Deutsche BankWe think of idea-creation in organizations as usually being about new product development (e.g., the next Post-It Notes). What other kinds of innovation do you help organizations do?
Michalko: I teach inventive thinking techniques that show people how to reorganize your thinking, look at the world in a different way, and come up with original ideas and creative solutions to problems.

Many of us have been taught to think reproductively, that is on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with problems, we fixate on something in our past that has worked before. We ask, “What have I been taught in life, education or work by someone else on how to solve the problem?” Then we analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction towards the solution of the problem. Because of the soundness of the steps based on past experiences, we become arrogantly certain of the correctness of our conclusion.

This kind of thinking fosters rigidity of thought. This is why we so often fail when confronted with a new problem that is similar to past experiences only in superficial ways, or on the surface, and is different from previously encountered problems in its deep structure. Interpreting such a problem through the prism of past experience will, by definition, lead the thinker astray. Reproductive thinking leads us to the usual and not to original ideas. If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got – the same old, same old ideas.

In 1968, the Swiss dominated the watch industry. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neufchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their past experiences in the industry, they believed this couldn’t possibly be the watch of the future. After all, it was battery powered, did not have bearings or a mainspring and almost no gears. Seiko took one look at this invention that the Swiss manufacturers rejected at the World Watch Congress that year and took over the world watch market.

When Univac invented the computer, they refused to talk to business people who inquired about it, because they said the computer was invented for scientists and had no business applications. Then along came IBM. IBM, itself, once said that according to their past experiences in the computer market, there is virtually no market for the personal computer. In fact, they said they were absolutely certain there were no more than five or six people in the entire world who had need for a personal computer. And along came Apple.

I show corporate clients how to get their employees to think productively, not reproductively. I show them how to always approach a problem on its own terms. When confronted with a problem, 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?”

With productive thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches. 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.

Deutsche BankIs the ideation process easier or harder to sell to organizations (especially businesses) in times of accelerating change and uncertainty?
Michalko: Put a ball in a wagon. When you pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when you suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front. The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving, and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard. This is tendency is called “inertia,” but no one knows why it’s true. (That’s the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

Many of us speak of “creativity” as a noun but few of us understand that it is not a noun. It is a verb. (This too is the difference between knowing the name of creativity and understanding it.) When I say something like “The artist is painting a landscape,” we focus on the artist and the landscape. This is because we think statically and are always surprised, often uncomfortably, sometimes fatally, by the constant changes in the world. The real world is not static, in the real world everything is in the process of transformation and flow. Even this page is evolving into dust as you look at it. Instead of the artist and the landscape we should focus on “the process” of painting.

Asking if the ideation process is easier or harder to sell in times of uncertainty is like asking if the process of “breathing” is easier or harder in times of change. The true challenge is getting people to understand how talented they are, and what they are capable of doing. It is hard for me to believe but humans actually think there is a “property” of creativity that one can either “have” or “not have” as opposed to fostering an attitude and passion for the content of the work that keeps people thinking of how to improve products, services and processes every day, in every way, all the time.

Deutsche BankWhat obstacles are there in corporate ideation, and how do you overcome them?
Michalko: The greatest obstacle is education. A great deal of our education may be regarded as the inculcation of mindsets. We were taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental attitudes (based on what past thinkers thought) that predetermine our response to problems or situations. In short, we were taught more “what” to think instead of “how” to think. We entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Consequently, we tend to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternatives ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We tend to develop narrow ideas and stick with them until proven wrong. Let’s say to advertise our product we use television commercials during a popular prime time sitcom. We are fairly happy with the results and the television campaign seems to work. Are we going to check out other ideas that we don’t think will be as good or better? Are we likely to explore alternative ways to advertise our product? Probably not.

Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Watson, and which demonstrates this attitude. Watson would present subjects with the following three numbers in sequence:

2   4   6

He would then ask subjects to explain the number rule for the sequence and to give other examples of the rule. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “20, 22, 24” or “50, 52, 54” and so on – all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Watson was looking for is much simpler – it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is correct.

The profound discovery Watson made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

The most important thing for most people to understand is that creativity demands you produce great quantities of alternatives. Quantity breeds quality. Imagine a pearl diver on an island in the South Seas. He pushes his canoe off the shore, paddles out into the lagoon, dives deep into the water, picks an oyster off the bottom, surfaces, climbs into his boat, paddles to shore, and opens the shell. Finding nothing inside but an oyster, he pushes his canoe off again, and begins paddling into the lagoon.

What an incredible waste of time. The reasonable thing to do is not to paddle back to shore with one oyster, but to dive again and again, to fill up the canoe with oysters and then return to shore. Pearls are rare – a diver must open many oysters before finding one. Only a foolish person would waste time and energy making a separate trip for each oyster. It’s the same with producing ideas. Many times we’ll produce one or two ideas and proceed as if they are the answer. But creative ideas, like pearls, occur infrequently. So the sensible thing to do is to produce many ideas before we evaluate. Just as a good idea may stop you from going on to discover a great one, a great idea may stop you from discovering the right one.

In Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, there is a staggering display of hundreds of phonograph horns of every shape, size and material. Some were round, square, angular, thin, short, squat while others are curved and as long as six feet tall. This collection of rejected ideas is a visual testament to Edison’s thinking strategy – which was, in essence, to explore every conceivable possibility. For every brilliant idea Edison had, there were many duds like the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant.

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 within three minutes, you would have quite a few in a short period of time.

A quota and time limit would focus your energy in a competitive way that guaranteed fluency of thought. It should be evident that the quota is not only more effective at focusing your energy but also a more productive method of generating alternatives.

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 productivity of your creative thought is to give yourself an idea quota. For example, an idea quota of 40 ideas if you’re looking for ideas alone or a quota of 120 ideas if a group is brainstorming for ideas. By forcing yourself to come up with 40 ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity.

Initial ideas are usually poorer in quality than later ideas. Just as water must run from a faucet for a while to be crystal clear, cool and free of particles, so thought must flow before it becomes creative. Early ideas are usually not true ideas. Exactly why this is so is not known, but one hypothesis is that familiar and safe responses lie closest to the surface of our consciousness and therefore are naturally thought of first. Creative thinking depends on continuing the flow of ideas long enough to purge the common, habitual ones and produce the unusual and imaginative.

You will note that the latter associations are much more original and unique than the earlier ones. The first responses are the common dominant associations you have for that word. By arranging to give responses that are not common or dominant, there is an increase in originality and imaginativeness of the responses.

Researchers have discovered an interesting correlation between the birth order of human beings and revolutionary creativity as well. Firstborn children tend to become conservatives, and “laterborns,” like Darwin, are more likely to become free thinkers. Firstborns tend to identify more with established tradition than their siblings do. They try to dominate their siblings. Laterborns are more open to experience, because this openness aids them, as latecomers to the family, in finding an unoccupied niche. Their openness tends to make them more imaginative and creative. From their ranks have come the bold explorers and revolutionary creators. Darwin, Marx, Jefferson, Joan of Arc, Rousseau, Lenin, Virginia Wolf, and Bill Gates typify the behavior of laterborns.

When you wish to create something new or to come up with a creative solution to a problem, it is often necessary to distance yourself from your firstborn ideas as well. If I want to surprise my wife on Valentine’s Day, I know that I must disregard the first idea that comes to mind for what to do. I probably will have to disregard the second, third and fourth as well. In order to come up with something creative, we must get beyond our habitual response to intentionally create something new.

Deutsche BankCan you briefly describe your “best-practice” process for sparking creative thinking in your clients?
Michalko: I try to encourage people to look at things using a multiplicity of perspectives. One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we’ve been conditioned to – and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it is occurring. 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.

Leonardo daVinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by learning how to restructure it to see it in many different ways. 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. Leonardo called this thinking strategy saper vedere or “knowing how to see.”

Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Einstein’s theory of relativity is in, essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives. Freud would “reframe” something to transform its meaning by putting it into a different framework or context than it has previously been perceived. For example, by reframing the “unconscious” as a part of him that was “infantile,” Freud began to help his patients change the way they thought and reacted to their own behavior.

Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, many people believe was the last great American. When Feynman was “stuck” with a problem, he would look at it in a different way. If one way didn’t work, he would switch to another. Whatever came up, he would always find another way to look at it and then still another. Feynman would do something in ten minutes that would take the average physicist a year because he had a lot of ways to represent his problem.

Consider the letter-string FFMMTT. You’d probably describe this as three pairs of letters. If you’re given KLMMNOTUV, you’d probably see it as three letter triplets. In each case, the letters MM are perceived differently: as one chunk or as parts of two different chunks. If you were given MM alone, you’d have no reason for seeing it as either and now would see it as a simple pair of letters. It’s the context of the information that inclines you to describe an input in a certain way and perhaps to abandon an initial description for another.

The more times you state a problem in different ways, the more likely that your perspective will change and deepen. When Einstein thought about a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible. He was once asked what he would do if he was told that a huge comet would hit and totally destroy the earth in one hour. Einstein said he would spend 55 minutes figuring out how to formulate the question and 5 minutes solving it.

Deutsche BankWhat is the most unusual method you’ve used to spark creativity?
Michalko: My whole body of work is unusual in that I teach that creative thinking is the natural way to think, not a different way of thinking. We’ve been taught to think reproductively, logically and linearly. We’ve been sold the bill of goods that even creativity itself must be taught and learned in the same fashion as other academic subjects. This is not so. If you could understand the mind of a five year old child, you would know all you need to know about creative thinking.

The heart of imagination is conceptual blending. Conceptual blending, a cognitive process that operates below the level of consciousness, involves linking two cognitive concepts to create new meaning and explains abstract thought and creativity. Blending is a basic mental operation that is unique to the human species, and an operation that takes place right below our consciousness. Blends, which occur constantly, without our awareness, are critical for the creation of emergent meanings, ideas, and global insight.

My techniques inspire people to unlearn the way they have been taught to think and how to move beyond logic to a different level of thinking by deliberately blending dissimilar concepts. Blending suspends your thought and allows intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. Consider Einstein imagining objects in motion and at rest at the same time, Neils Bohr imagining light as a particle and wave, or Edwin McMillan in his studies of subatomic particles imagining particles in states of too high energy and too low energy at the same time and you get a sense of the meaning of conceptual blending.

Your unconscious blends differing concepts for you by recognizing only those counterparts of each concept that are interesting to your unconscious mind based on your own unique set of circumstances and experiences. These counterparts are then projected into the blend by your unconsciousness. The blends then bubble up into your conscious mind as ideas and insights. This is not logical thinking. This is creative thinking. This is the way prehistoric humans thought. This is the way creative geniuses create ideas, insights and products that cannot be created using any other way of thinking.