Leonardo da Vinci was the first creative thinker who talked and wrote about the importance of introducing random and chance events to produce variation in his thinking patterns. Almost with apology, since it seemed so obvious to him, he advised people to contemplate the walls, clouds, pavements, etc., with the idea of looking for patterns and images to conceptually blend with your thoughts. Leonardo da Vinci wrote how he got his creative inspiration in his notebooks in a mirror-image reversed script “secret” handwriting which he taught himself. To read his handwriting, you have to use a mirror. It was his way of protecting his thinking strategy from prying eyes. He suggested that you will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look for random subjects to conceptually blend with your challenge. He would gaze at 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 conceptually blending the subjects and events he imagined and his subject. Da Vinci would occasionally throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the random stains and what they might represent.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Look at the thought experiment below. Imagine you are da Vinci for a moment and see these shapes on the wall. Write down what you think it is.
It is nothing but an assortment of scattered irregular shapes. It represents absolutely nothing. Yet many people think they see a rider on a horse. Now suppose was thinking of new ways to transport people. Looking at the shapes which represent a rider and horse, da Vinci might perceive the bottom half of shapes to be two wheels. Now it looks like a rider on a horse with wheels. Conceptually blending wheels with transportation, he realized people could be transported on two wheels and a metal frame that resembles a horse. Hence, the bicycle which was one of his many inventions.
When you make a connection between two unrelated subjects, your imagination will leap to fill the gaps and form a whole in order to make sense of it. Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene even though there is no dog or leash. In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea.
Original ideas inevitably are created by conceptually blending subjects from different universes into something new. Take the traditional circus which was in a downward spiral and getting worse every year. A group of young public entertainers (clowns, fire blowers, jugglers, etc.) decided to create a festival in Quebec and gather and exchange their ideas and talents. The goal was to somehow resurrect and improve the traditional circus. In addition to public entertainers, the festival attracted authors, singers, song writers, dramatists and actors. These diverse skills and talents were incompatible with what the public expected to find in a circus.
This incompatibility of talents provoked the entertainers to invent new thoughts about circuses. Their final idea was to combine all the different talents and appear together under a big top like a traveling circus. They decided to keep the name “circus,” but to change the meaning (no animals for example) of the concept. They combined the arts of the circus, the arts of the street, and the arts of the theater into a theatrical show featuring original music and stories in a circus like atmosphere. They called it the Cirque du Soleil and present several different thematic shows throughout the world.
RANDOM WORDS. This technique provides a means of producing blind variation of ideas through the use of random words to produce a rich variety of unpredictable ideas. Imagine dropping a stone in a pond. You see a wave emanate outwardly in a plane. The stone jostles the water molecules, which, in turn, jostle neighboring water molecules. Thus, waves of relayed jostling molecules are propagated by the action of the stone. Yet the waves are essences of neither the stone nor the water. Each wave is distinct and measurable and has its own integrity as it visibly grows and travels outward. The consequence is a new pattern of events that has a life of its own, independent of the stone that initiated the action. By dropping a stone into the pond, you created something that did not exist before: a wave.
In the same way, in order to get original ideas, you need a way to create new sets of patterns in your mind. You need one pattern reacting with another set of patterns to create a new pattern. The “random word” technique generates an almost infinite source of new patterns to react with the patterns in your mind. Random words are like pebbles being dropped in a pond. They stimulate waves of associations and connections, some of which may help you to a breakthrough idea.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. Our challenge is to create an employee suggestion system that motivates and energizes creative thinking.
RANDOM WORD. Close your eyes and select a random word or generate a word randomly from an internet site. There are several ways to get a random word. Close your eyes and point to a word in the dictionary, newspaper, magazine, book or a list of random words. Two internet sites that generate lists of random words easily and quickly are:
The random word one company got for this challenge was the NY Stock Exchange
LIST CHARACTERISTICS. Draw a picture of the random word to involve the right hemisphere of your brain and then list the characteristics of the word. Think of a variety of things that are associated with your word and list them. For example, some of the characteristics of a NY Stock Exchange are:
“Anyone can invest.”’
“The stocks move up and down in value”
“Popular stocks attract many investors.”
“Market movements are reported daily.”
“Some investments pay handsome profits.”
“The price of the stock reflects the confidence or lack thereof of the stock.”
“People discuss the ups and downs of the market with others.”
“People constantly monitor the market.”
FORCE CONNECTIONS. Make a forced connection between each “characteristic” and the challenge you are working on. In forcing connections between remote subjects, metaphorical-analogical thinking opens up new pathways of creative thinking. Ask questions such as:
- What is the essence of the stock exchange? Investing? What else in the world are examples of investing? How can we motivate employees to invest time and energy to create new ideas?
- Can we build an idea around the concept of investing?
- How is this like my problem? What are the principles involved? Can I combine the two concepts?
- What are the similarities between investing in stocks and suggesting ideas? Differences? What parts of it can I use?
- The way the stock market works is like the solution to my problem because…?
- How is the concept of investing like an idea that might solve my problem?
IDEA. Connecting a stock exchange with an employee suggestion system inspired the idea of combining the architecture of the stock exchange with the architecture of an internal employee suggestion system.
They created a 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 “expect-us,” 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.
The human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them. No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other. Combining two dissimilar subjects (NY Stock Exchange and an Employee Suggestion System) created a cognitive fusion that led to their novel idea.