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.

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 goes beyond the limitations of the imagined box. This is where the cliché “Think outside 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 because they wanted to abandon their 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.


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 as 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.

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 imagineer 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 a 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 them 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 out 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 the 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.

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

The Exquisite Corpse

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 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 o”, “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 and 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.

Michael Michalko

Activate Your Inner Creativity

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:


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.” Many cultural historians agree with Edison in that a whole host of new objects and ideas are based on objects and ideas already in existence. Adaptation is a common and inescapable practice in creativity. Even the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was written in defiance of England, was essentially the same as a popular tune sung in English pubs.

To become an expert at adaptation, ask:

• What else is like this?

• What other idea does this suggest?

• Does the past offer a parallel?

• What could I copy?

• Who 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?

• What ideas inside my field can I incorporate?

I have a friend who is a chef. One day he and I had a discussion about creative thinking and I brought up the principle of adaptation. A month or so later, I ran into him and he told me that he was getting a patent for his invention of an olive oil dispenser.

It’s easy to overdo the olive oil, both in terms of application and health implications, which is why he said he decided to look around his world for an idea he could adapt to solve his problem. One day he was thinking about his olive oil problem while he played with his ball point pen. He suddenly realized he could adapt an idea from the principle of a ball point pen.

He made an olive oil dispenser from a simple glass vessel topped with a hollow cork stopper that’s sealed with a rolling wooden ball that soaks up the oil and then dispenses it easily and evenly across breads, meats, and other foods. The device makes it easy to spread an even layer of olive oil on meat and bread without any of the mess.


Phillip Reiss, a German, invented a machine that could transmit music in 1861. He was days away from inventing the telephone. Every communication expert in Germany persuaded him there was no market for such a device as the telegraph was good enough. Fifteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell adapted Reiss’s work and invented the telephone and became a multi-millionaire with Germany as his first most enthusiastic customer.


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.


After watching Spider-Man, researchers at the University of Manchester played with the idea of developing adhesives that would help people climb and cling to vertical surfaces. They brainstormed by considering ways that animals, reptiles, insects, and birds attach themselves to plants and trees. They were most intrigued by geckos, which have tiny hairs on the soles of their feet that allow them to climb slick surfaces. The researchers adapted this feature into an adhesive that mimics geckos’ feet, demonstrating the feasibility of self-cleaning, re-attachable dry adhesives. These artificial micro-hair adhesives are being developed into gecko gloves, which will enable humans to climb vertical walls as easily as a gecko or Spider-Man.


Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at the Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, thought he knew how to minimize human error. It was, as Dr. Atul Gawande describes it in his provocative new book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” an idea so simple that it seemed downright loopy.

In 2001 Dr. Pronovost borrowed a concept from the aviation industry: a checklist, the kind that pilots use to clear their planes for takeoff. In an experiment, Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the I.C.U., infections in patients with central intravenous lines (catheters that deliver medications or fluids directly into a major vein). Central lines can be breeding grounds for pathogens; in the Hopkins I.C.U. at the time, about one line in nine became infected, increasing the likelihood of prolonged illness, further surgery or death.

Dr. Pronovost wrote down the five things that doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid subsequent infection: wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic; cover the patient’s entire body with sterile drapes; wear a mask, hat, sterile gown and gloves; and put a sterile dressing over the insertion site after the line was in. Many of his colleagues thought his idea was a no-brainer. It seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.

But Dr. Pronovost knew that about one-third of the time doctors were skipping at least one of these critical steps. What would happen if they never skipped any? He gave the five-point checklist to the nurses in the I.C.U. and, with the encouragement of hospital administrators, told them to check off each item when a doctor inserted a central line — and to call out any doctor who was cutting corners. The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

The nurses were strict, the doctors toed the line, and within one year the central line infection rate in the Hopkins I.C.U. had dropped from 11 percent to zero. Two years after the checklist was introduced, Dr. Pronovost calculated, it had prevented 43 infections, avoided 8 I.C.U. deaths and saved the hospital millions of dollars.

