Creativity and connecting the unconnected: part 2 of our interview with Michael Michalko
If you wanted to know who might be the equivalent of a creative problem solving Jedi, you wouldn’t have to look much further than Michael Michalko. Michalko is a world renowned innovation expert, and as seen in part 1 of this interview he even taught the CIA how to practice disciplined creative problem solving.
Ben Weinlick of Think Jar Collective: What was the strangest creative link you’ve helped others make when using your techniques? Like, what was the unlikeliest combination of disparate ideas that resulted in something important?
Michael Michalko: A couple examples come to mind. One was when an acquaintance of mine wrote a book. When he contacted publishers to offer them his manuscript, they responded that they would not consider a manuscript unless the writer was represented by an agent. When he approached publishing agents, he was told that they did not represent anyone who was not published. It was a classic Catch-22.
He had to come up with a way to get a publisher to read his manuscript. He was familiar with how Leonardo da Vinci created ideas by forcing metaphorical-analogical connections between dissimilar and unrelated subjects. In my books I cover Da Vinci’s creative thinking techniques in chapters titled “Brutethink” and “Connecting the Unconnected.”
So my friend had a deck of tarot cards (fortune-telling cards) that he often used to produce random thoughts and associations. He shuffled his deck, closed his eyes, and pulled out one card. The card he pulled was the “death” card. Intrigued, he began to wonder what connections there were between death and getting a publisher to read his manuscript. What possible connection is there between death and a publisher reviewing a manuscript?
He thought of things related to death: the causes, grieving, burials, how animals and birds die, how fish die, rituals, memorial services, the undertakers, decomposition, cultural attitudes, wakes, preparations for burial, epitaphs, gravestones, eulogies, obituaries, and so on. One day he wondered about the essence of death. What does death mean? Then he thought that death means to leave one’s friends and loved ones behind. Suddenly, he had an idea.
He went to the library and looked at Publishers Weekly, the industry journal. Inside he found a section titled “People on the Move.” It described people’s movement in the industry, such as “editor X at publishing house A has moved to publishing house E to become editor in chief.” He then wrote a letter to the editor in chief of publishing house A:
Dear Editor in Chief,
My manuscript that your editor X was so hot for is finally finished. However, I cannot locate editor X. I’m told that he is no longer employed by your company. Please let me know how and where I can contact him so I can deliver my manuscript.
Human nature being what it is, the editor in chief became curious about the manuscript and demanded the right to review the manuscript first. He delivered the manuscript and signed with the publisher for a huge bonus.
Another example was when a middle school principal named Peggy had a problem with her female pupils who were experimenting with lipstick. The girls were kissing the mirrors in the bathroom leaving their lip prints on bathroom mirrors. The maintenance department constantly asked her to have the pupils stop this practice because of the time required to clean the mirrors. Peggy lectured, pleaded and threatened the girls with detention, but nothing seemed to help.
She decided to use the Da Vinci’s “random word” technique, closed her eyes, and selected the word “pizza” from her list of random words. She then forced connections between pizza and lipstick prints. She laughed when she thought of her best friend Ellen of years ago and how they always tried to gross each other out in a game they called “Yechhhh!” She remembered one time when they spread the rumor that the cafeteria was using sewage water from a ditch to make pizzas to save water. The students refused to eat the pizza.
Suddenly she got an insight. After conspiring with the janitor, she invited the girls into the bathroom saying she wanted them to witness the extra work they made for the janitor cleaning their lip prints. The janitor came in and stepped into an open toilet stall. He dipped his squeegee into a toilet, shook off the excess toilet water then used the squeegee to clean the mirrors. The sight of seeing the janitor clean the mirrors with toilet water ended the lipstick print problem.
“The word pizza triggered her memory of grossing other people out which became the germ of an idea that solved the problem.”
BW: Is there one particular creative problem solving technique that you feel is the most potent or helpful?
MM: According to Darwin, nature creates many possibilities through blind “trial and error” and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die within a short period of time. Genius is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires the unpredictable generation of a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures. From this quantity of alternatives and conjectures, the genius retains the best ideas for further development and communication.
Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking. These patterns follow a route ingrained in our youth as we were being taught to think. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages.
An important aspect of this Darwinian theory for creativity is that, in addition to quantity, you need some means of producing variation in your ideas. For this variation to be truly effective, it must be “blind.” To count as “blind,” the variations are shaped by random, chance, or unrelated factors. In nature, a gene pool totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances, with consequences that would be fatal to the species’ survival. In time the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness. A comparable process operates within us. Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking. These patterns follow a route ingrained in our youth as we were being taught to think. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages.
