Tag: innovation

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).

How Not To Think


The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Aristotle and Plato created the rules for thinking that were introduced into Europe during the Renaissance. These rules have evolved into logical thinking habits. Typically, we’ve learned how to analyze a situation, identify standard elements and operations and exclude everything else from our thinking. We’re taught to emphasize exclusion rather than inclusion. Then we analytically fixate on something that we have learned from someone else and apply that to the problem.

Suppose we are given a button to match, from among a box of assorted buttons. How do we proceed? We examine the buttons in the box, one at a time; but we do not look for the button that might match. What we do, actually, is to scan the buttons looking for the buttons that “are not” a match, rejecting each one in which we notice some discrepancy (this one is larger, this one darker, too many holes, etc.). Instead of looking for “what is” a match, our first mental reflex is to look for “what is not” a match. Give a young child the same exercise and the child will immediately look to find what is a match. This is because the child is thinking naturally and has not yet been educated to think exclusively.


We sometimes say adults are better at paying attention than children, but we really mean the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. We’re educated to screen out everything else and restrict our consciousness to a single focus. This ability, though useful for mundane tasks, is actually a liability to creative thinking, since it leads us to neglect potentially significant pieces of information and thoughts when we try to create something new. To truly experience the difference between adult and children, take a walk with a two-year old. They see things you don’t even notice. The French poet Baudelaire was right: “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”

Suppose you were given a candle, a cork board and a box of tacks. Can you fasten the candle in such a way that it does not drip on the floor? Typically, when participants are given a candle, cork board, and a box of tacks and asked to fasten the candle on the wall so that it does not drip on the floor, most have great difficulty coming up with the solution. We’ve been taught to divide a complex problem into its separate objects that can be labeled and separated into separate pre-established categories such as cork board, candle, tacks and box. This kind of thinking is again, by nature, exclusionary. We look for “What is not@ instead of “What is,” and What can be.@ Interpreting problems by excluding things through the prism of past experience will, by definition, lead the thinker astray. Once the box is perceived as a container for the tacks, it is not thought of as anything else.

By thinking of “What can be,” instead of “What is not,” our thinking becomes more abstract and conceptual as we dramatically increase possibilities and freedom of thought. Thinking “what the box can be” suggests using it as a platform by tacking the box to the board as a platform and placing the candle on top.

An experimental psychologist set up the task of making a pendulum. Subjects were led to a table on which had been placed a pendulum-weight with a cord attached, a nail and some other objects. All one had to do was to drive the nail into the wall using the pendulum weight and hang the cord with the pendulum on the nail. But there was no hammer. Most of the subjects were unable to accomplish the task.

Next, another series of subjects were given the same task under slightly altered conditions. The cord was placed separately from the pendulum-weight and the word pendulum-weight was not used. All the subjects accomplished the task. Their minds were not prejudiced by past experiences, labels and categories, so they simply used the pendulum-weight to hammer in the nail, then tied the cord weight and the weight to the cord.

The first group failed because the weight was firmly embedded in its role as a pendulum-weight and nothing else, because it had been verbally described as such and because visually it formed a unit with a cord attached. The visual gestalt of weight-attached-to-cord, plus the verbal suggestion from their experimenter made it impossible for them to change their perception of a pendulum-weight into a hammer. “This is not a hammer,” they thought.

In contrast, creative thinkers think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask “How many different ways can I look at it?”, “How can I rethink the way I see it?” and “How many different ways can I solve it?” instead of “What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique.

Can you move one of these cards to leave four jacks in the following thought experiment? Try to solve it before you continue reading.



To solve the experiment you have to rethink how you see the cards. How, for example, you can remove one card to leave four jacks when there are only three jacks to begin with? How can you manufacture another jack out of thin air? Can you shuffle or move the cards in such a way to create another Jack? Is there anything you can do with the cards to make another jack? The solution is to take the king and place it over the queen so that the right half on the upper-left “Q” is covered making a “C.” Now you have formed the word “jack,” and you have four jacks.


With productive thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. 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. 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.

