It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, only a few patterns dominate your thinking. These patterns produce 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 combine your subject with something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated.

Try an experiment. Pick eight random words and give the list to someone or to a small group (for example: flower pot, baby, glass, grasshopper, coffee pot, box, toast and garage). Ask them to divide the words into two groups without giving them any rationale for the division. You will discover that people will come up with some very creative classifications. They will group them according to “words with the letter o”, “things that touch water,” “objects made in factories,” and so on. No one ever says there is no connection, they invent them.

Though we seldom think about it, making random connections in such a manner are conceptual creative acts. In my years of studying creativity I discovered numerous techniques that creative geniuses used throughout history to create random conceptual acts to create novel and original ideas.

Making random connections were popular techniques used by the extraordinary artist Jackson Pollock to create conceptual combinations in art. One of his favorite techniques was named “The Exquisite Corpse” after a session that contained those words during a session. Each person in a group would take turns, each contributing any word or phrase that occurred to them without seeing what the others had written. They would then mix and remix the words and phrases into various combinations of concepts.

In one session they explored new ways to make statements with paint. The word “drip” was  among the words the group suggested that intrigued Pollock. This resulted in a new style of what he called “drip” painting that made him world famous. His signature style involved laying a canvas on the floor and pouring paint onto it in continuous, curving streams. Rather than pouring straight from the can, he applied paint from a stick or a trowel, waving his hand back and forth above the canvas and adjusting the height and angle of the trowel to make the stream of paint wider or thinner. Pollock created a tension between the dynamics of the paint and the message of the painting.


Have the group bounce ideas and thoughts about the subject off each other for five to ten minutes.

  • Then, ask the participants to think about what was discussed and silently write one word that occurs to them on a card.
  • Collect the cards have the group combine the words into a sentence (words can be moved and added by the group to help the sentence make sense).
  • Then invite the group to study the final sentence and build an idea or ideas from it. 

Chemist Karl Kreckman was assigned to work on various ways to protect seed corn from the elements. Karl was a fan of abstractionist art and decided it would be fun to try Pollock’s technique. He collected a small group of friends and told them to think about how to protect plants and trees from the elements. Some of the words they contributed were fur, sun lamp, indoors, tents, covering, clothing.

The person who offered the word “fur” said he imagined making fur coats and hats for all the trees to wear in winter. They laughed at the image. Days after the meeting Karl was thinking about the words fur, covering and clothing. This got him thinking about synthetics, including polymers that make clothing, which triggered his idea to create intelligent polymer seed coatings, which shift properties as conditions change. The seeds can be planted in any weather or season. They lie protected and dormant when it’s cold outside and sprout as soon as the soil reaches the right growing temperature.


An Alzheimer’s organization planned to have an auction to raise money for their cause. They planned an elaborate, sophisticated evening and looked for unusual items they could auction. They tried the “exquisite corpse” technique. Some of the words they came up with were people, cruises, creative, furniture, charity, designer, custom, art, thin air, and celebrities. One of the connections was: create—-art—-thin air. This triggered their idea which was the sensation of the auction.

They sold an idea for an artwork that doesn’t exist. They talked a local conceptual artist into describing an idea for an artwork. The idea was placed in an envelope and auctioned off for $10,000. Legal ownership was indicated by a typed certificate, which detailed how the artwork was to be produced by the owner which includes consultation with the artist. The owner has the right to reproduce this piece as many times as he likes.


Why isn’t everyone creative? Why doesn’t education foster more ingenuity? Why is expertise often the enemy of innovation? Best-selling creativity expert Michael Michalko shows that in every field of endeavor, from business and science to government, the arts, and even day-to-day life — natural creativity is limited by the prejudices of logic and the structures of accepted categories and concepts. Through step-by-step exercises, illustrated strategies, and inspiring real-world examples he shows readers how to liberate their thinking and literally expand their imaginations by learning to synthesize dissimilar subjects, think paradoxically, and enlist the help of the subconscious mind. He also reveals the attitudes and approaches diverse geniuses share — and anyone can emulate. Fascinating and fun, Michalko’s strategies facilitate the kind of light-bulb moment thinking that changes lives — for the better.

Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

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