put down and your feelings change. Once a point has been thought and put down under any of the headings, that point cannot be “unthought,” and it will influence the final decision.

A while back, a group of designers brainstormed for a new umbrella design. One of the participants suggested a combination umbrella with holster. The holster would be worn on a person’s belt. A trigger mechanism in the umbrella handle would release the spring-loaded umbrella when unholstered.

The group thought this was a terrible idea because everyone would looked armed and dangerous.  They decided to do a PMI on the idea, and one of the interesting aspects they focused on was the idea of using the umbrella for protection. This triggered the idea of incorporating a stun gun in the umbrella. If attacked, one touches the attacker with the tip of the umbrella, pulls a trigger and renders the attacker helpless with a nonlethal shock.

By focusing on the “interesting” aspects of the umbrella idea, they provided themselves with material to look at what they might not have looked for. Just as a carefully designed experiment is an attempt to hurry along the path of logical investigation, so focusing on “interesting” aspects of subjects is an attempt to encourage the chance appearance of phenomena which would not have been sought out.

me.smallCreativity expert and author Michael Michalko



The following book review of CREATIVE THINKERING is from Kelvin Fung in Hong Kong and is posted on

“As an innovation consultant, I have been working closely with clients in 3 major aspects: (1) Process streamlining, (2) Strategy formulation, and (3) New product / Service development. Each project is different and requires careful analysis of the challenges and business needs, an indepth investigation of internal and external constraints, crafting of intervention strategies and last but not least the development of a thoughtful implementation plan. Having said that, the bedrock of every success is still
“IDEA”. Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.), once
said, “Innovation distinquishes between a leader and a follower.” He
is pointing us to the right direction but the question is “How can we
become the first person who comes up with that brilliant ideas”.

2 years ago, we worked with HSBC on an organisation wide CHANGE initiative aiming to increase their STAFF ENGAGEMENT LEVEL. We trained up 60+ champions, using Micheal’s techniques, to lead internal THINK TANKS to brainstorm improvement ideas. In one of the think tanks, the members used the SCAMPER technique in great details to analyze their existing operation and came up with an idea of ELIMINATING (E as in SCAMPER) the plastic label on which the customers have to sign their names for checking purposes. The end result is an annual saving of 4 Million dollars plus 3 awards and dozens of media exposure. The teller who submitted the idea received a generous reward for her contribution and the customers enjoy the ease of transaction. This is a classic illustration of INNOVATION: Creating values for all stakeholders.

Micheal Michalko practices what he teaches. In his every book, he uses
lots of business cases, puzzles and exercises to illustrate his point. I like
reading his books because it is both an intellectual and an spiritual /
emotional venture. His books are highly practical and a real joy to read and a real treasure to refer to whenever I am stuck. A gem indeed.

In his book CREATIVE THINKERING, Michael extracted the essense of business creativity and came up with a SINGLE concept (i.e., CONCEPTUAL BLENDING) to explain what can be done to think like a genius. In the introduction of the book, he writes, “In school you are taught to define, label, and segregate what you learn into separate categories…much like icecubes in a tray. Once something is learned and categorized, you thoughts become frozen…you are taught, when
confronted with a problem, to examine the icecube tray and select appropriate cube [to kickstart your problem solving process] …to come up with marginal improvements…”

The real trick to become a genius is to demolish the barriers and to
BLEND unfamiliar concepts to come up with novel ideas. This is where you
experience the magic moment of creating something groundbreaking. In this new book by Michael, he is going to show you how to do it. This is the INTELLECTUAL part. The SPIRITUAL / EMOTIONAL part is what I like most. There are a total of 60 extremely inspiring and challenging exercises (in a book with 13 chapters) to reveal weaknesses of your thinking process. No matter how smart you are, you will still learn something valuable. For those who travel a lot, these exercises are going to keep you busy (and happy!) and your long haul flights become much easier. For me, I set IDEA QUOTA for my flights. A short trip to Japan (5 hours), 5 ideas, a long haul to Paris (12 hours), 12 ideas…Of course, make sure you have Michael’s book with you, they are the recipe for imagination!



Before you read this article, take a moment and imagine all the things that the figure above might represent.

I have no doubt that you will come up with several fascinating ideas. However, once the figures are given names and meanings, it is almost impossible to look at them and have the same perception which existed before you knew what it was. The names and meanings fixate you along a certain line of thought.

