Thinkertoys: Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques

An Interview with Michael Michalko, Author of Thinkertoys
By Vern Burkhardt
Creators are creative because they believe they are creative. And they are not negative. To solve a problem you have to believe that you already have the answer in your unconscious. When Einstein was troubled by a problem he would lie down and take a long nap. Thinking in terms of contradictions and paradoxes are the hallmarks of creative thinking. Exposing yourself to unusual images, such as the hieroglyphics in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, sparks your imagination. The difficulty of effective collaboration is each person thinks his or her view is the correct one.

Think of your brain as an enchanted loom, perpetually weaving and re-weaving new ideas, conjectures, and concepts. The communal mind is an immensely larger loom and contains the means to construct new ideas, conjectures, and concepts immeasurably more diverse than the products of any solitary genius.

These are a few of the insights contained in [Thinkertoys], which provides a wealth of different tools and techniques to help us monkeys further develop our creativity and our ability to generate innovative ideas. If you want to determine whether you are a monkey or a kitten you will have to read the book! I am not being fair—according to Michalko a kitten attitude is exemplified by those who “cry” for help in the face of a challenge or problem, whereas a monkey is willing to work to generate innovative ideas and to develop their business creativity.

I had the fortunate opportunity to explore some of author Michael Michalko’s ideas about creativity.

1. Question: What are the one or two pieces of advice you would give to those who believe they are not capable of being creative?

Michael MichalkoMichael Michalko:
It’s impossible to be creative if you are negative. As I say in my book, creators are creative because they believe they are creative. Creators are joyful and positive. Creators look at what is and what can be. They do not look at what is not. Creators include both real and imagined possibilities. Creators choose their own interpretations of the world and not the interpretations of others.

Yes, our attitudes affect our behavior, but our behavior also determines our attitudes. We choose to be positive or to be negative. For obvious reasons it is preferable to choose to be positive.

I once asked each employee of a company to write an essay arguing why they had the potential and attitude to become one of the most creative persons in their organization. I asked them to exaggerate their accomplishments. I had them make up lies about successes in creative thinking. I urged them to make up as much as they could. Then I had them verbalize their arguments to other participants with the goal of persuading those other participants that their arguments were right.

The longer and the more enthusiastically the participants argued their points about being creative, the more they began to believe in their potential to be creative. The more they argued, the more enhanced this belief became. In the end, after a few more exercises of a similar nature, the majority of the employees believed they were creative and they acted like creative people. Very interesting.

2. Questions: How do our fears, uncertainties, and doubts, what you call “FUDS”, get in the way of people being creative?

Michael Michalko:
Fears, uncertainties, and doubts are very harmful to a positive, creative attitude. But most people let FUDS control their lives. It is much more productive to transform destructive negative attitudes into a new, positive reality. To do this, simply acknowledge the negative feelings and then focus your energies on what you want to substitute for them.

We need to acknowledge our fears and doubts, and then replace them with positive thoughts. Just remember that you do not have to change your personality or your life, or somehow make yourself into a new and better person in order to understand and replace your negative thoughts.

3. Question: Where did the great word “Thinkertoy” come from?

Michael Michalko:
It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, only a few patterns dominate your thinking. These patterns produce predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and combine your subject with something that is not related, that is different, unusual patterns are activated. One of my techniques is to combine dissimilar words randomly to create what I call “idea sparks,” which is the technique I used to create the title “Thinkertoys” for my book.

To create a title for my book I listed 20 or so nouns that have something or other to do with innovation and creativity - words like art, brainstorm, create, think, solve, imagine, incubate and so on - in List A. Then in List B I listed anything and everything that randomly came to my mind - words like football, baby, sculpture, toys, beeper, doormat and so on. Then I randomly combined words from column A with words in column B. One combination was “think” and “toy”. I played with this and elaborated it into “thinkertoys,” which became the title for my book.

4. Question: In your book you say that your Thinkertoys are hands-on techniques that enable a person to come up with big or small ideas; ideas that make money, solve problems, beat the competition, further one’s career, and generate ideas for new products and new ways of doing things. How did you develop the amazing array of Thinkertoys you included in your book?

Michael Michalko:
As an officer in the U.S. Army, I organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods from all over the world. My team applied these methods to various NATO military, political, and economic problems and produced a variety of breakthrough ideas and creative solutions to new and old problems. After leaving the military, I was contracted by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency in the USA] to facilitate think tanks using my creative-thinking techniques.

I later applied these creative-thinking techniques to problems in the corporate world with outstanding successes. The companies I worked with were thrilled with the breakthrough results they achieved, and I have since been in the business of developing and teaching creative-thinking workshops and seminars for corporate clients around the world. Some of these techniques, which had been refined by my military, government and corporate practice, were published in my book Thinkertoys.

5. Question: Many of your Thinkertoys are intended to expose a person to a change of perspective, and you say the more dramatic the change the greater the chance that an original insight or breakthrough idea will emerge. You also said that Thinkertoys produce an enormous quantity of ideas, and quantity is the key to creativity. Can you explain?

Michael Michalko:
Leonardo da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems you began by learning how to restructure it to see it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Leonardo da Vinci called this thinking strategy “saper vedere”, or knowing how to see.

Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Einstein’s theory of relativity is, in essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives.

Freud is another good example. He would "reframe" something to transform its meaning by putting it into a different framework or context than it had previously been perceived. For example, by reframing the "unconscious" as being infantile, Freud began to help his patients change the way they thought and reacted to their own behavior.

When Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, was stuck with a problem, he would look at it in a different way. If one way didn’t work, he would switch to another. Whatever came up, he would always find another way to look at it and then still another.

Consider the letter-string FFMMTT. You’d probably describe this as three pairs of letters. If you’re given KLMMNOTUV, you’d probably see it as three letter triplets. In each case, the letters MM are perceived differently -- as one chunk or as parts of two different chunks. If you were given MM alone, you’d have no reason for seeing it as either, and now would see it as a simple pair of letters. It’s the context of the information that inclines you to describe an input in a certain way, and perhaps to abandon an initial description for another.

The more times you state a problem in different ways, the more likely that your perspective will change and deepen.
When Einstein thought about a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible. He was once asked what he would do if he was told that a huge comet would hit and totally destroy the earth in one hour. Einstein said he would spend 55 minutes figuring out how to formulate the question and 5 minutes solving it.

One of my good friends is a world-renowned artist. He and I play a game with perspectives to keep our minds stimulated and fresh. When we go for a walk one of us will fix on some unusual perspective, like the perspective of an ant on a coin that fell out of someone's pocket and was about to hit the sidewalk, or the perspective of a bird in flight, or a dog trying to cross a busy street. We explain what we are seeing from that point of view, and the other person has to guess the perspective the describer is generating. It's a fun exercise and opens your eyes to the various ways of looking at the world. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

6. Question: You also wrote that thinking in terms of contradictions and paradoxes are the hallmarks of creative thinking. Could you explain?

Michael Michalko:
Imagining two opposites or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images existing simultaneously is beyond logic. It is a type of conceptualizing in which the thinking processes transcend ordinary logical thinking. If you hold two opposites together, your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. The swirling of opposites creates the conditions for a new point of view to bubble free from your mind.

The created conditions are ambivalence and incongruity, which are tolerated by creative people. For instance, imagine being successful and a failure simultaneously. The ambivalence changes the way we feel and see, and makes possible a different thought process. “Successful and failure” inspires the thought of having to learn how to fail your way to success. An example is Thomas Edison. Edison’s assistant asked him why he persisted in trying to perfect the light bulb filament after having failed 5,000 times. Edison replied that he didn’t understand the word “failure”; on the contrary he had discovered 5,000 things that don’t work. That’s a creative perspective.

To think in terms of simultaneous opposites, convert your subject into a paradox, and then find a useful analogy. Suppose you wanted to make a lot of money. The opposite of this is that you might lack ambition. The paradox is you want to make money but you’re too lazy to do much to make it. Next, you find an analogy that contains the essence of the paradox; for example, I want light but without using electrical energy. The solution to the analogy is using natural energy from the sun. Finally, apply this principle to the problem of a lazy person making money. One solution is to go to the South Sea Islands and write a travel book.

7. Question: You included a large number of Thinkertoys that use “linear techniques” to enable us to manipulate information in ways that will generate new ideas. Could you briefly explain what linear techniques are and how they assist in creativity?

Michael Michalko:
Thinkertoys provide concrete techniques to help you become an active thinker. Both linear thinking and intuitive thinking are necessary for optimum creativity.

Our left brain thinks in terms of words and symbols while our right brain thinks in terms of images. The left brain is used more by writers, mathematicians, and sci¬entists; the right side by artists, craftspeople, and musicians. Linear Thinkertoys are for the left brain, intuitive Thinkertoys for the right brain. Linear Thinkertoys structure existing information. The intuitive Thinkertoys generate new information using imagination, insight, and intuition.

8. Question: What are some of the additional things you included in the second edition of Thinkertoys, which was published 15 years after your first edition? I guess I am asking, on behalf of those who read the 1991 edition, whether they should buy the second edition.

Michael Michalko:
I added some new Thinkertoys, added and updated examples, and revised the group brainstorming section.

9. Question: I was very interested in your comments about how we tend to think statically and are surprised by the constant changes in our world. This also applies to business. How can Thinkertoys help a business leader?

Michael Michalko:
Once a person has formed an image; that is, once he or she has developed a mind set or expectation concerning the subject being observed this conditions future perceptions of the subject. This principle helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the expert. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years.

Once we have a belief we tend to look to confirm that belief by what we observe. Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation basis”. This is a phenomenon where people, once they believe a proposition is true, will force everything else to add fresh support and confirmation for it. It is a major problem to get people in the habit of considering all alternatives, both obvious and non-obvious, when confronted with a challenge.

10. Question: You advised that we can multiply our ideas by multiplying the number and kind of people we talk to about a problem or challenge. What is the implication of this for innovation?

Michael Michalko:
Talking to many different types of people about your challenge is a good way to cultivate a multiplicity of perspectives. One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we've been conditioned to see, and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it is occurring. Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others.

One of the lessons we should pay attention to is that breakthrough ideas are often found by non-experts, because they do not have the borders that experts have. So talk to people who are not expert in your field, talk to idea-oriented people, and draw out ideas from people you may meet on a casual basis.

11. Question: You wrote that the type of dialogue engaged by Socrates and his friends started a new kind of thinking based on common thoughts. Could you describe this type of dialogue, and its relevance to promoting effective collaboration in a group?

Michael Michalko:
In ancient Greece Socrates and his friends spent years meeting and conversing with each other. These conversations followed principles known as “Koinonia”, which means spirit of fellowship. They always paid attention to each other's views, and they maintained a sense of collegiality. The principles they established were:

  • Establish dialogue. In Greek, the word dialogue means “talking through”, which is to say don’t argue, don’t interrupt and do listen carefully. The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind. This is in contrast to the word “discussion”, which from its Latin root means to dash to pieces.

  • Be collegial. All participants must regard each other as equal colleagues. This willingness to consider each other as colleagues tends to lead to dialogue and creativity.

12. Question: Most of your book is devoted to generating ideas and solving problems through Thinkertoys. You also include a Thinkertoy to help a group weed out worthless ideas and proposals, and to identify all the negative aspects of a viable idea so they can be addressed before the idea is implemented. Why is Murder Board such a good Thinkertoy?

Michael Michalko:
I included the Murder Board because of my experience with it in the intelligence community. It’s a good way for organizations and governments to thoroughly review ideas in depth.