We automatically accept what we are taught and exclude all other lines of thought. The same thing happens when we see something odd or unusual in our experiences. We tend to accept whatever explanation someone with experience tells us. This kind of thinking reminds me of herring gulls. Herring gulls have a drive to remove all red objects from their nest. They also have a drive to retrieve any egg that rolls away from the nest. If you place a red egg in the nest, when the gull returns she will push it out, then roll it back in, then push it out again, only to retrieve it once more.

At a seminar, I asked participants if they could give me examples of people doing something absurd because they simply reproduced what was done before. One of the participants, a quality management consultant, told us about his experience with a small English manufacturing company where he consulted to advise them on improving general operating efficiency.

He told us about a company report which dealt with various aspects of productivity. At the top-right corner of one form, there was a small box with a tiny illegible heading. The consultant noted that the figure ‘0’ had been written in every such report for the past year. On questioning the members of staff who completed the report, they told him that they always put a zero in that box, and when he asked them why they told him they were told do so by their supervisor. The supervisor told him he guessed it had to do with accidents but wasn’t sure. It had always been “0” for the twenty years he had been there, so he continued the practice.

The consultant visited the archives to see if he could discover what was originally being reported and whether it held any significance. When he found the old reports, he saw that the zero return had continued uninterrupted for as far back as the records extended – at least the past thirty years. Finally he found the box that catalogued all the forms the company had used during its history. In it, he found the original daily report, in pristine condition. In the top right corner was the mysterious box, with the heading clearly shown …… ‘Number of Air Raids Today’.


(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net) 

How to Reverse Your Perspective to Create New Idea


Is this an illustration of an old woman or a young girl?

Many times we have to change our psychology to understand certain phenomena. Think of Michelangelo when he sculpted what may be the world’s most famous sculpture, David. He did not think of “building” something; he thought of “taking away” something from what was there. A quotation often attributed to him has it that “the more the marble wastes away, the more the sculpture grows.”

To understand a mirror you have to change your psychology. Why does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, when you hold an open book up to a mirror, why are the letters of the text backward but not upside down, and why is your left hand the double’s right and your right the double’s left? When we look into a mirror we imagine ourselves reversed left to right, as if we had walked around behind a pane of glass to look through it. This conventional perspective is why we cannot explain what is happening with a mirror. To understand a mirror’s image, you have to psychologically reverse the way you perceive your image. Imagine your nose and the back of your head reversed, through the mirror. You have to imagine yourself reversed, “squashed” back to front. Stand in front of the mirror with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its west hand lies to the west. Its head is up and the feet are down. Once you look at a mirror with this perspective, you gain an understanding, about the axis of the mirror, which is the imaginary line on a mirror about which a body rotates. We have difficulty understanding the mirror until we change our perspective.

Similarly, we sometimes have difficulty coming up with ideas until we change our psychology. Early nomadic societies were all based on the principle of “getting to the water.” Only when they reversed this to “how can we get the water to come to us” did civilization begin to flourish. An easy way to change your thinking patterns when faced with a problem is to first list all your assumptions about the problem. Then reverse your assumptions and try to make the reversals work.

Following is a thought experiment about reversing a store policy. After you read the problem, try to come up with ideas before you read further.


A clothing retailer is concerned about the rate of garment returns. According to the store policy, a customer who returns a garment must receive a cash refund. Reverse this policy so that it says: if a customer returns a garment, the store doesn’t have to give a cash refund. Can you come up with ideas to make this reversal into a practical solution?


What can the store give the customer instead of a refund? One idea is to offer the customer a gift certificate worth more than the original purchase price. In effect this gives the customer a 10 percent reward for returning the unwanted garment. The policy would allow the store to keep most of the cash, and the customers would likely be happy with the reward. The real payback would occur when the customer returned with the gift certificate. A customer who returned a $100 garment would receive a gift certificate for $110. Psychology predicts that, when the customer returns to the store, he will go to the higher priced garments. For example, instead of shopping for an $l00 garment, he will be attracted to the $200 garments because, in his mind, it would “cost” him only $90. What a deal! Change the way you look at things by reversing them and looking at the other side.

For more creative thinking techniques read Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko.

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: