Stuck for a new idea? Try reversing an old one, expanding your perceptions, getting crazy, or even not thinking.
Our minds build up patterns that enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. These patterns are based on our past successful experiences in life, education, and work. We look at 6 x 6 and 36 appears automatically in our heads. In addition, these thinking patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately, such as driving an automobile. But this same patterning makes it hard for us to come up with new ideas and creative solutions to problems, especially when confronted with unusual data.
Creativity deviates from past experiences and procedures. For example, try to imagine how to cut a cake into eight slices using no more than three cuts. Most people have trouble figuring out a way to do this because of their past experiences cutting cakes. To solve this problem, you need to change the way you think about cakes, a piece of cake, and how to cut a cake. One solution is to cut the cake in half and stack one half on top of the other. Cut the stacked halves in half, stack the quarters on top of one another, and cut them. Another solution would be to cut the cake into quarters and then slice the cake horizontally through the quarters. You could also cut the cake in any of the ways illustrated in figure I.
When you break out of your established patterns and ignore the conventional wisdom on how to cut a cake, you'll discover that there are an infinite number of solutions. You can change your conventional way of thinking and "think out of the box" by using some simple techniques.
SCAMPER to New Ideas
Another aspect of creativity is generating new ideas. Every new idea is a modification to an idea that already exists. You can take any subject and change it into something else. Alex Osborn, a pioneering teacher of creativity, identified nine principal ways to manipulate a subject. They are arranged below as a checklist of idea-spurring questions. The list forms the mnemonic SCAMPER to help you remember them.
S = Substitute?
C = Combine?
A = Adapt?
M = Modify? = Magnify or add?
P = Put to other uses?
E = Eliminate?
R = Rearrange? = Reverse?
Think of changing or improving any object, from the common paperclip to your organization. As you apply the SCAMPER checklist of questions, you'll find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily.
Consider the Walkman radio. Sony engineers at first tried to design a small, portable stereo tape recorder. They failed, ending up with a small stereo tape player that couldn't record. They gave up on the project and shelved it. One day, Masaru Ibuka, honorary chairman of Sony, discovered this failed product and decided to refashion it into something new. He remembered an entirely different project at Sony where an engineer was working to develop lightweight portable headphones and asked, "What if you combine the headphones with the tape player and eliminate the recorder function altogether?"
The Walkman radio became Sony's leading selling electronic product of all time and introduced all of us to the "headphone culture."
Put Your Thinking Into Reverse
Sony reversed the common assumption that a play-back machine must also record. Figure 2 gives you a chance to reverse your usual way of seeing something. In the illustration, there are some irregular shapes that look like puzzle pieces. They seem to have no meaning. However, if you focus on the background--the spaces between the shapes--the word "WEST" appears. If you have trouble seeing it, place a straight edge on the top or bottom border of the figures to make the word obvious.
By concentrating on the background and not the shapes, you change your perspective and see something that you were unable to see before. This is what happens when you reverse your perspective and look at the other side of things.
Reversals break your existing patterns of thought and provoke new ones. You take things as they are and then turn them around, inside out, upside down, and back to front to see what happens. The same perceptual changes occur when we reverse our conventional thinking patterns about problems and situations. When Henry Ford went into the automobile business, the conventional thinking was that you had to "bring people to the work." He reversed this to "bring the work to the people" and invented the assembly line.
When Alfred P. Sloan became CEO of General Motors, the common assumption was that people had to pay for a car before they drove it. He reversed this concept, and pioneered installment buying.
Suppose you want to start a new restaurant and are having difficulty coming up with ideas. Try the following technique:
First, list all your common assumptions about restaurants.
A. Restaurants have menus, either written, verbal, or implied.
B. Restaurants charge money for food.
C. Restaurants serve food.
Next, reverse each assumption. The reversals would be:
A. Restaurants have no menus of any kind.
B. Restaurants give food away for free.
C. Restaurants do not serve food of any kind.
Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal:
A restaurant with no menu. IDEA: The chef informs each customer what he bought that day at the meat market, vegetable market, and fish market. He asks the customers to select items that appeal to them, and he creates a dish with those items, specifically for each customer.
A restaurant that gives away food. IDEA: An outdoor cafe that charges for time instead of food. Use a time stamp and charge so much per minute. Selected food items and beverages are free or sold at cost.
A restaurant that does not serve food. IDEA: Create a restaurant with a unique decor in an exotic environment and rent the location. People bring their own food and beverages (picnic baskets, etc.) and pay a service charge for the location.
Finally, select one new idea and develop it. Let's work with the "restaurant with no menu" reversal. We'll call the restaurant "The Creative Chef." The chef will create the dish using the ingredients the customer selected, then name the dish after the customer. Each customer will receive a computer printout of the recipe bearing his or her name.
Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and free ideas and information to come together in provocative new ways.
Don't Think About It
Another interesting way to get ideas, paradoxically, is not to think about your subject. When you consciously try to develop new ideas, those ideas are often heavily structured in predictable ways by your existing categories and concepts. Expertise in an area can hinder creativity by making you fixate along a certain line of thought. If you want to produce something creative, such as a new automobile design, don't think of automobiles--at least not at first. Instead, create several abstract compositions of bodies in motion and then use the compositions as stimuli for a new design.
Much evidence suggests that a broad, abstract definition of a problem can lead to greater creativity and innovation than a more typical narrow and concrete definition. Making your problem more abstract helps eliminate barriers that arise from preconceived notions. It forces you to test assumptions and expand the possibilities.
Look at figure 3, the illustration of a girl standing in the rain. Now try to imagine the girl entirely within the small circle. You will probably find that the image becomes very dense and only contains a few visible features. Now, form your image within the larger circle. The image becomes clearer, and you can see many more details--the girl's hair, her boots, the raindrops--that you could not see in the small circle.
Expand Your Perceptions
In a similar way, when you broaden your problem by making it more abstract, you dramatically expand your perception of the problem.
Suppose you want to improve the design of an umbrella. If you work with the more abstract definition of an umbrella, "protector from the rain," you are more likely to explore more possibilities. You may come up with the idea of a design for a town where arcades protect people from rain and umbrellas are not needed.
Or consider the bookstore owner, for example, who viewed himself as a seller of books, a very specific definition. The trend toward electronic media put him out of business. On the other hand, if he had viewed himself as a provider of information and entertainment, a more abstract characterization, a switch in the medium would not have been threatening. It would have opened up new opportunities.
Suppose your problem is how to protect rural designer mailboxes from theft and vandalism. You would first form an abstract definition of your problem. What is the principle of the problem? The principle is protection. Next, think of ways to protect things.
* Place in a bank.
* Rustproof it.
* Provide good maintenance.
* Get an insurance policy.
* Hide it.
After you've generated a number of different ideas, restate the problem so that it is slightly less abstract. Think of ways to protect things that are outside and vulnerable. Again, generate as many solutions as you can.
* Hire a guard.
* Watch it constantly.
* Drape it with camouflage.
* Put a fence around it.
* Keep it well lighted.
Finally, consider the original problem again. Review the ideas and solutions to the two previous abstractions and use these as stimuli to generate solutions. One idea, triggered from "get an insurance policy," is for the mailbox company to offer an insurance policy to owners of rural mailboxes: $5 a year or $10 for three years to cover the mailbox from theft or destruction.
Another way to loosen up rigid thinking is to deliberately explore the absurd and unusual. Suppose, for example, you work for a greeting card company that wants new products and markets. You would first list several odd, unusual, or absurd ideas about the problem.
* Send greeting cards to dead people.
* Send heavy stones as greeting cards.
* Send cards COD.
* Send the person money with the message to "go out and buy your own greeting card."
* Send a spider.
Next, select one of the absurd ideas. Let's take the idea of sending greeting cards to dead people. Extract the principle of this idea. What is the principle? Communicating with the departed. Now, list the features and aspects of the absurd idea.
* People communicate with the dead through seances.
* People leave flowers at cemeteries.
* People leave poems, letters, and other artifacts.
* People publish personal poems, messages, etc., in newspapers to the departed.
* People pray for the departed.
Finally, build one of the features or aspects into a practical idea. Let's work with "leaving items at the cemetery." Our idea could be to publish memoriam cards on sticks so they can be inserted in the ground at the gravesite. Sell the "cards-on-sticks" in florist shops that are located near cemeteries.
A few years back, a group of engineers was looking for ways to prevent power lines from being downed by ice storms. None of the conventional ideas seemed to work. Finally, one of the engineers suggested putting a pot of honey on each pole. He said the honey would attract big bears. The bears would climb the poles and the vibrations would cause the ice to fall off. Everyone laughed, but another engineer said, "I think you've got something. The principle of vibration is the answer. When I was in the military, I was around big helicopters a lot, and we were always feeling a massive downdraft from the rotor blades of those helicopters." The engineers discovered that they could use helicopters to blow snow and ice off the power lines.
Creative-thinking techniques like the ones described in this article get you thinking out of your box by breaking up your conventional thinking patterns and stimulating new ones. These new thinking patterns lead to the formation of new ideas and concepts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.
About the Author
Michael Michalko is a leading creativity expert and author of Thinkertoys. ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius. His address is 165 Percy Road. Churchville, New York 14428. f…