#185 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 11          November 1995

Are You a Creative Thinker?
by Michael R. Michalko

Mr. Michalko is a nationally recognized creativity expert and author of the best-seller, Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity for the 90's) and Thinkpad (A Brainstorming Card Set).  He lives in Churchville, New York and can be reached at (716) 293-2957.

No matter what area you're working in, your future will be determined by the innovation you create today.  Where did those computers come from?  And those new types of cooking pots?  And who can remember when the only athletic footwear anybody owned was a pair of canvas-topped, flat-bottomed, solid white sneakers?  For that matter can you recall the first fax you saw?  Your future depends on new ideas, but where do the ideas come from in the first place?

In hindsight, every great idea seems obvious.  It's this obviousness that makes it so infuriating.  People often claim that if an idea is obvious and logical in hindsight, then all that was needed was better logic in the first place.  This isn’t so.  Great ideas are created by creative thinkers who go beyond the traditional boundaries and challenge conventional assumptions to permit new possibilities to emerge, like twisting a kaleidoscope to see the endless patterns that can be created from the same set of crystals.

Take two accomplished waffle makers whose waffles are equal in quality and price.  One waffle maker is a conventional thinker, the other creative.  When people stop buying waffles, the conventional thinker does nothing and goes out of business.  Whereas, the creative thinker fashions the waffle into a cone and creates a whole new product:  the ice-cream cone.  In R&D, the conventional thinker is unable to move, beyond the information given, to new ideas.  The conventional thinker needs some outside processor to provide new insights and new ways of doing things.  The creative thinker, on the other hand, is constantly transcending boundaries and challenging assumptions.

Can You Solve This?

To find out if you're a creative thinker, see if you can solve the following brain teaser.  Nine dots are arranged below.  The problem is to link up the dots with no more than three straight lines (without lifting the pencil) which will cross through all nine dots 

                  O          O          O

                  O          O          O

                  O          O          O

If you think it's impossible, you have unwittingly drawn boundaries around the way you think.  You can only solve this problem by transcending those boundaries and challenging the assumptions you're making about the problem.  To solve it, you have to think creatively.

Examples of Creative Thinking

The ability to think creatively is essential for today's fast-changing business world.  Sony's new product success is the direct result of a whole corporation trained to think across boundaries and challenge assumptions.  The Walkman evolved from a "failed product" to the most explosive best-selling electronic device in modern life because a number of employees in management, engineering and marketing integrated features that might otherwise be perceived by customers as disconnected.  Each group contributed to the project by thinking across traditional boundaries as it listened to, and integrated into its own work, the results of the others' efforts.

In 1978, a small group of Sony engineers tried to redesign a small portable tape recorder so that it gave stereophonic sounds.  They failed.  They produced a small stereophonic tape recorder that couldn't record.

M. Ibuka, honorary chairman of Sony, thought the sound the machine made was interesting and connected the "failed" product with an entirely unrelated project where an engineer was working to develop lightweight portable headphones.  Ibuka suggested that the engineers work together to develop a playback machine with headphones but without recorder functions.

The idea of recorder functions was so well established that had Ibuka not transcended the boundaries of conventional thinking and suggested a playback machine with no speaker and no recorder, the Walkman wouldn't have been created.  Ibuka directly challenged the conventional assumption that a playback machine had to have a speaker and a recorder.

The competition scoffed and said no one would buy a playback machine that couldn't record.  The Sony marketing people transcended the traditional notion of the machine and marketed it as "a new concept in entertainment."  People could now listen to stereo sound, while jogging, on the beach, or in the shopping mall, without disturbing others.

To sell this new concept in entertainment, the marketing group tried an unconventional approach.  They sent free samples to celebrities in the music and show business.  The Walkman press release came out on cassette rather than on paper.  And the day of the product release, Sony bused the press (each of them gifted with a brand-new Walkman) to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, where a throng of teenagers, all of them listening to free Walkman's and shimmying to the beat, roller-skated circles around the press.  This creative approach gave the Walkman extraordinary coverage throughout the world for a cost of under $50,000.

Sony demonstrated corporate creative thinking.  They thought imaginatively about matters of substance, incorporating many different perspectives and reached beyond the conventional categories to create something new.

An Even More Difficult Puzzle

See page end of article for a solution to the 9-dot problem.  If you solved the brain teaser, congratulations!  You exercised creative thinking. 

If you failed to solve it, you made two conventional assumptions.  You assumed that (1) you must not extend beyond the outside dots, and (2) the lines must be drawn through the center of the dots.  There's nothing in the problem statement that prevents you from doing either.  When you transcend these imagined boundaries, the problem is easily solved. 

Can you think of other solutions?  Now, I'll make it even more difficult.  *See if you can link up all nine dots with one straight line without lifting your pencil from the paper!

Solutions to these dot problems require creative thinking—challenging the assumptions.  These are simple problems in comparison to challenges you’re facing in R&D.  Many of your technical problems will be solved by challenging the assumptions.  Are you sufficiently creative to solve them.  

A Solution to the 9-Dot Problem


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