We exhibit a phenomenon called structured imagination. Structured imagination refers to the fact that even when we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in highly predictable ways according to existing concepts, categories and stereotypes.  This is true whether the individuals are inventors, artists, writers, scientists, designers, businesspeople, or everyday people fantasizing about a better life.

Research shows that we call up typical instances of a concept faster than less typical ones. To see this for yourself, quickly name the first five birds you can think of. Your list is likely to be populated with very typical birds, such as robins, blue jays, and sparrows, and less likely to contain unusual birds, such as pelicans, ostriches, and penguins.

Because more typical instances of a concept spring to mind first, we naturally tend to seize on them as starting points in developing new ideas. And because the most typical members of a concept are the ones that have all of its central properties, this can reduce innovation even further.  For instance, robins fly, lay eggs, and build their nests in trees, but penguins do not. If you base a novel alien on the more typical robin, it will resemble a stereotyped bird more than if you base it on a penguin.

We need ways to open and expand our minds to explore the outer limits and dazzling variety of our concepts so we can go beyond the typical and concoct novel ideas that are wonderfully unusual. One approach is a creative-thinking technique used by Walt Disney which allowed his vivid imagination to explore extraordinary ideas and concepts. This approach allowed his imagination to produce fantastical ideas, uncritically and unrestrained. Later, he would engineer these fantasies into feasible ideas and then evaluate them. He would shift his perspective three times by playing three separate and distinct roles:


On the first day, he would play the dreamer and dream up fantasies and wishful visions. He would let his imagination soar  without worrying about how to implement his conceptions. His fantasy analogies permitted him to connect words, concepts, and ideas with apparently irrelevant objects and events. The result was a rich treasure of associations; an imagination avalanche with whole mountains of ideas crashing down.

The next day, he would try to engineer his fantasies back to earth by playing the realist. As a realist, he would look for ways to engineer the fantasies back to earth and work his conceptions into  something workable and practical.

Finally, on the last day, he would play the part of the critic and poke holes into his ideas. Is it feasible? Can you translate the idea’s features into customer benefits, and, if so, can you make money with it?

Play the dreamer using the following guidelines:

1. DREAMER. Imagine you have a magic wand that will grant you any wish you desire. What wishes would you create to solve your problem? List at least three to five, especially things that normally wouldn’t be possible. Try to make each wish more improbable than the last.

EXAMPLE:  A community wants to raise more money by more efficient policing of parking meters. My wishes are:

X             I wish we had an honor code. Everyone keeps track of their parking time and sends the money to the police department once a month.

X             I wish police officers could see cars leave parking spots so others would not be able to pirate unexpired time on the meter.

X             I wish cars vaporized when time expired on the meter.

Select one of the wishes. EXAMPLE: I wish police officers could see cars leave parking spots so others would not be able to pirate unexpired time on the meter.

2. REALIST. Play the realist by working the wish into a practical idea. Ask: What is the principal of the wish?  What principal features about the wish appeal to you? Extract a principle, feature or some aspect of the wish.


X               The principle is “seeing.”

X               Others won’t be able to pirate “unexpired time.”

X               Provides new jobs. We have to hire more parking officers to watch the meters.

X               Would modify behavior. Motorists would no longer spend time looking for unexpired meters.

Extract one and try to engineer it into a practical idea. EXAMPLE:  How can you work seeing into an idea that will lead to the more efficient policing of parking meters?

IMAGINEERED IDEA: Manufacture a parking meter with infrared sensors and lithium-powered computer chips to “see” parking spaces. When a car leaves, the remaining time on the meter is erased.

3. CRITIC. Play the part of the critic by poking holes in the idea.

EXAMPLE: The seeing meter is technologically possible. The major drawback is cost as such a meter will cost at least four times the cost of a normal meter. The cost, however, will be more than offset by the more efficient collection of revenues.

You can now go back and engineer other features of the same wish into workable ideas or go back and work with one of the other wishes. Generate as many workable ideas as you can from the wishes.

There is a clear relationship between wishful thinking and creativity. You are more likely to have a creative idea when you are wishing than when your thinking is extremely intellectual. Wishes help us deliberately oversimplify. This tactic has a long and distinguished history in science and the arts. Scientists play fast and loose with recalcitrant details. Newtonian physics was overthrown by Einstein, but it is still a good approximation for almost all purposes. No physicist objects when NASA uses Newtonian physics to calculate the forces at liftoff and the orbital trajectory of the space shuttle, but, strictly speaking, this is a deliberate use of a false theory in order to make calculations possible. Following are guidelines for a group brainstorming session using wishes:

1. The group leader writes the topic on a card or Post-It note and posts it on the wall or chalkboard.

2. Ask participants to imagine they have a magic wand. The wand will grant them any wish they desire. What wishes do they have about the subject, especially things that would not normally be possible? Participants silently list wishes for two or three minutes.

3. Participants select one wish and write it on a card or Post-It note.

4. The wish cards are collected and posted around the topic card. The group leader organizes the cards and places related ones together.

5. Select one wish. Select the wish that’s most interesting to the group.

Example. Automobile windshields must be constantly cleared when there is any weather at all (rain, sleet, snow, ice, frost, dirt, etc.). Wipers and washer fluid help some, but grime rarely can be eliminated completely. A group of engineers brainstormed for ways to improve the windshield. The wish they decided to work with was: What if a windshield could clean itself?

6. The group brainstorms for ways to make the wish a reality. How can you approximate the wish by achieving something similar to the desired effect? Ask what specific features or aspects of the wish appeal to the group. Then try to figure out feasible changes or actions that embody these specific features. Ask “could we,” “how about,” and “what if” type questions.

Example: One of the engineers noted that camera lenses seem to be self-cleaning. Lenses are coated with titanium dioxide. When the sun=s rays hit the coating, they set off a chemical reaction that strips the lens of organic matter. The engineers decided to see if they could adopt this process to the automobile windshield.

7. List and elaborate on the ideas.

Example: The engineers discovered that titanium dioxide could not be applied directly to windshields because of sodium in the glass. They solved this by coating glass first with acid to purge the sodium and then applying the titanium dioxide. This process keeps the windshields clean of everything but large bird droppings.

8. Select another wish. Select the wish that’s most unique to the group and go through the same exercise.

9. Continue working the wishes until the group has generated a sufficient number of ideas.

The more interesting and unique the wish, the greater the possibilities are for an original idea or twist. A frozen-fish processor’s line of frozen fish tasted bland and boring. He tried everything including keeping the fish alive until the last moment. Food chemists told him the answer lies in keeping the fish moving. However, the fish remained inactive no matter how, or how much, the water was disturbed.

The owner waved his magic wand and wished he could “pluck” the fish out of the ocean at the last moment and process it immediately. This wish inspired him to think of the natural habitat of fish, which includes predators. This was the crucial connection—predators are the reason fish keep moving around. He thought “Why not put predators in the holding tanks with the fish?” The fish kept moving to escape the predator and retained its vitality and flavor. Of course, some fish failed to escape and were lost, but this was a small price to pay for tasty frozen fish.

Any process will do as long as it can introduce unforeseen variation for later selection and refinement.

ABOUT Michael Michalko https://imagineer7.wordpress.com/about-michael-michalko/


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