A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques



Can you identify the figure below? If you have seen this puzzle before, you should have no trouble. If it is new to you, try to figure it out before reading further.


Observe how you scan the figure for meaning. You probably tend to focus on finding meaning in the irregular black shapes, which is useless—there is none. However, if you focus on the spaces between I the shapes, the word “West” appears. Place a straightedge on the top or bottom border of the figure to make the word obvious. Once found, it seems so obvious that you wonder why you were, at first, blind to it.

By changing your perspective, you expand your possibilities until you see something that you were unable to see before. This is what you will experience when you use Thinkertoys: You will find yourself looking at the same information you had before in a new and different way. This “new and different way” will lead you to new ideas and unique insights.

No matter what business you’re in, your future will be shaped, even determined by innovation occurring today. Where did all those health clubs come from? And those video stores? And who can remember when the only athletic footwear anybody owned was a pair of canvas-topped, flat-bottomed, solid-white sneakers? For that matter, when did you notice that there were Japanese cars and products everywhere? Can you recall the first Walkman you saw? Who thought these things up? Your future depends upon great ideas, and to come up with consistently great ideas, you can’t rely on chance.

Thinkertoys train you how to get ideas. They are specific, hands-on techniques that enable you to come up with big or small ideas; ideas that make money, solve problems, beat the competition, and further your career; ideas for new products and new ways of doing things.

The techniques were selected for their practicality, and range from the classic to the most modern. They are divided into linear techniques, which allow you to manipulate information in ways that will generate new ideas, and intuitive techniques which show you how to find ideas by using your intuition and imagination.

A popular children’s puzzle shows six fishermen whose lines are tangled together to form a sort of maze. One of the lines has caught a fish; the problem is to find which fisherman it belongs to. You are supposed to do this by following each line down through the maze, which may take up to six tries, depending on your luck. It is obviously easier to start at the other end and trace the line from the fish to the fisherman, as you have only one possible starting place, not six.

This is how I researched and developed Thinkertoys. Instead of presenting a catalog of all known creative techniques and abandoning you to puzzle out which ones actually work, I started with the ideas (fish) and worked backwards to each creator (fisherman). Then I identified the technique that caught the idea.

Some readers will feel that they profit more from the linear techniques and will discount the intuitive ones. Others will prefer the intuitive and discount the linear. You can produce ideas using both the linear and intuitive techniques, and should not limit yourself to one or the other—the more ideas you generate the better.

This book will change how you perceive your own creativity, while stripping creativity itself of its mystique. You will, perhaps for the first time, see endless possibilities stretching before you. You will learn how to:

• Generate ideas at will.

• Find new ways to make money.

• Create new business opportunities.

• Manipulate and modify ideas until you come up with the most innovative and powerful ideas possible.

• Create new products, services, and processes.

• Improve old products, services, and processes.

• Develop solutions to complex business problems.

• Revitalize markets.

• See problems as opportunities.

• Become more productive.

• Be the “idea person” in your organization.

• Know where to look for the “breakthrough idea.”

• Become indispensable to your organization.

Thinkertoys do not render the creative experience, they suggest it. To illustrate, let us imagine me drawing a rabbit on a blackboard. You say “Yes, that’s a rabbit,” although in reality there is nothing on the blackboard but a simple chalk line. The rabbit appears because you have accepted my motion that the space within the line suggests a rabbit. The line limits the content by suggesting a significant form.

I must stress that it is not enough to read the book—to create your own ideas, you have to use. The techniques. Try to explain the joy of skiing to a bushman who has never left the desert. You can show him some skis and a picture of a snowy mountain, and perhaps get some of the idea across. However, to fully realize the concept of skiing our bushman must put on the skis and head down a mountain. If you merely read these techniques, you will have no more than a suggestion of how to get ideas. You’ll be like the bushman standing in the desert, staring at a pair of skis and a photo of the Matterhorn, with a small notion of what skiing might be.

Each Thinkertoy is a specific technique for getting ideas to solve your challenges. Each chapter contains a blueprint that gives precise instructions for using the technique and an explanation of why it works—including anecdotes, stories, and examples of how real heroes used each technique to produce ideas and breakthroughs. I call them heroes because they left behind a mark, a sign, an idea, an enterprise, a product, or a service that reminds us of their innovation.

I also use illustrations, puzzles, and charts, and hypothetical examples to demonstrate how various techniques work. Some of these hypothetical examples present usable ideas for new businesses, products, and services. These ideas are the gold beneath the river of words continually rushing past.

Each chapter begins with an inspirational quote from The Art of War  by the legendary master, Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu wrote his extraordinary book in China more than 2,400 years ago, but his principles are as applicable to creativity in business as in warfare. Long a classic for Japanese business people, his book is now required reading at many leading international business schools. From Tokyo to Wall Street, business leaders quote and apply the principles of Sun Tzu.

A friend of mine, Hank Zeller (an executive, entrepreneur, inventor, and poet), once described creativity this way: “When you realize that you just came up with an idea that betters anything that has been done, well, your hair stands up on end, you feel an incredible sense of awe; it’s almost as if you heard a whisper from God.”