Four Steps toward Creative Thinking

By Michalko, Michael | The Futurist, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Four Steps toward Creative Thinking


Michalko, Michael, The Futurist


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. …

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