#386  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 2          February 1999

Lights On!
by Michael Michalko

Mr. Michalko is a creativity expert and author of Thinkertoys (A handbook of business creativity), ThinkPak (A brainstorming card set), and his newest book, Cracking Creativity (Ten Speed Press, Churchville, NY, 1998).  He can be reached through www.creativethinking.net or phone 716-293-2957).

Thomas Edison was granted 1,093 patents for inventions that ranged from the light bulb, typewriter, electric pen, phonograph, motion picture camera and alkaline storage battery--to the talking doll and a concrete house that could be built in one day from a cast-iron mold. His 3,500 notebooks show a turbulent brainstorm and present a verbal and visual biography of Edison’s mind at work. The notebooks illustrate how Edison conceived his ideas from their earliest inceptions, and show in great detail how he developed and implemented them. I’ll review several of Edison’s creative-thinking strategies.


Edison believed that, to have a good idea, you had to generate many. Out of quantity comes quality. He set idea quotas for all his workers. His own quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. It took over 50,000 experiments to invent the alkaline storage cell battery and 9,000 to perfect the light bulb. Edison looked at creativity as simply good, honest, hard work. “Genius,” he said, “is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” For every brilliant idea he had, there was a dud like the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into refrigerant blocks.

Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. If I ask you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses for the common brick, you would come up with a few ideas. However, if I ask you to list 40 uses for the brick as fast as you can, you would have many more within the first three minutes.

A specific quota focuses your energy in a competitive way to guarantee fluency and flexibility of thought. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbecue, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as you stretch your imagination to meet the quota. By causing you to exert effort, you generate more imaginative alternatives.

Initial ideas are usually poorer in quality than later ideas. Just as water must run from a faucet for a while to be crystal-clear, cool and free of particles, so thought must flow before it becomes creative. Creative thinking depends on continuing the flow of ideas long enough to purge the common, habitual ones and produce the unusual and imaginative.

To prove this to yourself, try the following exercise. Following is a list of five words. Write the first association that occurs to you for each word. Now do this five more times and for each time write an association that is different from the association you previously gave.

                         1                2                   3                   4                   5                  6






Note that your latter associations are much more original and unique than the earlier ones.

Give yourself an idea quota. For example, a quota of 40 ideas if you're looking for ideas by yourself, or a quota 120 if a group is brainstorming. By forcing yourself to come up with 40 ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the obvious ideas. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show even more insight, curiosity and complexity.

Challenge Assumptions.

Edison felt his lack of formal education was, in fact, “his blessing.”  This enabled him to approach his work of inventing with far fewer assumptions than his more educated competitors. He approached any idea or experience with wild enthusiasm and would try anything out of the ordinary, making phonograph needles out of compressed rainforest nuts, or clamping his teeth onto a phonograph horn to “feel” the sound and apply that sense as a hearing aid. This wild enthusiasm inspired him to consistently challenge assumptions.

He felt that, in some way, too much education corrupted people by prompting them to make so many assumptions that they were unable to see many of nature’s great possibilities. When Edison created a “system” of practical lighting, he conceived of wiring his circuits in parallel and of using high-resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that weren’t considered possible by experts.

Before Edison hired a research assistant, he would invite the candidate over for a bowl of soup. If the person seasoned the soup before tasting it, Edison wouldn’t hire the candidate. He didn’t want people who had so many built-in assumptions into their everyday life, that they would even assume the soup wasn’t properly seasoned. He wanted people who consistently challenged assumptions and tried different things.

An easy way to challenge assumptions is to simply reverse them and try to make the reversal work. The guidelines are:

     List your assumptions about a subject.

     Challenge your fundamental assumptions by reversing them. Write down the opposite of each assumption.

     Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. List as many useful viewpoints as you can.

     Suppose, for example, you want to start a novel restaurant.

1. You would begin by listing the assumptions you make about restaurants. One assumption might be: All restaurants have menus, either written, verbal or implied.

2.  Next, you would reverse this to: I will start a restaurant that does not have a menu of any kind.

3.  Now, look for ways to make the “reversal” work and list every idea you can. “How can I operate a viable restaurant that doesn’t have a menu?”

4.  One idea would be to have the chef come to the table and display what the chef bought that day at the meat market, fish market and vegetable market. The customer checks off the ingredients he or she likes and the chef prepares a special dish based on the “selected” ingredients. The chef also names the dish after the customer and prints out the recipe for the customer to take home. You might call the restaurant “The Creative Chef.”

Nothing is Wasted

When an experiment failed, Edison would always ask what the failure revealed, and would enthusiastically record what he had learned. His notebooks contain pages of material on what he learned from his abortive ideas. Once, when an assistant asked why he continued to persist trying to discover a long-lasting filament for the light bulb after failing thousands of times, Edison explained that he didn’t understand the question. In his mind he hadn’t failed once. Instead, he said he discovered thousands of things that didn’t work.

He had an enormous talent for appropriating ideas that may have failed in one instance, but then used the idea for another problem. For example, when it became clear that an iron-ore mining venture, in which Edison was financially committed, was failing, he studied the company’s resources and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same equipment, materials and distribution systems of the iron-ore company.

Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison would review his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he’d abandoned. If he were mentally blocked, he would review his notebooks to see if there were some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, he took the principle for an unsuccessful undersea telegraph cable--variable resistance--and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller’s voice.

Edison would often jot down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors. He would also routinely comb a wide variety of publications for novel ideas, and he would record them in his notebooks. He advised his assistants to make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas relating to other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.

Constantly Improve

Contrary to popular belief, Edison didn’t invent the light bulb.  His genius, rather, was to perfect the bulb as a consumer item. Edison also studied all his inventions and ideas as springboards for other inventions and ideas. To Edison, the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn’t it? Genius usually is.

Every new idea is an 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, arranged into the mnemonic SCAMPER.

S = Substitute?  C = Combine?  A = Adapt?  M = Magnify? = Modify?  P = Put to other uses?

E = Eliminate?  R = Rearrange? = Reverse?

You isolate the subject you want to think about and ask the checklist of SCAMPER questions to see which new ideas emerge. Think about any subject from improving the ordinary paperclip to reorganizing your corporation and apply the SCAMPER checklist. You’ll find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily.

Edison was tireless in his persistence to change a subject into something else through “trial and error” until he found the idea that worked. In Edison’s laboratory there’s 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 possibly conceive of. Once asked to describe the key to creativity, he said, “Never quit working on your subject until you get what you’re after.”

If you want to become more creative, act like Thomas Edison. Cultivate the following  creative-thinking habits:

When looking for ideas, create a lot of them.

     Consistently challenge assumptions.

     Record ideas.

     Learn from failures.

     Look for ways to improve.

You may not become the next Thomas Edison but you’ll become much more creative.

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