Creative Thinking with Thinkertoys



A Review of Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko

Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko is a must have addition to your creativity library. That’s a strong opening argument for a book that is packed with practical user-friendly exercises designed to rip the moron out of your head and leave only the unrivalled brilliance of your innate creative genius.

Divided into four parts over 38 chapters, this meaty bible of creativity, deals first with Linear Thinkertoys. Here you will find exercises that are further divided into three groups.

Group A: False Faces, Slice and Dice, Cherry Split, Think Bubbles and Scamper.In the words of the author, Michael Michalko,  “this group reorganizes known information in different ways by listing, dividing, combining, or manipulating it to give you new entry points for solving problems. Proceeding from these entry points, you can jump from one idea to another until you find the one you need.”

Group B: Tug-of-War, Idea Box, Idea Grid, Toothache Tree, Phoenix, The Great TransPacific and Storm Door Company, and Future Fruit.

Group C: Brutethink, Hall of Fame, Circle of Opportunity, Ideatoons, Clever Trevor. This group of exercises are designed to help you break out of old, established patterns of thought and burst into uncharted creative territory.

The second part, Intuitive Thinkertoys, covering chapters 22 to 33, focuses on exercises that help you “tap into your unconsciousness and find the ideas that you already have.” The exercises suggested deal with relaxation and ways to clear the mind (to become more receptive), how to use and develop the intuition, the process of incubation and idea hatching. You will also cover analogies, how to use fantasies to generate ideas, ways of invoking desired qualities and energies and how to access your genius through your dreams. You’ll also read about clever (but simple to use) creativity generating techniques used by brilliant artists such as Salvadore Dali, Da Vinci or the builders of the Pyramids.

The third part, Group Thinkertoys, covering just two exercises in Chapters 34 and 35, details the classic creativity exercise: Brainstorming and the lesser known Japanese exercise TKJ, known as Rice Storm.

Part four, Endtoys, closes up the book with WorrieWillie’s Guide to Prioritizing, MurderBoard (a way of spotting and killing off ‘bad’ ideas, and Backbone (a technique of associating disparate ideas to form new ones).

What I love about Thinkertoys is that it is so accessible. You just pick it up and open it to any chapter and you can find a pragmatic tool to enhance your creative thinking. It really is a bible of techniques, a manual of easy-to-follow instructions on generating good ideas.

“Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity”, by Michael Michalko, is definitely worth the price of admission. And the ideas that you generate with it… well, put it this way, it makes this investment in this book the most solid, guaranteed to profit investment you are likely to make this year.




An easy way to generate a lot of ideas is to apply a checklist of nine creative-thinking principles that were first formally suggested by Alex Osborn and later arranged into the following mnemonic SCAMPER. S = Substitute? C = Combine? A = Adapt? M = Magnify? = Modify? P = Put to other uses? E = Eliminate? R = Rearrange? = Reverse?

SCAMPER is based on the notion that everything new is some addition or modification of something that already exists. You take a subject and change it into something else. (E.g., drilled petroleum becomes chemical feedstock becomes synthetic rubber becomes automobile tires. Natural gas becomes polyethylene becomes milk jugs. Mined ore becomes metal becomes wire becomes parts of a motor.)you can take anything that exists and change it into a new idea.

The blueprint for using SCAMPER is: (1) Isolate the subject you want to think about. (2) Ask the SCAMPER questions about each step of the subject and see what new ideas emerge. (3) For every new idea you discover, ask “How can…?” “What else…?” “How else…?” (4) List and evaluate the ideas.

Suppose you wanted to improve the ordinary paperclip? You would start looking for ideas by asking:

– What can be substituted in the clip? – What can I combine the clip with to make something else? – What can I adapt to the clip? – How can I modify the clip? – What can I magnify or add to the clip? – What other uses can I find for the clip? – What can be eliminated from the clip? – What is the reverse of a clip? – What other rearrangement of the clip might be better?

One manufacturer substituted plastic for metal, added color, and produced plastic clips in various colors so that clipped papers could be color-coded thereby finding another use for clips.

Think about any subject from improving your productivity to reorganizing your organization and apply the “Scamper” checklist of questions. You will find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily, as you ask:

SUBSTITUTE SOMETHING? The principle of substitution is a sound way to develop alternative ideas to anything that exists. Think up ways of changing this for that and that for this. The scientist, Paul Ehrlich, kept substituting one color for another—well over 500 colors—until he found the right dye to color the veins of laboratory mice. You can substitute things, places, procedures, people, ideas, and even emotions. Ask:

Can you substitute something? Who else? What else? Can the rules be changed? Other ingredient? Other material? Other power? Other place? Other approach? What else instead? What other part instead of this?

COMBINE IT WITH SOMETHING ELSE? Much of creative thinking involves combining previously unrelated ideas or subjects to make something new. This process is called synthesis, and is regarded by many experts as the essence of creativity. Gregor Mendel created a whole new scientific discipline, genetics, by combining mathematics with biology. Ask:

What can be combined? Can we combine purposes? How about an assortment? A blend? An alloy? An ensemble? Combine units? Combine materials? What other article could be merged with this? How could we package a combination? What can be combined to multiply possible uses? Combine appeals?

