Our special gift is the imagination to make universal metaphorical – analogical connections between two dissimilar areas of experience. For example, in the illustration above, take the two nonsense words maluma and tuckatee and match them to the figures A and B. Which one is a “maluma,” and which is a “tuckatee?
You know the “why didn’t I think of that?” feeling you get when you observe a new idea or process? We’re struck by the obviousness of the idea once we see the analogical connection. Imagine how many entrepreneurs, inventors, and manufacturers kicked themselves when Gillette introduced the disposable razor.
Gillette was founded by King Camp Gillette, who, to make his fortune, pursued the idea of manufacturing something that would be used once a day and then thrown away. He methodically worked through the alphabet, thinking of potential products that started with A, and then B, and so on, listing every possibility. This proved a waste of time. The idea of a safety razor didn’t arrive through logical reasoning, but through a moment of insight when he realized that a razor was not an object but a “sharp edge.” In that moment, he said, he saw the disposable razor in pictures rather than thought.
In another example, scientists at Gillette wanted to develop a new toothbrush. Instead of focusing on a toothbrush, they focused on “cleaning.” Among the things they studied were:
• How are cars cleaned?
• How is hair cleaned?
• How are clothes cleaned?
• How are arteries cleaned?
• How are fingernails cleaned?
• How are waterways cleaned?
They got excited when they studied how cars are cleaned. Cars can be cleaned in a car wash. Car washes use multiple soaping and brushing actions in different directions. The scientists saw a relation¬ship between cars and teeth and incorporated the principle of mul¬tiple brushes brushing in different directions into the Oral B electric toothbrush, which became the bestselling toothbrush in the world. The Oral B was created because Gillette scientists were focused on the universal theme of the problem which is “cleaning” and not the object (toothbrush).
Most of us have lost the sensitivity to deeper relationships, functions, and patterns because we are educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. We see them as independent parts of an objective reality. Over time we have cultivated an attitude which puts the major emphasis on separating human experience into different domains and universes. We’ve been tacitly taught that perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate parts followed by the activity of attaching standard labels to the parts (e.g., drinking water, rain water, stream, ocean, water from a well, etc.). These parts are placed in pre-established categories, such as “weather,” “geology,” “commercial,” “underground,” etc., and activate only those elements that it feels logical. This kind of thinking is exclusive. Its goal is to separate and exclude elements from thought based upon what exists now. It discourages creative thought.
Creative thinking is the opposite of this kind of thinking. The quintessential activity of perception is the discovery of some abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of complex wholes. The essence of creative thinking is a complex blending of elements of two or more different subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. Perception is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories–it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.
In ordinary language, we talk of the “essence of the matter”, by which is meant it’s “meaning” or significance, the most important or defining aspect of a thing, besides which other aspects are just accidental or “unessential”. Working with principles and essences will break you out of the habit of associating qualities with things and will expand your thinking.
Suppose you were asked to create a better way to organize information on the internet. Think for a moment how you would approach the problem. What would be your plan?
Xiaohui Cui at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee was asked to see if he could create a better way to organize information on the web. His first thoughts were about the essence of the problem. He phrased it as how does information flock and flow? How do things in other worlds flock and flow? How do fish flock and flow? How do birds flock and flow? How does bacteria flock and flow?
He came up with an idea by making an analogical connection between how information flocks and flows on the Internet and how birds of the same species flock and flow together. His system mimics the way birds of the same species congregate while flying. He created flocks of virtual “birds.” Each bird carries a document, which is assigned a string of numbers. Documents with a lot of similar words have number strings of the same length. A virtual bird will fly only with others of its own “species” or, in this case, docu-ments with number strings of the same length. When a new article appears on the Internet, software scans it for words similar to those in existing articles and then files the document in an existing flock, or creates a new one.
ANSWER: The majority of people identify A as a “tuckatee” and B as a “maluma.” This is an example of our gift for making universal metaphorical-analogical connections even between words and dissimilar shapes. “It just looks like a tuckatee,” or “It just looks like a maluma.”
(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)