Based on this success, Dr. Pronovost and his colleagues wrote up checklists for other situations in the I.C.U., like mechanical ventilation. (Were antacids prescribed to prevent stomach ulcers? Was the bed propped up 30 degrees to keep the windpipe clear of saliva?) The average length of stay in the I.C.U. dropped by half, and 21 fewer I.C.U. patients died than had died the previous year.


A couple of brothers named Jacuzzi, who sold water pumps for farm use, designed a special whirlpool bath as a treatment for their cousin’s arthritis. They did little with this new product until Roy Jacuzzi put the concept in a different context—the luxury bath market—and bathrooms were never the same again. The Jacuzzi sold like crazy across the country, from California to the White House.


Medical doctors working with geneticists have discovered a way to use fire-flies to fight cancer. The gene that activates a firefly’s bioluminescence is inserted into cancer cells, causing them to glow. A photosensitizing agent is added, making the cells produce toxic substances and causes them to self-destruct. This principle is already used in photodynamic therapy, which uses bursts of light to attack tumors. Inserting the light source directly into the cells makes it possible to attack tumors deep in the body without using an outside light source that could damage healthy tissue on the way.


To help his experiments, Thomas Edison designed a laboratory model of a transatlantic cable, in which cheap powdered carbon was used to simulate the electrical resistance of thousands of miles of wires. Alas, the rumble of traffic outdoors, clattering in the machine shop, or even the scientists’ footsteps shook the equipment enough to change the pressure of the connecting wires on the carbon, thus altering its resistance. Since the accuracy of the model depended upon constant resistance in the carbon, Edison finally abandoned this approach. But later, when confronted with the problem of how to improve the transmission of voices over the telephone, he adapted his failed work on variable resistance with the undersea cable to his work on a telephone transmitter. He used a funnel-shaped mouthpiece to focus sound waves on a carbon button. The pressure of those vibrations altered the resistance in the circuit in synchrony with the speaker’s voice. In other words, the material that ruined Edison’s underwater-telegraphy experiments is exactly what made his telephone transmitter such a triumph. Indeed, this innovative transmitter rendered Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone practical–so much so that it became the industry standard.


Logic Can Get You From A to B; Imagination Can Get You Anywhere

Einstein often said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Here is how he explained time as the fourth dimension in his unified theory: “Imagine a scene in two-dimensional space, for instance, the painting of a man reclining upon a bench. A tree stands behind the bench. Then imagine the man walks from the bench to a rock on the other side of the tree. He cannot reach the rock except by walking in back of the tree. This is impossible to do in two-dimensional space. He can reach the rock only by an excursion into the third dimension. Now imagine another man sitting on the bench. How did the other man get there? Since the two bodies cannot occupy the same place at the same time, he can have reached there only before or after the first man moved. In other words, he must have moved in time. Time is the fourth dimension.

Think of how Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by imagining 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 imagined 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. And still another time he imagined a blind beetle crawling around a sphere thinking it was crawling in a straight line.
Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it.

Thought Experiment. One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

Now it is, of course, impossible for the monk to duplicate himself and walk up the mountain and down the mountain at the same time. But in the visual image he does; and it is precisely this indifference to logic, this superimposition of one image over the other, that leads to the solution. Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible.

The imaginative conception of the monk meeting himself blends the journeys up and down the mountain and superimposes one monk on the other at the meeting place. The ancient Greeks called this kind of thinking homoios which means “same.” They sensed that this was really a kind of mirror image of the dream process, and it led to art and scientific revelations.


Since ancient Greece, cognitive scientists have discovered that the brain is a dynamical system—an organ that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences either real or fictional. An important point to remember is that you can synthesize experience, literally create it in your imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.