ADAPT SOMETHING TO IT? One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.” Ask:

What else is like this? What other ideas does it suggest? Does the past offer a parallel? What could I copy? Whom could I emulate? What idea could I incorporate? What other process could be adapted? What else could be adapted? What different contexts can I put my concept in? What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?

MAGNIFY IT? An easy way to create a new idea is to take a subject and add something to it. Japanese engineer Yuma Shiraishi made the home VCR possible by figuring out how to lengthen videotapes so they would be long enough for feature-length movies. Ask:

What can be magnified, made larger, or extended? What can be exaggerated? Overstated? What can be added? More time? Stronger? Higher? Longer? How about greater frequency? Extra features? What can be duplicated? What can add extra value? How can I carry it to a dramatic extreme?

MODIFY IT? What can be modified? Just about any aspect of anything. The hub-and-spoke transportation system that makes Federal Express work was a feature of at least three air freight services as early as 1930. What Fred Smith did was to modify the dimensions, process and purposes of the system and turned an old idea into an elegant concept. Ask:

How can this be altered for the better? What can be modified? Is there a new twist? Change meaning, color, motion, sound, odor, form, shape? Change name? What changes can be made in the plans? In the process? In marketing? Other changes? What other form could this take? What other package? Can the package be combined with the form?

PUT IT TO SOME OTHER USE? A subject takes its meaning from the context in which you put it. Change the context, and you change the meaning. George Washington Carver, botanist and chemist, discovered over 300 different uses for the lowly peanut. Ask:

What else can this be used for? Are there new ways to use as is? Other uses if modified? What else can be made from this? Other extension? Other markets?

ELIMINATE? Sometimes subtracting something from your subject yields new ideas. Trimming down ideas, objects, and processes may gradually narrow the subject down to its truly necessary part or function–or spotlight a part that=s appropriate for some other use. Ask:

What if this were smaller? Understate? What should I omit? Delete? Subtract? What=s not necessary? Should I divide it? Split it up? Separate it into different parts? Streamline? Make miniature? Condense? Compact? Can the rules be eliminated?

REARRANGE IT INTO SOMETHING ELSE? Creativity, it could be said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Rearrangement usually offers countless alternatives for ideas, goods, and services. A baseball manager, for example, can shuffle his lineup 362,880 times. Ask:

What other arrangement might be better? Interchange components? Other pattern? Other layout? Other sequence? Change the order? Transpose cause and effect? Change pace? Change schedule?

REVERSE IT TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS? Reversing your perspective opens your thinking. Look at opposites and you’ll see things you normally miss. Ask “What is the opposite of this?” to find a new way of looking at things. The historical breakthroughs of Columbus and Copernicus were the polar opposites of the current beliefs of their day. Ask:

What are the opposites? What are the negatives? Can I transpose positive and negative? Should I turn it around? Up instead of down? Down instead of up? Consider it backwards? Reverse roles? Do the unexpected?

Even the hot dog, as we know it, is the result of the right idea-spurring question being asked at the right time. Antoine Feutchwanger sold sausages at the Louisiana Exposition in 1904. He first sold them on plates, but this proved too expensive. He then offered white cotton gloves along with the franks to prevent customers from burning their fingers. The gloves also were expensive, and customers walked off with them. Antoine and his brother-in-law, a baker, sat down and brainstormed. “What could be added (MAGNIFY) to the frankfurter that would be inexpensive and would prevent people from burning their fingers?” His brother-in-law said: “What if I baked a long bun and slit it to hold the frank?” “Then you can sell the franks, and I can sell you the buns. Who knows, it might catch on. …………………………………………………………………………………………………..

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.


Wierd Habits and Rituals of Famous Historical Creative Thinkers


There is much anecdotal evidence to indicate that creative people are more often eccentric or more often have odd personality features than the non-creative population. Famous visionaries often develop a reputation for having a few eccentricities. Following are a few of the strange habits from Problema de logica and Madness of Psychiatry by Saxby Pridmore:

  • Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish author of children’s stories carried a coil of rope for fear of being caught in a hotel room fire.
  • When the wife of the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti died, as a token of his love, he placed his unpublished manuscripts beside her in her coffin. Seven years later he dug up the coffin, dusted off his papers and published them.
  • Sir Walter Scott had a salt cellar which was made from the fourth cervical vertebra of Charles I.
  • James Joyce kept a tiny pair of doll’s knickers in his pocket.
  • Marcel Proust wrote most of his novels lying in bed.
  • Composer Gioachino Rossini was completely bald and wore a wig. In exceptionally cold weather, however, he wore two or three wigs simultaneously.
  • Beethoven had no interest in personal cleanliness and his friends had to take his dirty clothes away and wash them while he slept.
  • Many great scientists as well as writers and artists have been eccentric. Sir Francis Galton, one of the most prolific scientists of all time regularly carried a brick wrapped in brown paper and tied with a piece of rope, so that he could stand on it to see over people’s heads when he was in a crowd.
  • Alexander Graham Bell kept his windows permanently covered to keep out the harmful rays of the moon.
  • Sir Joseph Banks was described by his biographer as “a wild and eccentric character,” who scared his neighbors.
  • Nicola Tesla, who gave his name to the unit of magnetism was celibate and said, “I don’t think that you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men”.
  • Henry Cavendish, a great chemist and physicist, was exceptionally shy and would only ever eat mutton. He communicated with his servants by letter, if he met one by accident, they were dismissed. He had a second staircase built in his house so that he could avoid them more easily.
  • Greek orator Demosthenes would force himself to stay focused on composing his orations by shaving off half of his hair, making him look so ridiculous that he wouldn’t be tempted to procrastinate by leaving his home. Victor Hugo would do something similar, forcing himself to meet his daily writing goals by having his valet hide his clothes. Yup, the guy who wrote “Les Miserables” liked to work in the nude.
  • Some writers need to go through the ritual of touching base with a favorite literary totem. For example, Somerset Maugham would read Voltaire’s “Candide” before starting work, while Willa Cather read the Bible.
  • Author William Faulkner preferred to type with his toes instead of his fingers. He kept his shoes on his hands while he worked.
  • Before Ernst Hemingway sat down to write he would go over his writing goals for the day with his six-toed cats. He refused to share such things with other, normal toed cats, which he considered to be poor listeners.
  • The surrealist artist Salvador Dali had the habit of keeping the pens of fans who asked him for autographs, which just goes to show you’re never too rich and famous to not enjoy stealing from people less well off than you.
  • J B S Haldane was one of the best known scientists of the twentieth century, at one time he did not remove his boots for three weeks. General Haig said of him that he was “the bravest and dirtiest soldier in the army.”
  • Dr Paul Erdos was one of the most gifted mathematicians of all time, writing 1500 scientific papers. He lived as a homeless derelict, shunning material possessions because, “property is nuisance.”
  • Rudyard Kipling did not actually do any writing, but instead delegated the task to a team of ghostwriters. Kipling himself spent his days sitting on his front porch smoking clove cigarettes because he felt they made him look artsy.
  • English novelist Mary Shelley kept a domesticated 23-foot-long boa constrictor in her writing studio. She would wrap the snake around her shoulders while she wrote. When the snake grew restless and began to squeeze, she allowed herself to stop writing for the day.
  • Ezra Pound preferred to breathe through his nose. But when writing, he would breathe exclusively through his mouth.
  • William Wadsworth liked to narrate his poems to his dog. If the dog got upset or barked at the sounds of his words, he would start working on the poem again.
  • Franz Kafka really loved pineapple upside down cake. And so anytime he finished a story, he allowed himself to eat a whole pineapple upside down cake all by himself without sharing any with anyone else, not even a bite.
  • Ben Franklin knew the benefits of working long hours, as well as being known among his peers as being a person who worked long hours. This work ethic was essential for growing his printing business. He also had a routine of asking himself questions during the day. Ben Franklin asked himself each morning (at 5 am), “What good shall I do today?” every night before bed (around 10 pm), “What good have I done to-day?”
  • Playwright Henrik Ibsen would work at a desk decorated with a portrait of arch-rival playwright August Strindberg.
  • Mathematician Paul Erdös used the last 25 years of his life to devote 19 hour days to the pursuit of higher math. To stay alert, he amped himself up with 10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin (along with strong espresso and caffeine tablets.) “A mathematician,” he said, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
  • Artist Marcel Duchamp is associated with both surrealism and the dada movement. While he worked in a variety of styles, he’s most famous for his “readymade” art, which was basically a giant middle finger to the art world. Readymades are everyday objects that Duchamp came across and presented to the world as pieces of art. Duchamp made about twenty of these, but by far the most famous example is a work called “Fountain,” which is nothing more than a urinal he purchased. When it came time to display his “creation” at an art show the board in charge of the exhibit had a fierce debate and eventually chose to hide the display from view, presumably in the washroom.
  • Andy Warhol was an American painter who led the pop art movement. Much like Duchamp he challenged notions of just what art was; among his most famous paintings is that of a Campbell’s soup can (which first sold for 1500 dollars). That’s right, somebody paid 1500 dollars for a picture of a soup label (something you can get for free). He mass produced his work, and to help him do so he hired “Warhol Superstars,” which was a group of people who ranged from porno producers to drug addicts. Warhol’s Superstars tended to have drug filed orgies as they mass produced his art while he mostly sat and watched.
  • King Otto, ruler of Bavaria from 1886 to 1913, shot a peasant every morning to start his day. Thankfully, his two advisors were kind-hearted: one gave the king a rifle filled with blanks, and the other dressed as a “peasant,” acting out death throes when he was “shot.”
  • Lord Byron was probably a nympho. He kept lists of his lovers and apparently slept with more than 250 women in one year alone. Lady Caroline Lamb called him “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He slept with her, of course, and her cousin. And supposedly his own half sister as well. And he commemorated each one in a very, um, special way: he snipped a bit of hair (not scalp hair, people) from each conquest and saved it in a little envelope marked with the appropriate name. Until 1980 or so, these locks of love were still housed at Byron’s publishing house, but they’re unaccounted for these days.
    Leo Tolstoy’s quirk was basically exhibitionism, I suppose. When he married 18-year-old Sofia Behrs, he made her spend their wedding night reading his diaries. Maybe not so bad, you say, but his diaries contained detailed accounts of all of the women he had slept with throughout his lifetime. Sofia was totally not into it – her diary account the day afterward called his writing “filth” and reflected how disgusted she was.



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.





Grey dots intersection

.Illusory grey spots mysteriously appear at the points of intersection in the above black and white grid. However, the spot does not occur at the specific intersection on which you concentrate your attention.

Sometimes ideas, like the gray spots, do not appear when you are concentrating your attention and mysteriously appear when you are not. Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem. Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination appears to be involuntary.

The more problems, ideas and thoughts that you think about from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind. Think of thoughts as atoms hanging by hooks on the sides of your mind. When you think about a subject, some of these thoughts become loose and put into motion in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you put into random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject and decide to forget it, your subconscious mind doesn’t quit working. Your thoughts keep colliding, combining and making associations. This is why you’ve experienced suddenly remembering names, getting solutions to problems you’ve forgotten about, and ideas out of the blue when you are relaxing and not thinking about any particular thing.

There’s a thing in mathematics called “factorial”, which calculates how many ways you can combine things. If you have three objects, then there are one times two times three, which leaves six combinations. The factorial of ten is over three million. Ten bits of information will combine and recombine in three million different ways in your mind. So you can imagine the cloud of thoughts combining and making associations when you incubate problems when you stop working.

Cognitive scientists have observed that people that after a period of incubation from a problem people are 39 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas. Yet this enhancement of creative thinking exists completely beneath the radar screen. In other words, people are more creative after they forget about the problem for a period of time, but they don’t know it. It’s as if a period of incubation resets your mind. You’re taking a walk or taking a shower and realize “Wait a minute, there’s another way to do this.”

The famous philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity with which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique, I used to spend time worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the faster for this worry and the worrying time was wasted.” When author Norman Mailer had writer’s block, he would instruct his subconscious mind to work on the problem and to notify him when it was resolved. Then he would leave the problem until the “insight” arrived in his consciousness.

Incubation usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.

Ideas are free to combine with other ideas in novel patterns and new associations in your subconscious mind. It is also the storehouse of all your experience, including things you can’t easily call into awareness.

When I am stonewalled this is one of the most useful techniques I use to tap into my subconscious mind. I write a letter to my subconscious mind.


  • Work on a problem until you have mulled over all the relevant pieces of information. Talk with others about the problem, ask questions, and do as much research as you can until you are satisfied that you have pushed your conscious mind to its limit.
  • Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Make it a more personal experience by giving your subconscious a name. I named mine simply “Brain.”
  • Dear Brain…………Make the letter as detailed and specific as possible. Describe the problem definition, the attributes, what steps you have taken, the problems, the gaps, what is needed, what you want, what the obstacles are, and so on. Just writing the letter will help better define a problem, clarify issues, point out where more information is needed, and prepare your unconscious to work on a solution. The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. Imagine that your unconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated.
  • Instruct your unconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in three days.”
  • Seal the letter and put it away. You may even want to mail it to yourself.
  • Let go of the problem. Don’t work on it. Forget it. Do something else. This is the incubation stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in your unconscious.
  • Open the letter in three days. If the problem still has not been solved, then write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this” and put it away again. Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed from the problem, the answer will magically pop into your mind.

Here is an example of this letter technique. The marketing director for a soft drink corporation wanted to come up with a novel way to package soft drinks. He spent time listing all the ways products and liquids can be packaged. He then turned off his self-censor by giving himself an idea quota of 120 ways to package things. This forced him to list every single thought he had no matter how obvious or absurd. The first third were his usual ideas, the next third became more interesting and complex and the last third became fantastical and absurd as he stretched his imagination to meet his quota. He even recorded the fragments of his dreams that he remembered when waking even though they were unrelated to his problem. One of the dreams involved kangaroos carrying their babies in their pouches.

Finally, he wrote the following letter he addressed to MacGuyver (He calls his subconscious mind MacGuyver after the TV character who solves cases by improvisation.)

Dear MacGuyver,

How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need some innovative ideas about packaging our soda. A package that would create a new experience for the consumer. Right now, as you now, our soft drinks are packaged in bottles and cans. I’m trying to think of ways to make our packaging innovative and fun in such a way that it will heighten consumer attention. So far, I’ve researched the methodology of packaging, brainstormed for ideas, and have asked everyone I know for their thoughts.

Reviewing my list of ideas I’ve noticed a theme of environmental concerns. Citizens have become aware and sensitive to what happens to discarded bottles and cans. So I think the package should be environmentally friendly. Another theme, I noticed, is “put to other uses.” In other words, how else can the consumer use the package? A cousin of mine told me about the time he was in the peace corps in a very poor section of Guatemala. Soft drinks in bottles were too expensive for the natives. He told me popular domestic sodas are instead poured into sandwich baggies and sold.

I need your help. Please deliver your ideas to me within three days.


The Idea he received from MacGuyver is to create a biodegradable plastic bag in the shape of a soda bottle. This bag will save buyers bottle deposit money and retains the drink’s fizz and experience, while simultaneously being more environmentally friendly. Being new and fun, it actually creates a new brand experience adapted to cultural environmental tendencies that local consumers are sure to appreciate. Additionally, the plastic bags afford greater flexibility in storage options and can also be re-used by the consumer as a storage container for other foods and liquids. Additionally, the product adapts itself to new markets in impoverished countries.


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.


Easy Things to do to Activate your Imagination

Power of your imagination. You can change the direction the spinning dancer in the illustration above from clockwise to counterclockwise simply by concentrating and willing it.



Following are tips to help you activate your mind and make your thinking more dynamic.

  • Take a walk around your neighborhood and look for something interesting.
  • Make metaphorical-analogical connections between that something interesting and your problem.
  • Open a dictionary and randomly point to a noun. Use it in a sentence. Force connections between the word and your problem.
  • State your challenge as a question “In what ways might I………..? Then restate it 5 different times using different verbs.
  • How is an iceberg like an idea that might help you solve your problem?
  • Tape record your ideas on your commute to and from work.
  • Keep a log of your ideas, intuitions and dreams. At the end of the week review your log. Any new insights?
  • Create a prayer asking for specific help with your problem. What is it that you still need to understand?
  • Spend 1 hour daily totally immersing yourself in the subject matter.
  • Read a different newspaper. If you read the Wall Street Journal, read the Washington Post.
  • What else is like the problem? What other ideas does it suggest?
  • What or who can you copy?
  • Create the most bizarre idea you can? Try to imagineer it into a realistic solution
  • List all the things that bug you about the problem.
  • Take a different route to work.
  • Make up and sing a song about the problem while taking a shower.
  • Listen to a different radio station each day. Listen for a message.
  • Ask the most creative person you know.
  • Ask five people how they would improve your ideas.
  • Make up new words that describe the problem. E.g., “Warm hugs” to describe a motivation problem and “Painted rain” to describe changing customer
  • What is the essence of the problem? Can you find parallel examples of the essence in other worlds? Do they create patterns that inspire any new thoughts.
  • Take up doodling as a daily practice. Brilliant ideas often start as a scribble on a cocktail napkin or envelope.
  • Go for a drive with the windows open. Listen and smell as you drive. Think about what it is you still don’t understand about the problem.
  • Combine your ideas?
  • Learn and use the creative thinking techniques creative geniuses have used throughout history.
  • Create an idea piggy bank and deposit three ideas daily.
  • Give yourself an idea quota of 40 ideas when brainstorming.
  • How many of the ideas can you combine with each other?
  • Can you substitute something?
  • Which of two objects, a salt shaker or a bottle of ketchup, best represents your problem? Why?
  • What can you add?
  • What one word represents the problem?
  • Draw an abstract symbol that best represents the problem.
  • Think of a two-word book title that best represents the problem.
  • Write a table of contents for a book about the problem.
  • Can you think of other uses for any of your ideas?
  • What is the opposite of your idea?
  • Think paradoxically. Imagine your idea and its opposite existing simultaneously.
  • Look in other domains. If your problem is selling, ask how do politicians sell? How do sports networks sell? How do religions sell? How do fast-food franchises sell?
  • Laugh more. Be more childlike in your work.
  • Think out loud. Verbalize your thinking out loud about the problem.
  • List 20 objects into two columns of 10. Randomly connect objects from column 1 to column 2 to see what new products develop.
  • How would Walt Disney approach the problem?
  • Write the alphabet backwards.
  • How would a college professor perceive it?
  • How would an artist perceive it? A risk-taking entrepreneur? A priest?
  • Imagine you are at a nudist beach in Tahiti. How could talking with nudists help you with the problem?
  • Can you find the ideas you need hidden in the clouds?
  • Learn how to tolerate ambiguity and dwell in the grey zone.
  • Make three parallel lists of ten words. The first list is nouns. The second list if verbs and the third adjectives. Then look for intriguing connections between them.
  • Make the strange familiar. What would a fantasy solution look like? Does this give you any clues?
  • What if you were the richest person on earth? How will the money help you solve the problem?
  • If you could have three wishes to help you solve the problem, what would they be?
  • Wear purple underwear for inspiration
  • Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Ask your subconscious to solve the problem. Then mail the letter to yourself.
  • How would Donald Trump solve the problem?
  • Forget the problem. Incubate it. Come back to it in three days. Stay conscious of any new thoughts that pop up during this down time.
  • Look at the problem from at least three different perspectives.
  • Imagine the problem is solved. Work backwards from the solution to where you are now.
  • How would the problem be solved 100 years from now.
  • Think about it before you go to sleep.
  • When you wake, write down everything you can remember about your dreams. Next, try to make metaphorical-analogical connections between your dreams and the problem.
  • Imagine you are on national television. Explain the problem and your ideas on how to solve the problem.
  • What one object or thing best symbolizes the problem? Keep the object on your desk to constantly remind you about the problem.
  • List all the words that come to mind while thinking about the problem. Are there any themes? Interesting words? Connections? Surprises?
  • What if ants could help you solve the problem? What are the parallels between ants and humans that can help?
  • Create a silly way to walk that physically represents your problem.
  • Talk to a stranger about the problem.
  • Keep a written record of all your ideas. Review them weekly. Can you cross-fertilize your ideas?
  • How would an Olympic gold medal winner approach the problem?
  • Read a poem and relate it to the problem. What new thoughts does the poem inspire?
  • What associations can you make between your problem and an oil spill?
  • If your problem were a garden, what would be the weeds.
  • Change your daily routines. If you drink coffee, change to tea.
  • List your assumptions about the problem and then reverse them. Can you make the reversals into new ideas?
  • Describe your problem metaphorically. How is your problem like a half-eaten frozen pizza?
  • Draw the problem with your eyes closed.
  • Create a dance that represents your problem.
  • Mind map your problem.
  • Become a dreamer and create fantasies that will solve the problem.
  • Become a realist and imaginer your fantasies into workable ideas.
  • Complete “How can I _____?” Then change the verb five different times.
  • Can you intuit the solution?
  • Open a magazine and free associate off the photos.
  • What have you learned from your failures? What have you discovered that you didn’t set out to discover?
  • Make connections between subjects in different domains. Banking + cars = drive in banking.
  • Immerse yourself in the problem. Imagine you are the problem. What would you feel? What are your hopes and fears?
  • What are the parallels between your problem and the Gulf war.
  • Hang out with people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Create a funny story out of the problem. If you can, make it into a joke.
  • Make analogies between your problem and nature.
  • Imagine you are a member of the opposite sex out on a date. You are having a conversation about problems. How do you describe the problem to your date seductively?
  • Force yourself to constantly smile when you are brainstorming.
  • Select a book that is not related to your subject. Skim through the book looking for thoughts and ideas you can cross-fertilize with your problem.
  • Sit outside and count the stars. Make all the associations you can between what you see in the sky and the problem.
  • Walk through a grocery store and metaphorically connect what you see with the problem. How is the way meat is displayed like an idea I can use to solve my probem.
  • How would you explain the problem to a six year old child?
  • Cut out interesting magazine and newspaper pictures. Then arrange and paste them on a board making a collage that represents the problem.
  • Write a six word book that describes your progress on the problem. E.g. “At present all thoughts are gray,” “I am still not seeing everything.”
  • What is impossible to do in your business but if it were possible would change the nature of your problem forever?
  • Suppose you could have Leonardo da Vinci work with you on the problem. What would you ask him?