If I had first described the figure as the rear view of a washerwoman on her hands and knees washing a floor, and then asked you to list alternative explanations, your list would be minimal and much less creative.

A great deal of our education may be regarded as the inculcation of mindsets. We were taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental attitudes (based on what past thinkers thought) that pre-determine our response to problems or situations. Consequently, we tend to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternative ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We tend to develop narrow ideas and stick with them until proven wrong.

Creative thinking requires the generation of alternative perspectives. One can always look at a system from different levels of abstraction to create different perspectives. 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.

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, a consultant abstracted the essence of the problem to which is to“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 since this innovation and costs are down by over 60%.

Abstraction is one of the most basic principles used by creative geniuses to restructure problems so they could look at them in different ways. For instance, the standard procedure in physical science is to make observations or to collect systematic data and to derive principles and theories. Einstein despaired of creating new knowledge from already existing knowledge. How, he thought, can the conclusion go beyond the premises? So, he reversed this procedure and worked at a higher level of abstraction. This bold stance enabled him to creatively examine first principles (e.g., the constancy of speed of light independent of relative motion). The abstractions that others were not willing to accept because they could not be demonstrated by experimentation, Einstein took as his starting premise and simply reasoned from them.

Even Galileo used thought experiments to abstract to a possible world in which a vacuum exists. In this way, he could propose the astounding hypothesis that all objects fall through a vacuum with the same acceleration regardless of their weight. There were no laboratory vacuums large enough to demonstrate this spectacular idea until years after Galileo’s death. Today, this demonstration is standard fare in many science museums, where there are two evacuated columns in which a brick and feather released at the same moment fall side by side and hit the floor together.

Consider the incredible opportunity that the U.S. Postal Service and UPS both missed by failing to create an “overnight” delivery service. Their entire focus was on using established systems and theories to create the service. If, for instance, using the established system you want to connect one hundred markets with one another, and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take one hundred times ninety-nine — or 9,900 — direct deliveries. They failed to look for alternative ideas and simply concluded that the cost was prohibitive. There was no way they could make it economically feasible.

It took an individual who looked at the problem in a different way to solve the problem. After a tour of duty with the Marines in Vietnam, Fred Smith returned home in 1971 to find that computers were becoming an indispensable part of doing business and delivery systems were not keeping up with the increased demand for speed and reliability when delivering computer parts. Fred abstracted the problem from delivery services to one of “movement.” How do things move?

He thought about how information is moved, and how banks move money around the world. Both information systems and banks, he discovered, put all points in a network and connect them through a central hub. He decided to create a delivery system — Federal Express, now known as FedEx — that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do. He realized that a hub-and-spoke network could create an enormous number of connections more efficiently than a point-to-point delivery system. The delivery system he conceived used both airplanes and trucks, which was unheard of at the time. His system was 100 times more efficient than existing systems at the time and was subsequently employed in, of course, all air cargo delivery systems in the airline industry.

Robert Dilts, an expert in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), wrote about an enlightening experiment which was done by gestalt psychologists with a group of dogs in Anchor Point Magazine. The dogs were trained to approach something when shown a “white” square and avoid it when shown a “gray” square. When the dogs learned this, the experimenters switched to using a gray square and a black square. The dogs immediately shifted to approaching the object in response to the gray square (which had previously triggered avoidance), and avoiding the object when shown the black square (which had not been conditioned to anything). Rather than perceive the gray as an absolute stimulus, the dogs were responding to the deeper essence of “lighter versus darker” as opposed to gray, white or black being properties.

You can train a human to approach something when shown a “white” square and avoid it when shown a “gray” square. When the squares are switched to gray and black, the human will still avoid the “gray” square. Once gray has been defined in our minds, we see the gray as independent and entirely self-contained. This means nothing can interact with it or exert an influence on it. It, in fact, becomes an absolute. We have lost the sensitivity to deeper relationships, functions, and patterns because we are educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. We see them as independent parts of an objective reality.

All of the experts in the Postal Service and UPS were unable to conceive of alternatives to what existed because they focused on the particulars of existing delivery systems. Fred Smith’s abstraction of the problem from delivery systems to “movement” allowed him to make the relationship between moving money to moving air freight.

Consider the example of George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor who wanted to improve the ordinary zipper. George was a creative thinker who always looked at problems with many different perspectives. When he studied the zipper, he decided the essence of a zipper is to fasten things. He thought how do things fasten in the world? He wondered how do windows fasten together, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do stamps fasten on letters, how do geckos fasten themselves to walls and so on). One day he took his dog for a nature hike. They both returned covered with burrs, the plant like seed-sacs that cling to animal fur in order to travel to fertile new planting grounds.

