In November, 2006, the Business Innovation Insider interviewed Michael Michalko during a special Q&A session about creativity and innovation. In the excerpts below from that interview, Michael details 12 creative problem-solving techniques that can be deployed by just about any business organization. He also shares a number of interesting stories of serendipity, creativity and innovation at FORTUNE 500 companies.

 

Business Innovation Insider: What are some of the most effective creative-thinking techniques that any CEO can learn to implement?
Michalko: 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, a CEO’s organization will become more creative if the organization starts acting the part. Following are some 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. 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. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 you may find that the stupid ideas stimulate good ones.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 idea production is to give each employee an idea quota of, say, five new ideas a week.

    Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses for the common brick. No doubt, you would come up with some, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six ideas. However, if I asked you to list 40 uses for the brick as fast as you can, you would have quite a few in a short period of time.

    A quota focused your energy in a competitive way that guaranteed fluency of thought. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor BBQ, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.

  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

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.

 

Business Innovation Insider: When choosing from an array of creative-thinking techniques, how does one know which technique is appropriate for a certain type of problem?
Michalko: There is an African story about a Nigerian God walking down a road wearing a top hat that is colored red on one side and blue on the other. On the left side of the road, the farmers saw a God wearing a blue hat; on the right side, the farmers saw a God wearing a red hat. When the farmers went to village in the evening, some said, “Did you see the God with the blue hat?” And the others said, “No, no, he had a red hat on.” And they got into a fight. The fight lasted for several years. The color of the hat became more important than the God.

It is the same with creative thinking techniques. You can produce ideas with both the left brain and right brain techniques. It does not matter what side of the road you are on. The God is still a God, no matter what the color of the hat. If a farmer had been standing in the center of the road and looked at the God straight on, he would have seen that the hat was both blue and red.

All my creative thinking techniques do the same thing. They change the way you think about the problem by giving you different ways to focus on the information and different ways to interpret what you’re focusing on. This enables you to look at the same information as everyone else and see something different.

As an example, suppose you’re the CEO of a power company and have a problem of power lines collapsing under the build-up of ice during winter storms. You could use the linear (left-brain) technique SCAMPER which is a check list of 100 idea-spurring questions organized around the brainstorming principles of Alex Osborn, a pioneer teacher of creativity. The principles are: Substitute something; Combine it with something else; Adapt something to it; Magnify or Modify it; Put it to some other use; Eliminate something; Reverse or Rearrange it.

You’ll discover ideas popping up almost involuntarily just by thinking about power lines and the principles of SCAMPER.

Or you could use the intuitive (right brain) technique THOUGHT WALK. This is a technique where you ask each person to take a “thought walk” and come back with two or three objects (or a list of objects) that interested them during your walk. (For example, children skipping rope, a pebble, a bag of jelly beans, a drinking fountain, and so on.) Study the objects and list their characteristics and then build ideas around the characteristics by forcing associations between the characteristics and the your subject.

In real life, engineers in a NW power company faced this problem of ice on power lines. They looked for ways to safely and efficiently remove ice from power lines during ice storms. 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.

 

Business Innovation Insider: What is your favorite example of a FORTUNE 500 company that used a creative problem-solving approach to develop a new product or service?
Michalko: DuPont developed and manufactured Nomex, a fire-resistant fiber. This material revolutionized thermal-related professions. The one problem with it was its tight structure which made it impervious to dye. Potential customers (it could be used in the interior of airplanes, professional racing and plant operations if it could be dyed) would not buy the material unless DuPont could manufacture a colored version.

A DuPont chemist working on the problem enjoyed looking for connections and associations between unrelated subjects. He recalled stories his grandfather used to tell him about building mine shafts to mine gold. He forced associations between a mine shaft and Nomex. To excavate minerals, miners dig a hole into the earth and use props to keep the hole from collapsing. Expanding on this thought, the chemist figured out a way to chemically prop open holes in Nomex as it is being manufactured so it could later be filled with dyes. This procedure made Nomex a huge commercial success.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote how he “connected the unconnected” to get his creative inspiration in his notebooks. He discovered that the human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them. He suggested that you will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or the shape of clouds or patterns in mud or in similar places. He would imagine seeing trees, battles, landscapes, figures with lively movements, etc., and then excite his mind by forcing connections between the subjects and events he imagined and his subject. Da Vinci would even sometimes throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the stains.

Da Vinci wondered about how sound traveled. One day he was thinking about sound while sitting on the rim of a well. He noticed a stone hit the water at the same moment that a bell went off in a nearby church tower. He noticed the stone caused circles until they spread and disappeared. By simultaneously concentrating on the circles in the water and the sound of the bell, he made the connection that led to his discovery that sound travels in waves.

It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. These patterns produce only predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. If, however, you change your focus and think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. If one of these newer patterns relates to one of the first patterns, a connection will be made. This connection will lead to the discovery of an original idea or thought. This is what some people call “divine inspiration.”

This is what happened to NASA engineer James Crocker when the Hubble telescope failed and embarrassed NASA. In the shower of a German hotel room, NASA engineer James Crocker was contemplating the Hubble disaster while showering and looking at the shower head that could be extended to adjust to the user’s height. He made the connection between the shower head and the Hubble problem and invented the idea of placing corrective mirrors on automated arms that could reach inside the telescope and adjust to the correct position. His idea turned the Hubble from a disaster into a NASA triumph.

One company wanted to create a compact, standardized potato chip that could be packed tightly without crumbling. Until then, the only way to protect potato chips was to fill the bag with more air than product, which wasted millions in storage and shipping costs. They made a connection between raking leaves and potato chips. When you try to pack dry leaves into a plastic bag, you end up packing a lot of air. But when the leaves are wet, they are soft, malleable, and pack very tightly. This inspired their idea to wet and form dried potato flour in cylinders which became the popular snack — Pringles.

Another company brainstormed for a more effective way to display expiration dates on packages of perishable food. It was autumn and one of the participants noticed a tree with colored leaves. Leaves change color in the autumn. Forcing a connection between changing colors with expiration dates triggered the idea of “smart labels” that change color when the food is exposed to un-refrigerated temperatures for too long. The label would signal the consumer — even though a calendar expiration date might be months away. Our notion of expiration dates was changed by making a connection with something that was unrelated (autumn) which triggered a new thought pattern which led to a new idea.

The original interview excerpts appeared on the Business Innovation Insider website (http://www.businessinnovationinsider.com) in November, 2006.