The real key to turning imagination into reality is acting as if the imagined scene were real. Instead of pretending it is a scene from the future, Einstein imagined it as though he was truly experiencing it in the present. He imagined it as a real event in the now. The great masters of antiquity have told us through the ages that whatever you believe you become. If you believe and imagine in the now that you are whatever you wish to be, then reality must conform.

Thought Experiment. Think of something in your business that is impossible to do, but that would, if it were possible to do, change the nature of your business forever.

Think of an impossibility, then try to come up with ideas that take you as close as possible to that impossibility. For example, imagine an automobile that is a live, breathing creature, List attributes of living creatures. They are, for example, breathing, growing older, reproducing, feeling emotions, and so on. Then use as many of those attributes as you can while designing your automobile. For instance, can you work emotions into something that a car displays?

Japanese engineers for Toyota are working on a car that they say can express moods ranging from angry to happy to sad. The car can raise or lower its body height and ‘‘wag’’ its antenna, and it comes equipped with illuminated hood designs, capable of changing colors, that are meant to look like eyebrows, eyes, and even tears. The car will try to approximate the feelings of its driver by drawing on data stored in an onboard computer. So, for example, if another car swerves into an expressive car’s lane, the right combination of deceleration, brake pressure, and defensive steering, when matched with previous input from the driver, will trigger an ‘‘angry’’ look.

The angry look is created as the front-end lights up with glowing red U-shaped lights, the headlights become hooded at a forty-five-degree angle, and downward-sloping “eyebrow” lights glow crimson. A good-feeling look is expressed by the front-end lights glowing orange, and one headlight winks at the courteous driver and wags its antennae. A sad-feeling look is blue with “tears” dripping from the headlights.

Stretching your imagination by trying to make impossible things possible with concrete thoughts and actions is a mirror reversal of dreaming. Whereas a dream represents abstract ideas as concrete actions and images, this creative process works in the opposite direction, using concrete ideas (a car that is alive) to gain insight on a conscious level to reveal disguised thoughts (about cars showing emotion) as creative imagery.

Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and author of THINKERTOYS, CRACKING CREATIVITY, CREATIVE THINKERING, AND THINKPAK (A brainstorming card deck).

Change the Way You Look At Things and the Things You Look At Change

Michael Michalko’s creative thinking techniques give you the extraordinary ability to focus on information in a different way and different ways to interpret what you are focusing on.


Below is an illustration of irregular black and white shapes:

Concentrate on the four small dots in the vertical row in the middle of the picture for at least 30 seconds.

Then close your eyes and tilt your head back. Keep them closed. Eventually, you will see a circle of light.

Continue looking at the circle. What do you see? Amazing isn’t it?

By focusing your attention in a different way (focusing on the dots and closing your eyes), you changed your perception of the pattern thereby allowing yourself to see something that you could not otherwise see.

Similarly, Michael Michalko’s creative thinking techniques change the way you think by focusing your attention in different ways and giving you different ways to interpret what you focus on. The techniques will enable you to look at the same information as everyone else and see something different.

Michael Michalko. Creativity consists of seeing what no one else is seeing, to think what no one else is thinking, and doing what others had wish they had done. Become creative.




Simply put, the key to increasing creativity in any organization is to make it start acting like a creative organization. Suppose you wanted to be an artist: You would begin behaving like an artist by painting every day. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you’ll become much more of an artist than someone who has never tried. Similarly, you and your organization will become more creative if you start acting the part. Following are 15 suggestions to encourage you and your colleagues to start becoming more creative today.


1.ONE-A-DAY. Ask each person to try to improve one aspect of their job each day, focusing on the areas within their control. At the end of the day, people should meet and ask each other what they did differently and better than it was the day before.

2.  BRAINSTORMING BOARD. Put up a bulletin board in a central area and encourage people to use it to brainstorm ideas. Write a theme or problem on a colored card and place it in the center of the board. Provide pieces of white paper on which people can write their ideas to post on the board. E.g. suppose you have difficulty closing a particular sale. You could describe the sale situation on a colored card, post it on the brainstorming board and ask people to post their ideas and suggestions.

