A major characteristic of creative thinking is the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between dissimilar subjects. This is difficult for the average person to do so voluntarily because we have not been taught to process information this way. When we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Thomas Edison once said that his greatest blessing in life was his lack of formal education. Otherwise, he would have learned that what he had done in his career was impossible to do. 

Think for a moment about a pine cone. What relationship does a pine cone have with the processes of reading and writing? In France, 1818, a nine-year old boy blinded himself accidentally with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses.  A few years later the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pine cone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pine cone scales with reading and writing and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind. 

Braille cross-fertilized a pine cone with the process of reading to revolutionize the world for the blind. Another way to stimulate your imagination when looking to cross-fertilize concepts for ideas is to casually skim books.  The guidelines are: 

  • Select the topic of your challenge. For example, business growth.
  • Pick up a book or two on totally unrelated topics, either nonfiction or fiction.
  • Skim the book quickly looking only for ideas that relate to or are parallel to your subject. For example, you might find some incredible innovative ideas about business growth by skimming a book about bees build colonies.

The CEO of a greeting card company wanted to create an innovative Christmas card. One day she skimmed a book about the pollution in the Pacific ocean. A discussion about biodegradables in the book sparked her idea. Biodegradable Christmas cards.

After the holiday season, recipients of the card can now plant them instead of throwing them away. The paper can be planted indoors or outside, so you can choose according to the temperature and conditions at the time of planting. Cover the soil (outside or in a pot) with the paper. Spread about half a centimeter layer of soil over the paper and tamp down gently.

The company then expanded its product lines to include biodegradable greeting cards for all occasions and biodegradable confetti for weddings and other celebrations.

For more creative thinking techniques read Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys.