In an interview with Kathleen Driscoll of the Rochester Business Journal, Michael was asked to respond to a business problem from a subscriber to the journal.

The Problem:
“My marketing team has another proposal due soon and we are in desperate need of some new approaches. All I’m hearing are the same old things. I feel like we’ve developed something similar to writer’s block, where we are completely at a standstill on new ideas. How can we get unlocked? How can I motivate them to let the ideas flow and do this on a deadline? Help!”

Michael’s Response:
If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten … the same old ideas over and over. In order to get original ideas, you need a way to create new sets of patterns in your mind. One way to change your thinking patterns is to connect your subject with something that is totally not related. These new patterns catch your brain’s processing by surprise and will change your perception of the subject. For example, a company wanted a new way to display expiration dates on packages of perishable food. The facilitator had the group generate a list of their favorite things. The list included things such as football, dancing, gourmet food, and so on. Then they randomly paired these things with their challenge looking for connections. One person’s favorite thing was the season “autumn.” This got the group talking about the characteristics of autumn including how leaves change color in the autumn. Forcing a connection between the characteristic “changing color” and “expiration dates” on packages triggered the idea of “smart labels” that change color when the food is exposed to un-refrigerated temperatures for too long. This alerts the consumer even though the calendar date might be months away. Our notion of “expiration date” was changed by making a connection with something that was totally unrelated (autumn), which triggered a new thought pattern and a new idea.

It is impossible 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. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger these patterns become. 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.

Following are some guidelines on finding random stimulants:

  • Random words: There are a number of ways to select “random” stimulants, including words. Close your eyes and point to words in a dictionary, newspaper, magazine, etc. If it is not a noun, repeat the process until it is.

    EXAMPLE: An engineer needed to place a large generator into an excavated area. The usual way to do this was with a heavy crane, which costs $7000 to lease. He closed his eyes, opened a travel magazine and pointed at the word “Eskimo.”

  • Characteristics: List the characteristics and force connections between each characteristic and the problem.

    EXAMPLE: The engineer thought about Eskimos, the arctic, seals, ice, igloos, and melting icebergs. He thought about blocks of ice used to construct igloos. He asked questions such as:

    • How is this like my problem?
    • What are the characteristics?
    • What are the similarities?
    • This is like the solution to my problem because ………… ?
    • How is ………… like an idea that might solve my problem?
    • What if my problem was a ………… ? How would I solve it?

The new patterns of thought about Eskimos connected with moving a generator triggered his ingenious solution. He trucked in blocks of ice in the excavated area. Next, he pushed the generator onto the ice and placed the generator over the location for it. When the ice melted, the generator settled perfectly into the location.

Another way to generate random stimulants is to generate a list of five objects that are not related to the subject. Imagine you are in a science museum, the White House, an airplane, a football game, the desert, or some other interesting location, and list five objects that interest you. Use it as a stimulus for suggesting ideas by forcing connections between the characteristics of the objects and the problem. This is what happened to NASA engineer James Crocker when the Hubble telescope failed. In the shower of a German hotel room, Crocker was contemplating the Hubble disaster while showering and looking at the showerhead which could be extended to adjust to the user’s height. He made the connection between the adjustable showerhead and the Hubble problem and invented the idea of placing corrective mirrors on automated arms that could reach inside the telescope and be remotely adjusted to the correct position. His invention was inserted by an astronaut in space and turned a disaster into a NASA triumph.