Last summer, I visited an old friend who served with me in the military. He’s now an engineer with a power company in the northwest and he described a problem that he and the other engineers in his company were trying to solve. Essentially, the problem was how to de-ice power lines during ice storms so they don’t collapse from the weight of the ice. The conventional approaches to the problem were proving to be very expensive and inefficient. I asked my friend to open a dictionary, close his eyes and point to a word. He pointed to the word “honey.” I then asked him to think of the attributes of “honey” and to force a connection between each attribute and the problem. One attribute he mentioned was that honey attracts bears. My friend laughed and said, “I got it. We can put a pot of honey on top the poles. The honey will attract bears and the bears will climb the poles to get the honey, causing the poles to vibrate and shake off the ice.” Suddenly, he stopped laughing and said, “By God, that’s it! The answer is vibration. Remember the downwash from helicopters in the service? The answer is 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.
The point is, that by introducing something “random” into his thinking, the engineer disturbed his conventional thinking patterns and he came up with an unconventional approach.
In nature, a genetic mutation is a variation that’s created by a random or chance event which ignores the conventional wisdom contained in parental chromosomes. Nature then lets the process of natural selection decide which variations survive and thrive. An analogous process operates within geniuses. Creative geniuses produce a rich variety of original ideas and solutions because in addition to their conventional way of thinking, they’ll look for different ways to think about problems. They deliberately change the way they think by provoking different patterns which incorporate random, chance and unrelated factors into their thinking process. These different thinking patterns enable them to look at the same information as everyone else, and see something different.
Samuel Morse, for example, became stumped trying to figure out how to produce a signal strong enough to be received over great distances. Larger generators were not sufficient. One day he saw tired horses being exchanged at a relay station. He made the connection between relay stations for horses and strong signals and solved the problem. The solution was to give the traveling signal periodic boosts of power. This made the coast-to-coast telegraph possible.
BW: So, my kids are in elementary school and I’m thinking a lot lately about how to avoid squeezing the natural creativity out of kids. Do you have any advice for parents and educators on how to support creativity in schools and at home?
We learn about great ideas and we learn the names of the creative geniuses who created them, but we are seldom taught about how they got the ideas. My teachers mythologized the geniuses as genetically or intellectually superior to the ordinary person. They gushed over their accomplishments and had us memorize who did what and when, and focused on their discoveries rather than on the mental processes, attitudes, work habits, behavior and beliefs that enabled creative geniuses to be capable of looking at the same things as the rest of us and seeing something different.
So help young people hear the stories and notice the work habits and processes that creative types have used throughout the ages. For things about creativity that I learned during my lifetime of work that I wished I had been taught when I was a student, take a look at the article I posted on Think Jar Collective a while back called, Twelve things you are not taught in schools about creative thinking
The essential points to pass along are to help people understand…
YOU ARE CREATIVE: Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker.
CREATIVE THINKING IS WORK: You must have passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of creating new and different ideas.
YOU MUST GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS: The more times you try to get ideas, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become.
YOUR BRAIN IS NOT A COMPUTER: Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional.
THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER: Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select. The world is not black or white. It is grey.
NEVER STOP WITH YOUR FIRST GOOD IDEA: Always strive to find a better one and continue until you have one that is still better.
EXPECT THE EXPERTS TO BE NEGATIVE: The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on confirming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS: Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE: Always ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?”
YOU DO NOT SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE; YOU SEE THEM AS YOU ARE: You construct your own reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences.
ALWAYS APPROACH A PROBLEM ON ITS OWN TERMS: Do not trust your first perspective of a problem as it will be too biased toward your usual way of thinking. Always look at your problem from multiple perspectives.
LEARN TO THINK UNCONVENTIONALLY: Creative geniuses are inclusive thinkers which mean they look for ways to include everything, including things that are dissimilar and totally unrelated. Generating associations and connections between unrelated or dissimilar subjects is how they provoke different thinking patterns in their brain.
BW: Thanks Michael for your time and insight, this was great. Awesome stories and practical creative problem solving advice!
Creative geniuses produce a rich variety of original ideas and solutions because in addition to their conventional way of thinking, they’ll look for different ways to think about problems. They deliberately change the way they think by provoking different patterns which incorporate random, chance and unrelated factors into their thinking process. These different thinking patterns enable them to look at the same information as everyone else, and see something different.