3. IDEA LOTTERY. Have a monthly “idea lottery,” using a roll of numbered tickets. Each time a person comes up with a creative idea, he or she receives a ticket. At the end of each month, share the ideas with the staff and then draw a number from a bowl. If the number on anyone’s ticket corresponds to the number drawn, he or she gets a prize. If no one wins, double the prize for the next month.

4. CREATIVE CORNER. Provide a special area for people to engage in creative thinking. Stock the area with books, videos on creativity, as well as learning games and such toys as beanbags and modeling clay. You might even decorate the area with pictures of employees as infants to suggest the idea that we’re all born spontaneous and creative.

5. ICONS OF CREATIVITY. Ask people to display items on their desks that represent their own personal visions of creativity in business. For example, a crystal ball might represent a view toward future markets, a bottle of Heinz catsup might represent a personal goal of 57 new ideas on how to cut expenses, and a set of jumper cables might symbolize the act of jump-starting your creative juices to get more sales.

6. LET’S DO LUNCH. Encourage weekly lunch-time meeting of three to five employees to engage in creative thinking. Ask meeting participants to read a book on creativity; each person can read a different chapter and share ways of applying creative thinking to the organization. Invite creative business people from the community to speak to the group. You could ask them for ideas on how to become more creative in your business.

7. BRIGHT IDEAS NOTEBOOK. Present each person with a notebook. Call the notebook the “Bright Idea Notebook,” and ask everyone to write three ideas in the notebook every day for one month on how to improve your business. At the end of the month, collect all the notebooks and categorize the ideas for further discussion.

8. STUPID IDEA WEEK. Make idea generating fun. Have a “Stupid Idea” week and stage a contest for the dumbest ideas. Post entries on a bulletin board and conduct an awards ceremony with a prize. You’ll enjoy the camaraderie and may find that the stupid ideas stimulate good ones.

9. CREATIVITY BY COMMITTEE. Establish a “creative-idea” committee made up of volunteers. The goals of the committee should be to elicit, discuss, and implement employee’s ideas. The committee can record the number of ideas on a thermometer-type graph. The company should recognize and reward people according to the quantity and quality of their creative contributions.

10. HALL OF FAME. Turn an office hallway into an Employee Hall of Fame. Post photographs of those whose ideas are implemented along with a paragraph about the person, the idea, and its impact on the company.

11. LEFT AND RIGHT BRAINS. When brainstorming in a group, try dividing the group into left-brain (rational) thinkers and right-brain (intuitive) thinkers. Ask the left-brainers to come up with practical, conventional and logical ideas; ask the right-brainers to come up with far-out, unconventional and non-logical ideas. Then combine the groups and share the ideas.

12. IDEA QUOTAS. Thomas Edison guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. A way to guarantee creativity is to give each employee an idea quota of, say, five new ideas a week.

13. TICKET OF ADMISSION. Require everyone to bring one new idea as their ticket of admission to any group meeting. The idea should focus on some aspect of their job and how they can improve what they do.

14. CHANGE “YES, BUT…” to “YES, AND..” Someone offers an idea in a meeting, and many of us are tempted to say “Yes, but…” To change this mind set, whenever someone says “Yes, but…” require the person to change “Yes, but…” to “Yes, and…” and continue where the last person left off.

15. THREE WAYS. Employees shouldn’t waste time thinking of reasons why something can’t work or can’t be done. Instead, they should think about ways to make something work, and then get it done. Ask employees to think of three job-related goals, targets, or tasks they think can’t be accomplished. Then ask them to figure out three ways to accomplish each of them. Then do the same thing yourself.

16. FRESH EYES. Jonas Salk, developer of the vaccine that eradicated polio, made it a standard practice to assemble men and women from different domains to his group sessions. He felt this practice helped him bring out new ideas that could not arise in the minds of individuals who were from the same domain. Invite people from other departments to your brainstorming sessions and ask them how they would solve your problems.

Lastly, don’t forget to thank people for their ideas. Design your own “Thank You for Your Great Idea” cards and distribute them freely to contributors. Ask the CEO to sign each card with a personal message. Stock up on instant lottery cards and include one or two in each card to show your appreciation.

Michael Michalko

– See more at:


Mind Reading Game Think Clear



BRAINWRITING. Richard Feynman, while working at Los Alamos on the first atomic bomb, noted that only one problem was fed into the computer at a time. Instead of thinking of more efficient ways of solving one problem at a time, he thought of ways of processing multiple problems in parallel, spontaneous sequences. He invented a system for sending three problems through the machine simultaneously. He had his team work with colored cards with a different color for each problem. The cards circled the table in a multicolored sequence, small batches occasionally having to pass other batches like impatient golfers playing through. This simple innovation dramatically increased idea production and accelerated the work on the bomb.

Horst Geschka and his associates at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, developed a variety of group creative-thinking techniques called Brainwriting which, like Feynman=s innovative problem-solving approach, are designed to process ideas in parallel, spontaneous sequences. In traditional brainstorming groups, people suggest ideas one at a time. This is serial processing of information: i.e., only one idea is offered at a time in a series. Brainwriting, in contrast, allows multiple ideas to be suggested at the same time. This is parallel processing of information: i.e., many ideas produced at once in parallel. If a brainwriting group has 10 members, up to 10 ideas will be generated for every one generated in a typical brainstorming session of 10 members. Brainwriting increases idea production dramatically.

The basic guidelines are:

1. First, discuss the problem to clarify it. Write the problem in a location visible to all group members.
2. Distribute 3X5 index cards to each participant and instruct them to silently write their ideas on the cards. One idea per card. Whereas group brainstorming involves participants shouting ideas out loud, Abrainwriting@ has people silently writing down ideas.
3. As participants complete a card, they pass it silently to the person on the right.
4. Tell the group members to read the cards they are passed and to regard them as Astimulation@ cards. Write down any new ideas inspired by the Astimulation@ cards on blank cards and pass them to the person on their right. Within a few minutes, several idea cards will be rotating around the table.
5. After 20-30 minutes, collect all cards and have the group members tape them to a wall. The cards should be arranged into columns according to different categories of ideas, with a title card above each column. Eliminate the duplicates.
6. Evaluate the ideas by giving each participant a packet of self-sticking dots and have them place the dots on their preferred ideas. They can allocate the dots in any manner desired, placing them all on one idea, one each on five different ideas, or any other combination.

Only one person can offer an idea at a time during brainstorming, and despite encouragement to let loose, some people hold back out of inhibition or for fear of ridicule. Brainwriting ensures that the loudest voices don’t prevail, participants feel less pressure from managers and bosses, and ideas can’t be shot down as soon as they are offered. You can design your own Abrainwriting@ format based on the two principles:

(1) Idea generation is silent.
(2) Ideas are created spontaneously in parallel.

Some examples are:

IDEA POOL. Ask participants to silently generate ideas on 3X5 cards and place their cards in the center of the table instead of passing them to the person on their right. Whenever a participant wants or needs a stimulation card, they simply exchange their cards for cards from the pool.

GALLERY. This technique reverses the normal process. Instead of moving ideas around for people to examine, the gallery moves people around. 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. Drawing and diagraming is useful in creative thinking to recover information from memory that would otherwise be unavailable. For example, how many windows are there in your house? Diagraming your house allows you to go inspect and count the windows. Creative insights sometimes occur as a result of drawing or diagraming a problem, because they help us notice certain features that may be overlooked.

Post sheets of flip-chart paper and then ask the participants to draw a sketch or diagram of how the problem might be solved. Then the participants are again allowed to walk around the Agallery@ and take notes. Using the notes, they return and refine their own sketches. The group then examines all the sketches and constructs a final solution from parts of different sketches.

Michael Michalko

« Older posts