unconnectedIf one particular thinking strategy stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see relationships to which others are blind. They set their imagination in motion by using unrelated stimuli and forcing connections with their subject.

Suppose you want a new way to display expiration dates on packages of perishable food and you randomly pair this with autumn. Now conceptually blend expiration dates with change color in the autumn. Forcing a connection between changing colors with expiration dates triggers the idea of  smart labels that change color when the food is exposed to unrefrigerated temperatures for too long. The label would signal the consumer–even though a calendar expiration date might be months  away. Our notion of expiration dates was changed by making a connection with something that was unrelated (autumn) which triggered a new thought pattern which led to a new idea.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote how he extensively used“connected the unconnected” to get his creative inspiration in his notebooks. He wrote  about this strategy in a mirror-image reversed script a secret handwriting which he taught himself. To read his handwriting, you have to use a mirror. It was his way of protecting his thinking strategy from prying eyes. He suggested that you will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or the shape of clouds or patterns in mud or in similar places. He would imagine seeing trees, objects, landscapes, figures with lively movements, etc., and then excite his mind by forcing connections between the subjects and events he imagined and his subject.

One of his habits was to occasionally throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the random stains and what they might represent. He would then force connections between what he believed he saw with his problem. Look at the thought experiment that follows. Imagine you are Leonardo for a moment and you see this collection of shapes on the wall. moment and you see this collection of shapes on the wall. Write down what you imagine it could be.











It is nothing but an assortment of scattered irregular shapes. But when our human mind decides it could represent something, we begin to imagine different possibilities. Leonardo imagined it looked like a rider on a horse supported by two wheels instead of hoofs. Now it looks like a rider on a horse that had wheels. He drew a picture of a rider on a horse with two wheels. Later, he drew another picture showing a rider on a metal frame that resembled a horse with two wheels.  Now his idea was clear and the bicycle was invented.

This conceptual blending process can help you to get the ideas you need in the business world. James Lavoie and Joseph Marino, cofounders of Rite-Solutions, did just that when they needed an employee-suggestion system that could harvest ideas from everyone in the company, including engineers, accountants, salespeople, marketing people, and all administrative staff.

They wanted a process that would get their employees to creatively invest in the company. The word invest encouraged them to focus on investments. They researched all the ways one can invest they could remember. One association was the New York Stock Exchange.

Rite-Solutions combined the architecture of the stock exchange with the architecture of an in-house company stock market and created a stock exchange for ideas. The company’s internal exchange is called Mutual Fun. In this private exchange, any employee can offer a proposal to create a new product or spin-off, to solve a problem, to acquire new technologies or companies, and so on. These proposals become stocks and are given ticker symbols identifying the proposals.

As reported in the New York Times, “Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in ‘opinion money’ to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock or volunteering to work on the project.”

The result has been a resounding success. Among the company’s core technologies are pattern-recognition algorithms used in military applications, as well as for electronic gambling systems at casinos. An administrative employee with no technical expertise was fascinated with one of the company’s existing technologies and spent time think¬ing about other ways it could be used. One pathway she explored was education. She proposed that this technology could be used in schools to create an entertaining way for students to learn history or math. She started a stock called Win/Play/Learn (symbol: WPL), which attracted a lot of attention from the company’s engineers. They enthusiasti-cally bought her stock and volunteered to work on the idea to turn it into a viable new product, which they did. A brilliant idea from an unlikely source was made possible by the new employee-suggestion system by blending the concepts of the New York Stock Exchange and employee suggestions.

Blending concepts is a way of thinking and imagining so natural that we don’t even notice how fantastic this ability is. A good example is the ordinary metaphor. If you look at a phrase such as “They are digging their financial grave,” you know immediately what is meant. Yet there is no connection whatsoever between digging a grave and investing money. There is no logical way to connect graves and money. How is it possible to know what this means?

Your mind takes one input, “grave digging,” and another input, “financial investment,” and conceptually blends them together. But the meaning isn’t contained in either input; the meaning is constructed in the blend. Through conscious and subconscious elaboration, the blend develops a structure not provided by the inputs to create an emergent new meaning.

How can you connect a coconut, a sensor, and airplane noise? An activist-researcher whose work focuses on the intersections between art, activism, and technology became annoyed at the noise made by aircraft flying over the city he lived in. He constructed a site-specific art installation, Tripwire, which responded to the relationship between the airport and downtown. He placed sensors inside coconuts and hung them from trees in several downtown locations to monitor air¬craft noise. Detection of excessive aircraft noise causes the sensors to trigger automated telephone calls to the airport’s complaint line on behalf of the city’s residents and wildlife. The problem has been quietly resolved.


Read about Michael Michalko and his books and global accomplisments in creative thinking.






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