Learn the creative thinking strategies and techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history in my books.





Energize your brainstorming meetings about innovation and creativity by confounding expectations with the following tactics, exercises and suggestions.

IDEA TICKET. In advance of a meeting, frame a problem or issue to address. Ask each person to bring at least one new idea or suggestion about the problem as their ticket of admission to the meeting. Have the people write their ideas on index cards and collect them at the door. No one gets in without a ticket. Start the meeting by reading everyone’s contribution.

EXAMPLE: What is impossible to do now, but if it were possible, would change our business and industry forever?

SPACE CREATURE. Have the group imagine a creature living on another planet with a different atmosphere in a distant solar system. Ask them to draw a picture of the creature that they imagine. Then have the group display their drawings.

DISCUSSION: You’ll discover that most people draw creatures that resemble life as we understand it, even though we are free to think up anything. Namely, creatures with sense organs to see, hear and smell, and arms and legs with bilateral symmetry. Rather than creating something that=s idiosyncratic and unpredictable, most people create creatures that have a great deal in common with one another and with the properties of typical earth animals.

There is no reason why animals on other planets would have to resemble animals on earth. People drawing space creatures could have tapped into any existing knowledge base, such as rock formations, tumbleweed or clouds to get an idea for the general shape of their space creature, and each person could access something different and novel. But most people do not and draw animals that have similar properties to animals on earth.

What we’re exhibiting is a phenomenon called structured imagination. Structured imagination refers to the fact that even when we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in highly predictable ways according to existing concepts, categories and stereotypes. This is true whether the individuals are inventors, artists, writers, scientists, designers, business people, or everyday people fantasizing about a better life.

SHOES. With participants sitting at tables in groups of 6-10, tell everyone to take off their shoes under the table. Then talk for a few minutes about how it feels to be sitting in a serious business meeting with your shoes off. Talk about the fact that taking off your shoes is natural at home and on holiday, but not always in business settings.

Then ask them to exchange shoes, actually put on someone else’s shoes. Ask them to try to make a big change; men put on women’s shoes etc. Talk about how that feels. Talk about social norms and begin talking about what it is like to be a bit outside the box.

Next have all of the shoes put up on the table. Just let everyone kind of sit there looking at all the shoes for a while. Watch the nervousness. This is typically a very weird and uncomfortable and anti-social thing they are experiencing. Talk about what it feels like to have someone else’s shoes up on the table in front of you. Talk about how we deal with discomfort; typically by trying to reduce it. But point out that improvement implies change and change nearly always brings discomfort and innovative change must be really outside the box and that must bring even bigger discomfort and so on.

Now, announce a contest. (E.g., One of the teams will receive a big contract. The team that would get the contract would be the one who could build the highest structure of shoes. The contest would be measuring the distance from the top of the table surface to the highest point of any shoe. Don’t discuss it, just say it, tell them they have 4 minutes and say go.  (One common solution: Have the tallest person in the group stand on the table top and hold one shoe over her head). Or you can make a rule that there be a continuous path of shoes touching shoes (like an electric circuit.)

Watch what they do so that you will have plenty to talk about when you debrief. You will be amazed at the creative solutions the groups develop. Look for how quickly or slowly the various groups get into the task. Look for the emergence of natural leaders. Look for cycles of build-up, down-build in another way, etc.  Just watch.

A variety of talking points will emerge:

Handling shoes bonds the team.

I knew from the beginning that I was going to have you build a structure with your shoes, but let you warm up to the idea gradually. That may be a good strategy when implementing innovative ideas.

Things are most uncomfortable when we think too much about them; just start doing it and a lot of the discomfort goes away.

It’s not stealing when you take an idea from observing another team. That is the basis of benchmarking in business improvement.

It might be helpful to use other things you didn’t expect to use. For example, one group made a sort of chimney out of the binders containing the workshop materials and then filled the chimney with shoes stood on end. Someone always ends up taking off their belt to attach something to something else. Etc.

Innovation often proceeds through cycles of trying something, dismantling it, trying another tack, and so on. Rarely do you just sit and think and work it all out in your mind. Doing helps stimulate thinking.

The thought processes involved in the most creative approaches are often the combination of several ideas and concepts.

WHAT IS ANOTHER NAME FOR INNOVATION? An activity to practice getting rid of preconceptions is to create different names for things. For example, “rainbow” might be re-named “painted rain. Have the participants create different names for:

  • mountain
  • cloud
  • ocean

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 as “a spring flower,” or “warm hug,” and so on. What is a different name for an innovation?

ARE YOU A HAMMER OR A NAIL? This is a fun go around the room discussion. You ask the group questions about what best describes you – X or Y – and then have them explain why they think so.

What comes closest to describing you as an employee:

  • A hammer or nail?
  • Cloud or rock?

When presenting an idea to your superiors?

  • Tree or wind?
  • Salt shaker or ketchup bottle?

When overcoming problems?

  • Snowflake or boiling water?
  • Thunderstorm or the smell of leaves burning?

As a participant at a brainstorming meetings?

  • Handshake or kiss?
  • Watch or compass?

FAILURE 101. To demonstrate the value of risk taking and failure, group the participants into teams. Each team has a pile of ice-cream bar sticks. The exercise is to see which team can build the highest structure using the sticks within 20 minutes. After the exercise ask the participants for their insights in every failure. You’ll find that whoever follows a fixed, logical idea from the outside never finished first. Those who finished with the highest projects went through the most failures. The lesson is to free themselves of the mindset about failures they learned in school, open themselves to surprise and learn to play like open-minded children again with perspective and context.

EVERYONE’S A CONSULTANT. Ask each person to write a current job-related problem or concern on a blank sheet of paper. Examples: “How can I get better support from my superiors for my ideas? “How can we better bring people from different parts of the organization to collaborate together to expand our creativity and breadth of ideas?” “What are your ideas for an innovation rewards program that invites people to vote on their favorite ideas?” After allowing a few minutes to write out the problems, ask each person to pass his or her problem to the right. That person reads the problem just received and jots down their responses. They are given 60 seconds to respond to the individual sheet. Keep the process going until each person gets his or her sheet back.

IDEA MARKETPLACES. Announce the theme of the meeting, and then invite everyone to identify a related issue for which they’re willing to take responsibility. When someone suggests an issue, he or she becomes the sponsor, writes the issue on a large sheet of paper, and posts the sheet on a wall. The process continues until all of the suggested issues have been posted. Next, have participants take part in an “Idea Marketplace” in which each person signs one or more of the large sheets to discuss the issues. The sponsors get together with their groups in private to discuss the issues and record the ideas.

IDEA GALLERY. Post sheets of flip-chart paper around the room, one per participant. Participants stand silently and write their ideas on the sheets (one sheet per person) for 10 to 15 minutes. Then the participants are allowed 15 minutes to walk around the “gallery” and look at the other ideas and take notes. Now, using the other ideas to stimulate further thought, participants return to their sheets and add to or refine their ideas. After about 10 minutes of additional writing, the participants examine all the ideas and select the best ones.

Another option for the gallery technique is to ask participants to draw or diagram their ideas instead of listing them. For example, how many windows are there in your house? Diagramming your house allows you to go inspect and count the windows. Creative insights sometimes occur as a result of drawing or diagramming a problem, because they help us notice certain features that may be overlooked.

THREE PLUS. Each person silently writes three ideas on the tops of sheets of paper. One idea per sheet. The sheets are passed to the person on their right. That person is asked to write down an idea that improves on the one listed at the top of the sheet. If participants have difficulty improving on the idea, ask them to list new ones. Do this for all three ideas. After five minutes or so, the idea sheets are again passed to the right. Continue the process until all members receive their original papers.

TELL A STORY. Storytelling is one of the oldest ways to teach and transform. Stories and parables allow people to think about things that would be difficult to approach any other way.  Storytelling, for example, can help people envision the future they want and how to achieve it. Tell participants that it is the year 2025 and your company has been voted the most innovative company in the nation. Have participants create stories of how your company achieved that honor. Examples:

  • Tell each person to imagine that he or she had been voted employee of the year. Then, have each one give a speech to the group, telling what they did and how they did it to earn that honor.
  • Ask each person to write out their most ambitious innovation goal for this year. Then, imagine that the goal was reached or surpassed. Again, ask each person to give a speech on the specifics of what they had to do to achieve it.

THOUGHT WALK. Have the group take a walk around your workplace and the surrounding grounds. Look for objects, situations or events that you can compare with your subject metaphorically. For example, suppose your problem is how to improve communications in your company. You take a walk and notice potholes in the road. How are “potholes” like your corporate communication problem? For one thing, if potholes are not repaired, they get bigger and more dangerous. Usually road crews are assigned to repair the potholes. Similarly, unless something is done to improve corporate communications, it’s likely to deteriorate even further. An idea with a similar relation to “road crews” is to assign someone in the organization to fill the role of “communications coach.” The role would entail educating, encouraging, and supporting communication skills in all employees. And just as road crews are rotated, you can rotate the assignment every six months.

The guidelines for taking a thought walk are:

Take a walk around the grounds and look for objects, events or situations (For example, children skipping rope, a pebble, a bag of jelly beans, a drinking fountain, and so on) that might make interesting metaphors with your subject. Make a list.

When you return, make as many metaphors as you can between your list and your subject. Look for similarities and similar circumstances.

Look for ways to transfer principles and similar circumstances from what you observed and your subject. Try to build at least one idea or solution from each metaphor. Ask yourself what new insights the metaphors provide as to how to solve the problem.

If you are brainstorming in a group, ask each person to take a “thought walk” and come back with four or five things or objects (or a list). Ask each participant to silently list the characteristics and to build ideas around the characteristics. The group shares ideas and then elaborates on them into still more ideas.

A few months back, engineers looked for ways to safely and efficiently remove ice from power lines during ice storms and were stonewalled. They decided to take a “thought walk” around the hotel. One of the engineers came back with a jar of honey he purchased in the gift shop. He suggested putting honey pots on top of each power pole. He said this would attract bears and the bears would climb the poles to get the honey. Their climbing would cause the poles to sway and the ice would “vibrate” off the wires. Working with the principle of “vibration”, they got the idea of bringing in helicopters to hover over the lines. Their hovering vibrated the ice off the power lines.

PHOTO WALK. Another way to take a walk is take at least five pictures of visual metaphors of the subject or problem. Then write descriptions of the metaphors. Then, for each metaphor, look for new insights or solutions. For example, suppose you are in charge of improving the new employee training program and you take a photo of a building under construction. You would first describe what is involved in constructing a building and then transfer similarities or similar circumstances to your training program.

By focusing attention away from the challenge, you increase the probability of viewing the problem in new ways when you come back to it. An environmental think tank worked with the challenge of recycling garbage. The group leader had the group take a thought walk.

One person took a photo of a model plane. He described his hobby of building model planes and how he blends old, left-over paints to create a unique beige color to differentiate his model planes from others. This sparked a thought in another member who suggested that the same principle be applied to recycling. They developed a service that picks up old paint, blends it, and sells it for $5 a gallon. They call the paint “Earth Beige.” They are now working on another service to pick up junk mail and convert it into fiberboard which they will call “Earth Board.”

(Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and the 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.





My friend the Franciscan monk, Father Tom,  me a story he heard when he taught psychology as a guest lecturer in  Africa.  He and his students were discussing the merits of positive thinking, when one of the students related a story that was commonly told in his tribe. The chief of the village had a friend who had the habit of remarking “this is good” about every occurrence in life no matter what it was. One day the chief and his friend were out hunting. The king’s friend loaded a gun and handed it to the king, but alas he loaded it wrong and when the chief fired it, it exploded and his thumb and two fingers were blown off.

“This is good!” exclaimed his friend.

The shocked and bleeding chief was furious. “How can you say this is good you idiot! Leave me you moron. I want nothing more to do with you!” he shouted.

About a year later the chief went hunting by himself. Cannibals captured him and took him to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some wood, set up a stake and bound him to it. As they came near to set fire to the wood, they noticed that he was missing a thumb and two fingers. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone who was less than whole. They untied the king and sent him on his way.

Full of remorse the chief rushed to his friend and hugged him. “You were right, it was good,” The chief told his friend how the missing thumb and fingers saved his life and added, “I feel so ashamed for having insulted and ignored you all these months.

“No! this is good!” responded his delighted friend.

“Oh, how could that be good my friend, I did a terrible thing to you while I owe you my life.”

“It is good” said his friend, “because if you hadn’t dismissed me I would have been hunting with you and they would have killed me.”