An Interview with Michael Michalko on Creative Thinkering


Michael Michalko is the author of Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work, Thinkertoys, Cracking Creativity, and ThinkPak. While an army officer, he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics to find the best inventive thinking method. He has expanded and taught these techniques to numerous Fortune 500 companies and organizations.

Author Michael Michalko

What do you know now about the application of creative thinking in business that you wished management knew?
Michael Michalko: Creativity demands that we should approach a problem on its own terms and look for a multiplicity of ways of looking at it and a multiplicity of ways of solving it. We are not taught that. We have been taught that there are clear constraints on what is logical and what is not.

We tend not to challenge things we have not been taught and tend to pretty much accept things the way they are. This is particularly true in business where you hear, “this is our policy,” or “this is the way it has always been done here,” or similar expressions. Whenever I hear these expressions, I think of an experiment that was done with five monkeys.

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stair, spray all the monkeys with ice cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result–all the monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and will want to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third monkey with a new one. The new one goes to the stairs and is attacked. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know, that’s the way it’s always been around here.

We think of idea-creation in organizations as usually being about new product development (e.g., the next Post-It Notes). What other kinds of innovation do you help organizations do?
MM: Creative thinking is a productive thinking process that applies to any problem or situation in your business or personal life. In business I help organizations become more creative in manufacturing, sales, marketing, advertising, motivation, meetings, recruiting, growth, future enterprises.

Is the ideation process easier or harder to sell to organizations (especially businesses) in times of accelerating change and uncertainty?
MM: This is like asking someone if selling oxygen so people can breathe is easier or harder to sell in times of good health or in times of bad health. You cannot survive without oxygen. So it makes no difference what the person’s health is. Similarly, innovation is the lifeblood of industry and it needs to be cultivated and nurtured by all organizations in order to survive in good times and bad.

Does more pressure in a company mean generally less creativity?
MM: 3M, for years, has had a reputation for creating a climate for innovation because they don’t put pressure on the creatives. An example is the work of Spencer Silver, a 3M chemist who liked to play around with chemicals just to see what would happen. One of the things that happened was his invention of the special adhesive that made Post-it notes possible.

And so Silver, in a “Eureka” moment, discovered he had developed an adhesive that created an impermanent bond. But the problem was how to use his discovery. The company climate permitted Silver to continue with his efforts, but no one could develop it into a useful product. Silver had found a solution, but he just couldn’t find a problem to solve with it. The breakthrough came when another 3M employee, Arthur Fry, got his inspiration. Art was a member of a church choir and used paper slips as bookmarks in the songbooks to identify the songs to be sung. Sometimes the paper would fly off and create problems. The idea of using Silver’s adhesive to make a better bookmark came to him while singing in the choir.

The bookmark inspired him to think of other paper to paper applications where only part of the paper was coated with the glue. The problem was 3M did not have the equipment to do this so management was not enthusiastic about Fry’s application. Consequently Fry designed and built his own machine in his basement to manufacture the forerunner of the Post-It note. The machine was too large to get out of his basement, so he blasted a hole in the wall to get the machine to 3M. He then demonstrated the machine to management, engineers, sales people, and production managers. His demonstration generated the enthusiasm to get management committed to the Post-it note. As soon as the note was produced it accounted for over $300 million in business.

What is the most widespread creativity technique in companies? Is it effective?
MM: Brainstorming, and no it is not particularly effective. This is because the ideas are judged and criticized and dismissed as they are generated in the usual brainstorming session.

While researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, physicist David Bohm made a remarkable observation. Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other. During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other’s mind and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind. They always paid attention to each other’s views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.

Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that they established to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as “Koinonia,” which means “spirit of fellowship.”

The Koinonia principles they established were:

  • ESTABLISH DIALOGUE. In Greek, the word dialogue means “talking through.” The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind. This is not the same as discussion, which from its Latin root means to “dash to pieces.” The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were: “Don’t argue,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Listen carefully.”
  • CLARIFY YOUR THINKING. To clarify your thinking, you must suspend all untested assumptions. Being aware of your assumptions and suspending them allows thought to flow freely. Free thought is blocked if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions. For instance, if you believe that certain people are not creative, you’re not likely to give their ideas fair consideration. Check your assumptions about everything and try to maintain an unbiased view.
  • BE HONEST. Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial.

The ancient Greeks believed these principles allowed thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon. Koinonia allowed a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts which cannot be accessed individually. A new kind of mind begins to come into being, based on the development of common thoughts. People are no longer in opposition. They become participants in a pool of common ideas, which are capable of constant development and change.

What are one or two secrets for cultivating creative genius?
MM: Two fairly simple things you can do to cultivate your creative genius are:

  • Constantly try to improve your ideas and products
  • Challenge your assumptions

Thomas Edison believed that every new idea is some addition or modification to something that already exists. You take a subject and manipulate or change it into something else. There are nine principle ways you can manipulate a subject. These are arranged into the mnemonic SCAMPER. You isolate the subject you want to think about and ask the SCAMPER questions to see what new ideas and thoughts emerge.

