Leader Volume 8, Number 2
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
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.
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
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
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
Note that your
latter associations are much more original and unique than the
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
When looking for
ideas, create a lot of them.
Consistently challenge assumptions.
Learn from failures.
Look for ways to improve.
You may not
become the next Thomas Edison but you’ll become much more