Tag: corporate innovation


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 http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs

Let’s Keep Doing What We’ve Always Done

A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it.  Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese learned to always do the same things over and over and to live orderly and predictable lives with no surprises. This primarily meant never take a risk or do anything new. Over time the geese became so lazy they even forgot how to fly. They were safe and secure in their barnyard where everything is familiar and nothing ever changes. In short, they always did what they always did and always got what they always got.

One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. “My fellow geese,” he would say, “can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence? Don’t you realize you can fly and change the way you live? You were all born as spontaneous and natural fliers. All you need do is live the way you were meant to live and fly.” “I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which you are only dimly aware.

Our forefathers knew of this outside world. For did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here you remain in this barnyard, your wings folded and tucked into your sides, as you are content to puddle around in the mud, never lifting your eyes to the heavens which should be your home.”

The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. “How poetical,” they thought. “How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.” Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to get off their butts and fly. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with?

The philosopher urged the geese to experience the joys of doing different things and looking at the world in a different way. “Fly,” he would say. “Don’t wait for divine inspiration. Inspiration will never come. Just do it. Get up and fly.” Often he reflected on the joys on controlling your own destiny in the freedom of the skies while you enjoyed the beauty and the wonder of life as they were born to do.

And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher’s message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, and months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They created computer models, charts and graphs displaying the physics and dynamics of flight. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. They held meetings and talked endlessly about the importance and need to fly. They all agreed that flying would make a much better life possible. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! They were afraid of the uncertainty of living in a different way. For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!

Are You Like the Geese?

At one time Eastman Kodak was one of the premier companies in the world. The people who worked there were prosperous, had wonderful salaries, bonuses, comprehensive health and medical benefits, and superior pensions. Everybody was happy. It seemed like there was no end to its prosperity. Kodak advertised itself internationally as being a very creative and innovative company. They hired the top creative thinkers in the fields of photography and film. They came up with scores of brilliant ideas such as digital photography, and were among the first to design a digital photography camera.

They had all these cutting edge ideas years before their competition, but they implemented not a single one because of the fear of new ideas. Kodak clung to its aging familiar technology. They wanted to hang on to their historical revenue streams. They thought, “We know we’re making a lot of money with film. We don’t know if we’re going to make money with these new ideas. Let’s keep doing what we’ve always done.” Consequently, not one of these innovative ideas–not one–was accepted or implemented. It was an organization which could not transform itself by accepting and implementing new ideas. So the reality of the business world transformed Kodak from being a major player into a bankrupt shell.

Kodak CEOs and top managers feared the new ideas. They wanted to be absolutely certain everything would work flawlessly and the money would continue to flow, which, of course, is impossible to predict with new ideas. In the end, Kodak management behaved like the flock of geese in the barnyard and never did fly.

Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques:

Creative Thinking Technique: Combine Ideas from Different Domains

Many breakthroughs are based on combining information from different domains that are usually not thought of as related. Integration, synthesis both across and within domains, is the norm rather than the exception. Ravi Shankar found ways to integrate and harmonize the music of India and Europe; Paul Klee combined the influences of cubism, children’s drawings, and primitive art to fashion his own unique artistic style; Salvador Dali integrated Einstein’s theory of relativity into his masterpiece Nature Morte Vivante, which artistically depicts several different objects simultaneously in motion and rest. And almost all scientists cross and recross the boundaries of physics, chemistry, and biology in the work that turns out to be their most creative.

ASK PEOPLE IN DIFFERENT DOMAINS FOR IDEAS. Another way to combine talent is to elicit advice and information about your subject from people who work in different domains. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci met and worked with Niccolô Machiavelli, the Italian political theorist, in Florence in 1503. The two men worked on several projects together, including a novel weapon of war: the diversion of a river. Professor Roger Masters of Dartmouth College speculates that Leonardo introduced Machiavelli to the concept of applied science. Years later, Machiavelli combined what he learned from Leonardo with his own insights about politics into a new political and social order that some believe ultimately sparked the development of modern industrial society.

Jonas Salk, developer of the vaccine that eradicated polio, made it a standard practice to interact with men and women from very different domains. He felt this practice helped to bring out ideas that could not arise in his own mind or in the minds of people in his own restricted domain. Look for ways to elicit ideas from people in other fields. Ask three to five people who work in other departments or professions for their ideas about your problem. Ask your dentist, your accountant, your mechanic, etc. Describe the problem and ask how they would solve it.

Listen intently and write down the ideas before you forget them. Then, at a later time, try integrating all or parts of their ideas into your idea. This is what Robert Bunsen, the chemist who invented the familiar Bunsen burner, did with his problem. He used the color of a chemical sample in a gas flame for a rough determination of the elements it contained. He was puzzled by the many shortcomings of the technique that he and his colleagues were unable to overcome, despite their vast knowledge of chemistry. Finally, he casually described the problem to a friend, Kirchhoff, a physicist, who immediately suggested using a prism to display the entire spectrum and thus get detailed information. This suggestion was the breakthrough that led to the science of spectrography and later to the modern science of cosmology.

EXAMPLES. Physicists in a university assembled a huge magnet for a research project. The magnet was highly polished because of the required accuracy of the experiment. Accidentally, the magnet attracted some iron powder that the physicists were unable to remove without damaging the magnet in some way. They asked other teachers in an interdepartmental meeting for their ideas and suggestions. An art instructor came up with the solution immediately, which was to use modeling clay to remove the powder.

The CEO of a software company looked for ways to motivate employees to participate more actively in the creative side of the business. They wanted employee ideas for new processes, new products, improvements, new technologies and so on. He tried many things but nothing seemed to excite and energize employees to become more creative.

One evening at a dinner with some of his friends he mentioned his problem and asked them for ideas. After a brief discussion, a friend who was a stockbroker suggested thinking ways to parallel ideas with stocks. Look for ways for people to buy and sell ideas the same way his customers study, buy and sell stocks on the stock exchange.

The CEO was intrigued with the novelty of the idea and he and his stockbroker friend looked for patterns between the stock exchange and an internal employee program. They blended the architecture of the stock exchange with the internal architecture of their company’s internal market to create the company’s own stock exchange for ideas. Their exchange is called Mutual Fun. Any employee can propose that the company acquire a new technology, enter a new business, make a new product or make an efficiency improvement. These proposals become stocks, complete with ticker symbols, discussion lists and e-mail alerts.

 Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expectus, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in “opinion money” to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Employees buy or sell the stocks, and prices change to reflect the sentiments of the company’s executives, engineers, computer scientists, project managers, marketing, sales, accountants and even the receptionist.

The result has been a resounding success. Among the company’s ‘ core technologies are pattern-recognition algorithms used in military applications, as well as for electronic gambling systems at casinos. A member of the administrative staff, with no technical expertise, thought that this technology might also be used in educational settings, to create an entertaining way for students to learn history or math. She started a stock called Play and Learn (symbol: PL), which attracted a rush of investment from engineers eager to turn her idea into a product. Lots of employees got passionate about the idea and it led to a new line of business.

INVITE OTHER DEPARTMENTS TO JOIN YOUR BRAINSTORMING SESSION. If you’re brainstorming a business problem in a group, try asking another department to join yours. For example, if you are in advertising and want to create a new product advertising campaign, ask people from manufacturing to join your session. Separate the advertising and manufacturing people into two groups. Each group brainstorms for ideas separately. Then combine the groups and integrate the ideas.


For more ideas on how to combine dissimilar subjects to create new ideas read Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius by Michael Michalko