Think about any subject from improving the paperclip to reorganizing your corporation. You’ll find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily, as you ask if you can:
S = Substitute something?
C = Combine your subject with something else?
A = Adapt something to your subject?
M = Magnify or modify — add to it or change it in some fashion?
P = Put it to some other use?
E = Eliminate something from it?
R = Rearrange or reverse it?

Thomas Edison was also tireless in his persistence to change a subject into something else through trial and error. In Edison’s laboratory, there is a staggering display of hundreds of phonograph horns of every shape, size and material. Some are round, square, angular, thin, short, squat while others are curved and as long as six feet tall.

This collection of rejected ideas is a visual testament to Edison’s approach to creativity — which was, in essence, to try out every possible design he could imagine. Once asked to describe the key to creativity, he reportedly said to never quit working on your subject until you get what you’re after.

What is conceptual blending and how can it help us be more creative?
MM: Creative thinkers form more novel combinations because they routinely conceptually blend concepts objects, concepts and ideas from two different contexts or categories that are conventionally considered separate by logical thinkers. It is the conceptually blending of dissimilar concepts that leads to original ideas, concepts and insights.

Leonardo da Vinci was the first to record the interesting fact that the human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them. No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other.

Leonardo da Vinci was the first who wrote about the importance of introducing random and chance events to produce variation in his thinking patterns. Leonardo suggested that you will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look for random subjects to conceptually blend with your challenge. He would gaze at 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, battles, landscapes, figures with lively movements, and so on, and then excite his mind by conceptually blending the subjects and events he imagined with his subject. Da Vinci would occasionally throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the random stains and what they might represent.

Once while standing next to a pond, he wondered how “sound” travels. When he tossed pebbles into the pond, he noticed the wave of ripples each pebble made. At the same time, he heard a church bell ring in the distance. Suddenly he got his “Aha!” — sound travels in waves.

What makes a genius a genius?
MM: Geniuses do not get their breakthrough ideas because they are more intelligent, better educated, more experienced, or because creativity is genetically determined. University of California Professor Dean Keith Simonton observed that creative thinking demands the ability to make novel combinations. If you examine most any idea, you will discover that the majority of ideas are created by combining two or more different elements into something different. Simonton’s conclusion about genius is “Geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented.”

You talk about incubating thinking. What does that mean and how do we do it?
MM: Incubation makes use of subconscious processing of information. It usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. This allows the subconscious to continue to work on the original challenge. The more interested you are in solving the challenge, the more likely your subconscious will generate ideas.

Henri Poincare, the French genius, spoke of incredible ideas and insights that came to him with suddenness and immediate certainty out of the blue. So dramatic are the ideas that arrive that the precise moment in which the idea arrived can be remembered in unusual detail. Charles Darwin could point to the exact spot on a road where he arrived at the solution for the origin of species while riding in his carriage and not thinking about his subject. Other geniuses offer similar experiences. Like a sudden flash of lightning, ideas and solutions seemingly appear out of nowhere.

Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem.

Our conscious minds are sometimes blocked from creating new ideas because we are too fixated. When we discontinue work on the problem for a period of time, our fixation fades, allowing our subconscious minds to freely create new possibilities. This is what happened to Nobel laureate Melvin Calvin. While idly sitting in his car waiting for his wife to complete an errand, he found the answer to a puzzling inconsistency in his research on photosynthesis. It occurred just like that, quite suddenly, and suddenly in a matter of seconds the path of carbon became apparent to him.

Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with divine inspiration–the illumination appears to be involuntary.

When you have a really tough challenge and can’t see the answer, what is your favorite technique for unlocking your brain?
MM: When I am stonewalled, I just start typing “O peaceful gloom shrouding the earth” over and over and over. Eventually, typing this phrase over and over unlocks something in my brain and the ideas start flowing. It’s going through the motions of writing that un-sticks my mind.

Most people presume that our attitudes affect our behavior, and this is true. But it’s also true that our behavior determines our attitudes. Tibetan monks say their prayers by whirling prayer wheels on which their prayers are inscribed. The whirling wheels spin the prayers into divine space. Sometimes, a monk will keep a dozen or so prayer wheels rotating like a juggling act in which whirling plates are balanced on top of long, thin sticks.

Many novice monks are not very emotionally or spiritually involved at first. It may be that the novice is thinking about his family, his doubts about a religious vocation or something else while he is going through the motions of spinning his prayer wheel. When the novice adopts the pose of a monk, and makes it obvious to himself and to others by playing a role, the brain will soon follow the role they are playing. It is not enough for the novice to have the intention of becoming a monk: the novice must act like a monk and rotate the prayer wheels. If one has the intention of becoming a monk and goes through the motions of acting like a monk, one will become a monk.

If you want to be an artist, and if all you did was paint a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent van Gogh, but you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

For more information on Michael Michalko and Creative Thinkering, visit
Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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