Why Didn’t You Think of That Idea?


There is not one operation by which the sun attracts Jupiter and another by which Jupiter attracts the sun, but one operation by which the sun and Jupiter endeavor to approach each other…there is one action between them by which they both approach each other. Similarly, creativity comes from observing the relationships between objects, rather than objects themselves, and making metaphorical-analogical connections.

You know the “why didn’t I think of that?” feeling when you observe a new idea or process. It’s 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 pursued the idea of manufacturing something that would be used once a day and then thrown away to make his fortune. He methodically worked through the alphabet 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 wasn’t 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 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 are washed and cleaned in a car wash. Car washes use multiple soaping and brushing actions in different directions. The scientists incorporated the principle of multiple brushes brushing in different directions into the toothbrush known as the Oral B, which became the leading selling toothbrush in the world.

Our special gift is the imagination to somehow make universal metaphorical-analogical connections between two dissimilar areas of experience.  For example, see how you interpret the illustration before you continue reading the next paragraph. In the illustration, 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?”

This is an example of our natural gift of making metaphorical-analogical connections even between words, shapes, and patterns of different things. Most people, accordingly, identify “A” as a Tuckatee and “B” as a Maluma.

Imagine you want to come up with an idea to better organize how information flocks and flows on the internet. Think for a moment about how birds of the same species flock and flow together and see what metaphorical-analogical connections you can make with how information flocks and flows on the internet.

Xiaohui Cui at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee came up with an idea to better organize information on the internet by making the analogical connection between how information flocks and flows on the internet and “how birds of the same species flock and flow together”.

His system mimicks the ways birds of the same species flock and flow together. 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 only fly with others of its own “species”, or in this case, documents with number strings of the same length. When a new article appears, software scans it for words similar to those in existing articles and then files the document into an existing flock, or creates a new one.

This new web feed tool will automatically update your browser with any new stories added to your favorite websites whenever you go online. These feeds also provide automatic updates from other websites, for example, when new scientific papers are added to journals.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Instead of arresting people who violate automobile speed laws, you are asked to come up with ideas to make people slow down when approaching a busy intersection. They have already considered all the usual options: traffic policeman, radar, warning signs, raised crosswalks, and speed bumps. The essence of the problem is “what makes things slow down?”

First list as many observations of how and why things slow down. Some examples are:

Tap water slows as you close the tap.

Viruses slow computers.

People slow down when they see something spectacular or beautiful.

Your heart slows when you’re relaxed.

Animals slow down when they are startled.

You slow down your reading when you read something unexpected.

Your mind slows down as you age.

And so on.

Before you read further, spend some time and look for clues from your list on how and why things slow down that you use to create ideas. See what you create. Your ideas?

One town brainstormed for ways to make people slow down. One person remembered the time he slowed down his vehicle when he spotted a beautiful mural on a warehouse wall driving through downtown Los Angeles. This inspired the idea which was to create something beautiful or unusual to slow traffic. His town hired a local artist to paint a giant pothole using a technique (trompe l’oeil) that tricks the eye through the use of perspective to give the illusion of three-dimensionality. The giant 3-D mural of a pot hole on an intersection works like a charm. Drivers say you see something in the road so there’s a moment of confusion and you automatically slow down. Then you see it’s flat and you continue on. Monitors report that vehicle speed has dropped from an average of 45 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone to an average of 25.

Thinking in terms of essences and principles frees your imagination from the constraints of words, labels and categories. Imagine that you had been raised to believe tomatoes were potatoes and potatoes were tomatoes. And imagine you live in a world where everyone knows the truth about these foods except you. When you thought you were eating a potato you were eating a tomato, and vice versa. Assuming you had a balanced diet overall, your delusion about tomatoes would have no real impact on your life except for your continuous bickering with others about the true nature of tomatoes and potatoes.

Now suppose everyone was wrong and both the tomatoes and potatoes were entirely different foods. Let’s say they were really oranges and beets. Would it matter? No it would not. Whether you understand the true nature of your food or not, you still have to eat.

In much the same way, if you were trying to come up with different ways to search for information on the web and thought only in terms of existing computer search engines, you likely won’t accomplish much. However, if you free your imagination from existing categories and think of “searching,” you might discover how ants search for food.

What connection can there be between ants and search engines?  Rutgers professor Paul Kantor is developing a server for the department of defense that makes it possible to find information on the web in much the same way that ants leave pheromones (chemical) trails for other ants to follow in search of food – sort of a “digital information pheromone” path created by users on the web that other researchers seeking the same information could follow.


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  4. Very good point of view!

  5. Brillant.
    This is a great idea to play with. I had never comprehended how limited my thinking is.I suppose it will always be limited in someways but the more free I can make it, the better.

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