He made the “Aha” connection between burrs and zippers when he examined it to discover tiny hooks which enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. The key feature of George de Mistrals’ thinking was his conceptual connection between patterns of a burr and patterns of a zipper.

George bounced back and forth among ideas guessing as to what works and what doesn’t. By “guessing,” what I mean is that he had to take different perspectives as to what aspects of “burr” and “zipper” patterns matter, and what doesn’t. Perhaps shapes count, but not textures–or vice versa. Perhaps orientation count, but not sizes–or vice versa. Perhaps curvature or its lack counts and so on until he got it. He invented a two-sided fastener (two-sided like a zipper), one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants. He called his invention “Velcro,” which is itself a combination of the word velour and crochet.

When you are searching for ideas, try the technique of abstraction. Think about your subject and decide the universal principle or essence of the subject. Suppose, for example, you want to invent a new can opener: You might decide that the essence of a can opener is “opening things.” Then spend time thinking about how things open in different domains. In nature, for example, pea pods open by ripening. Ripening weakens the seams and the pea pod opens. This inspires the idea of “opening a can by pulling a weak seam (like a pea pod). Instead of an idea to improve the can opener, we produced an idea for a new can design. A can with a weak seam beneath the cover that the user pulls to remove the cover.

This is why if you want to produce something creative, say a creative design for a new automobile, don’t think of an automobile — at least not at first. There is much suggestive evidence that a process of accessing a more abstract definition of a problem can lead to greater creativity and innovation than the more typical ways.

This is the creative strategy of some of the world’s leading creative designers, including Kenton Wiens, architect Arthur Ericson, and Martin Skalski, director of the transportation design sequence at Pratt Institute. Skalski, for example, doesn’t tell students to design an automobile or study various automobile designs on the market. Instead, he begins the design process by having them draw abstract compositions of things in motion. Then by progressively making the process less abstract, he eventually has them working on the real problem (designing automobiles) tying in the connections between the abstract work and the final model.

Suppose you want to improve the design of the umbrella. If you work with the more abstract definition “protection from the rain,” you are more likely to explore more possibilities including raincoats or even a new type of town design where there are arcades everywhere and umbrellas are no longer required. Or, consider the bookstore owner, for example, who viewed himself as a seller of books, a very specific idea. The trend toward the electronic media put him out of business. On the other hand, if he had viewed himself as a provider of information and entertainment, a more abstract characterization, a switch in the medium would not have been threatening, and it would have opened new opportunities.


(1) Describe an abstract definition of your problem. What is the principle of the problem? What is its essence?
EXAMPLE: Our problem is how to protect rural designer mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The principle is protection.

(2) Brainstorm for ideas on protection generally. Generate a number of different ideas.
EXAMPLE: Think of general ways to protect things.
Place in a bank.
Rustproof it.
Provide good maintenance.
Get an insurance policy.
Hide it.

(3) Restate the problem so that it is slightly less abstract. Again, generate as many solutions as you can.
EXAMPLE: Think of ways to protect things that are outside and vulnerable.
Hire a guard.
Watch it constantly.
Drape it with camouflage.
Put a fence around it.
Keep it well lighted.

(4) Consider the real problem. Use your two abstraction processes’ ideas and solutions as stimuli to generate solutions.
EXAMPLE: The real problem is how to protect rural mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The idea triggered from “get an insurance policy” is to offer an insurance policy to owners of rural mailboxes: $5 a year or $10 for three years to cover the mailbox from theft or destruction.
IMAGINEERED IDEA: By following this approach, progressively stating a problem in less abstract ways, you will eventually be working on a solution to the real problem. The diminishing abstraction of each process guides your focus to the real problem, and its eventual solution.

Learn the creative thinking techniques you need to get the original and novel ideas you need to improve your business and personal lives. Explore the books and publications of Michael Michalko.


Experimental social psychologists have conducted numerous experiments that demonstrate how behavior and performance can be “primed” by showing participants certain objects and pictures. In one study, participants who were primed with pictures associated with business — such as briefcases, pens, pictures of people dressed in business clothes, commuter trains, and so on — became more competitive. The social psychologist Michael Slepian and colleagues at Tufts University noticed during a study on “bright ideas” that participants became more insightful and creative when they were primed with an exposed light bulb. In short, they found that even exposure to an illuminating light bulb primes creativity.

Primes have been reported to influence nearly every facet of social life. Yale University psychologist John Bargh  had college students unscramble sentences that, for one group, contained words related to stereotypes about the elderly, such as wrinkle and Florida. Upon finishing, participants who had read old age–related words took seconds longer to walk down an exit hallway than peers who had perused age-neutral words. In other experiments, cues about money and wealth nudged people to become more self-oriented and less helpful to others. And people holding hot cups of coffee were more apt to judge strangers as having warm personalities. [The Hot and Cold of Priming by Bruce Bower. Science News. May 19th, 2012; Vol.181 #10]

John Bargh likens primes to whistles that only mental butlers can hear. Once roused by primes, these silent inner servants dutifully act on a person’s preexisting tendencies and preferences without making a conscious commotion. Many animals reflexively take appropriate actions in response to fleeting smells and sounds associated with predators or potential mates, suggesting an ancient evolutionary heritage for priming, Bargh says. People can pursue actions on their own initiative, but mental butlers strive to ease the burden on the conscious lord of the manor.


One way to prime yourself for creativity is to generate an awareness of what you want to be or accomplish. You can do this by creating a “Zeitgeist Board.” Zeitgeist means a general awareness of your general psychological, intellectual, emotional and creative spirit. A Zeitgeist Board is a large poster board on which you paste images, sayings, articles, poems, and other items that you’ve collected from magazines and other sources. It’s simple. The idea is to surround yourself with images of your intention (what you want to create or who you want to become) and, in the process, to encourage your awareness and passion to grow. Lay your intention board on a surface where you can work on it, and try out this thought experiment:

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT.  Ask yourself what it is you want to be or to create. Maybe one word will be the answer. Maybe images will appear in your head or, perhaps, a picture best represents your intention. Post the word, image, or picture in the middle of your Zeitgeist Board.

Suppose you want to create a donut shop. Post the words “Donut Shop” or a picture in the center of the board. Now look through magazines and other sources and pull out pictures, poems, articles, or headlines that relate to donut shops and post them on the board. Or suppose you want to write a novel. Similarly post the words or a picture that represents writing a novel to you (e.g., a picture of Ernst Hemingway) and post items that relate to writing a novel on the board.

Have fun with it. Make a big pile of images, words, and phrases. Go through the pile and put favorites on the board. If you add new ones, eliminate those that no longer feel right. This is where intuition comes in. As you place the items on the board, you’ll get a sense how they should be laid out. For instance, you might want to assign a theme to each corner of the board, such as “What I have,” “What I will have,” “What I need,” and “How to get what I need.”

Hang the board on a wall and study and work on it every day. You’ll discover that the board will add clarity to your desires, and feeling to your visions, which in turn will generate an awareness of the things in your environment that can help you realize your vision. You will begin to see things that you did not see before, and, just as importantly, will become aware of the blanks and holes in your vision.

You can then become proactive and imagine the many different ways you can fill in the blanks. Imagine a person who is aware of all the colors except one particular shade of blue. Let all the different shades of blue, other than that one, be placed before him, and arranged in order from the deepest to the lightest shade of blue. He most probably will perceive a blank, where that one shade is missing, and will realize that the distance is greater between the contiguous colors than between any others. He will then imagine what this particular shade should look like, though he has never seen it. This would not be possible had he not seen all the different shades of blue.

My brother-in-law desired to be an artist. His Zeitgeist Board was a collage of pictures of paintings and artists, poetry about art, and articles about artists and their work. In the center of the board, he had a picture of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Over time, he began to imagine conversing with his various prints of paintings. One print that particularly enthralled him was Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. He would focus on the painting and engage in an imaginary two-way conversation. The more he engaged with the painting, the more alive it seemed to become. He would ask the painting questions, such as: What inspired the artist to paint the picture? What was his knowledge of the world? What were his contemporaries’ views of the painting? How was the artist able to communicate over the centuries? What is the artist communicating? He would ask how the colors worked together, and ask questions about lines, shapes, and styles.

My brother-in-law, once a disgruntled government employee, is now a successful artist who has had several showings of his work. He created a psychological environment with his Zeitgeist Board that primed his subconscious mind which influenced him to change his role in the world and become the artist he wanted to be.


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.

Learn how you can use the habits and creative thinking techniques that creative geniuses throughout history to change the world. Read: