When people use their imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of those existing categories and concepts. This is true for scientists, artists, inventors, politicians and businesspeople. Consider the following accident which was reported in The American Railroad Journal in 1835:


Mr. Speer was the only casualty. What factors contributed to his untimely death? Certainly, there was the immediate cause — the breaking of the axle and the overturning of the cars — but there is a more subtle cause as well. Note that Mr. Speer was riding on the car, not in it, and that none of the passengers, who were inside, was hurt. Why was he not in the car? What in the world was he doing on top of the car? Speer’s death was the result of a design flaw that required conductors to ride on the outside of cars.

This flaw is an example of the phenomenon of structured imagination. Early designs for railway cars were heavily influenced by the properties of the stagecoach, the most common vehicle of the day. The first railway cars were little more than stagecoaches with wheels on tracks, with no central aisle and designed so that conductors had to ride outside on running boards. The idea of a central aisle was considered odd and even unsanitary, based on the notion that it would become one long spittoon. Finally, as was true of stagecoaches, the brakes were located on the outside and were operated by the conductor who was seated on the top front of the car.

What this suggests is that even highly creative individuals and the ideas they develop are susceptible to the constraining influences of structured imagination. Their idea of a design for a railway car was heavily influenced by what they knew, understood, and were most familiar with — the stagecoach.

In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. A way to break up your rigidity of thinking is to deliberately explore the absurd and unusual. This gives you the freedom from design or commitment and allows you to juxtapose things which would not otherwise have been arranged in this way and to construct a sequence of events which would not otherwise have been constructed.

Suppose, for example, you want to improve morale in your company. You would first list several odd, unusual or absurd ideas about the problem.

Absurd ideas:
• Allow people to stay at home and attend to household and landscape needs with full pay. E.g., three hours to mow a law, one week to paint a room, two weeks to repair a roof, four hours to repair a fence, and so on.
• Give every employee a company luxury car for personal use as long as they are employed.
• Give employees the same pension plan US senators have: Their annual pay for life with all comprehensive medical benefits.

Select one of the absurd ideas.
Paying people to stay home and attend to household needs.
Extract the principle and build it into a practical idea.

IDEA: The principle is working on employee homes and lawns. Offer employees the services of a handyman as a benefit. Employee pays for materials; employer employs and pays the handyman to fix sinks, hang wallpaper, and so on.

Creative-thinking techniques break up your conventional thinking patterns which stimulate new thinking patterns that lead to new ideas and concepts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.

Suppose you want to control the illegal whale harvesting by the Japanese whalers.

Absurd ideas:
• Pay whalers not to poach.
• Hire armed patrol boats to protect whales.
• Coast Guard captures Japanese whaler and ransoms crew and ship back to owner.
Examining the features and aspects of the various ideas focuses us on capturing the whalers and ransoming the crews and boat back to the owners. This would make the activity unprofitable, but it is also unlawful. We would become pirates.

This reminds us of the Somalian pirate ships off the coast of Africa. This inspired the thought of one way of fighting an illegal activity is to use an illegal enforcement activity. The final idea all this inspired is to make it a legal exemption for the Somali pirates and allow them to hijack illegal Japanese Whalers anywhere on the oceans and hold them for ransom.

Using criminals to help fight crime is an interesting thought that has led to other innovative solutions. A city was infested with drug activities and the police were overwhelmed. I worked with a team of detectives that came up with the crazy idea of treating drug dealers like entrepreneurs.

One entrepreneurial idea was to assist drug dealers increase their profit by helping them eliminate their competitors. Posters were printed and posted around the city. The posters were titled “Attention Drug Dealers: Is Your Competition Costing You Money? We offer a free service to help you eliminate your drug competition!” All the would-be clients need to do is jot down on the poster the names, addresses and dealing habits of their business rivals and mail it to the police station.

Pictures, photographs and illustrations are excellent sources of unrelated stimuli. Years back, a designer, working to invent a new light fixture, leafed through an issue of National Geographic and got his inspiration for a new idea from a picture of a monkey. He imagined a monkey running around a home with a light wherever it was needed. This image led to the invention of track lighting. The guidelines are:

1. Browse through newspapers and magazines. Select interesting pictures at random.

2. Describe one of the pictures in detail. List descriptors. Include physical references and action-oriented statements. List everything that comes to mind (imagery, feelings, words, phrases, etc.). If you think of absurd material, list that too.

3. Force connections between each descriptor and your challenge.

4. List your ideas.

The CEO of a Japanese perfume company asked his executives for ideas that would enable the company to survive poor economic times. Disappointed with their suggestions, he gave each of them a picture of a king crab and instructed them to study it and to look for ideas from the crab they could apply to their business.

Some of their connections and ideas were:

  • A crab can rejuvenate lost claws–we must develop back-up product lines in case our primary line falters.
  • A crab can see 360 degrees–we must improve our market intelligence.
  • A crab moves slowly–we cannot afford this. We must downsize so we can react more speedily to the market.
  • A crab has distinct features–we need to develop a distinctive package that differentiates our perfume more clearly.
  • A crab is a scavenger–we need to allocate resources to see what other uses and markets we can find for our products.

The conventional approaches to the problem prove to be expensive and inefficient. It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. These patterns produce only predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. If one of these newer patterns relates to one of the first patterns, a connection will be made. This connection will lead to the discovery of an original idea or thought. This is what some people call “divine” inspiration.

Engineers working for a power company in the northwest were struggling with the problem of how to de-ice power lines during ice storms, so they don’t collapse from the weight of the ice. They worked with a portfolio of pictures in their brainstorming session. One picture was an image of a beehive hanging from a branch of a tree. Think about the connections, if any, between a beehive and de-icing power lines during ice storms. How can a beehive be the clue to a solution?

Conceptual blending is central to human thought and imagination, and evidence of this can be found in human language, art, science, industry and in a wide range of human activities. This is what the engineers did. They blended beehives with de-icing power lines. At first, they listed a variety of things associated with beehives and listed them. Included were:

At first, they listed a variety of things associated with beehives and listed them. Included were:

  • Bees colonize and live in beehives.
  • Beehives are used to store honey and pollen.
  • Honey is a sweet food.
  • Ancient Egyptians used honey to embalm corpses.
  • Beehives are a favorite food of bears.
  • Bears will climb trees to get the hive or shake the tree to make it fall. Vibrations make them fall.
  • Bees communicate with each other with vibrating wings.

Their associations with bears vibrating trees to shake beehives loose got them all interested in the principle of vibrational motion as the answer. Vibrate the ice off the power lines. But how?

Their associations with bears vibrating trees to shake beehives loose got them all interested in the principle of vibrational motion as the answer. Vibrate the ice off the power lines. But how?

One of the first thoughts was based on fact that bears retrieve beehives by shaking trees or by climbing them.  The first idea presented was to put pots of honey on the top of each power line pole and when the bears climbed up and vibrated the poles to get the honey during storms the lines would vibrate and shake off the ice.

One engineer remarked that bees with their vibrating wings can hover like helicopters. That reminded him of the powerful downwash from a helicopter’s blades. This became the idea to hover choppers over the lines and the downwash will vibrate the ice off the lines. This proved to be the most efficient and economical solution to the problem.

Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and the 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

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