I also really like the technique Walt Disney used. Walt Disney allowed his vivid imagination to produce fantastical ideas, uncritically and unrestrained. Later, he would engineer these fantasies into feasible ideas and then evaluate them. He would shift his perspective by playing three separate and distinct roles: the dreamer, the realist and the critic. On the first day he would dream up fantasies and wishful visions. He would let his imagination soar without worrying about how to implement his conceptions. His fantasy analogies permitted him to connect words, concepts, and ideas with apparently irrelevant objects and events. This resulted in a rich treasure of associations and ideas. The next day he would try to engineer his fantasies back to earth by playing the realist. As a realist, he would look for ways to engineer the fantasies and make his conceptions workable and practical. On the third day he would poke holes in his ideas as a critic, asking questions like is it feasible, will customers like it and will it make money?

13. Question: As you told me earlier, you have a background in the military and intelligence agencies. What are some of the world problems that you think your creative thinking techniques could help solve, and how?

Michael Michalko:
Learning how to look at problems in different ways with different perspectives, and learning how to generate a multiplicity of ideas is the key to solving any problem, including world problems.

A Franciscan monk was a speaker at an international seminar about world peace. He was asked if successful negotiations between Israel and Palestine were possible. He called two young people up to the microphone: a Palestinian young man and a Jewish Israeli young man. "Imagine you are brothers", he told them. “Your father has passed away, and he has left you an inheritance with three assets, represented symbolically by three coins.” He placed these coins on the podium.

"Your instructions are that you must share the inheritance fairly but you cannot split any of the assets", the boys were told. "Now you must try to find a creative solution that will get you each the maximum possible benefit". When the Palestinian said he would take two coins and give the Israeli one, the monk said, "Well, okay, you have the power to do that, but you are sowing the seeds of conflict, which is what is happening in the world today." The Israeli said he was actually thinking of taking one coin and giving the Palestinian two. "Evidently," the monk guessed, "you feel it’s worth the risk of investing in your adversary in this way, and hope to somehow benefit in the future from this. This is a wish that may or may not come true". The boys were asked to sit down.

Next, the monk asked two young women, again one was Israeli, the other Palestinian, to repeat the exercise. "I would keep one coin and give her two," said the Israeli young woman, "on condition that she donates her second one to a charity, maybe a children’s hospital." “Good,” said the monk and asked the Palestinian woman if she agreed. She said "I would keep one for myself, and give one to her, and say that we should invest the third one together." The entire audience stood and applauded for the final solution.
The monk reframed the problem in such a way that the negotiating parties could think of different ways to iron out their differences in such a way that they could both benefit. There is no point, the monk said, in figuring out how to get the other side to sign something they cannot live with. A negotiated settlement today is not the end of the story, because there is always the day after. A good negotiator should be thinking about the day after, and the day after that.

14. Question: In your experience, can software or web-based tools assist people collaboratively solve problems or come up with creative or innovative ideas?

Michael Michalko:
Consider a child building something with a Lego construction set. She can build all kinds of structures and when she’s finished she can pick up pieces and move them, add more pieces, divide structures into new structures and so on. There are clear constraints on the set and construction. They cannot be put together any which way, they will not stay together if unbalanced and gravity pulls them apart. These constraints are inherent in the objects and their design. It is the design of the pieces that imposes these limitations. The child quickly learns the ways the Legos go together and the ways they don’t go together. She ends up building a wide variety of structures that satisfy the Legos design and constraints.

If the only constraint were making something out of plastic, and the child had at her disposal every method of melting and molding plastic, the Lego constructions themselves would be only a tiny fraction of the possible products, and would make the Lego constructions look contrived and unmotivated when compared to her other products.

With Legos it is the constraints that are inherent in the design that limits what can be built. With creative thinking models, software and systems, it is the constraints that are inherent in any formalized system of thinking that limits our imagination and inventiveness. Some of the creative thinking programs I have reviewed are predicated on the belief that thought is determinate and exclusionary, whereas, paradoxically, creative thinking is indeterminate and “inclusionary”. So that is the challenge for anyone providing such programs.

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. Exclusionary thinking models or software is black or white thinking reasoning. Black and white reasoning states that identity A is either this or that. For example, A = A, or A is not non-A. I pour a pile of sugar on the table. This is a pile of sugar or it is not a pile of sugar. It cannot be both. It can’t be a pile of sugar and not a pile of sugar.

Suppose I sweep off the sugar from the table and start again. This time I place a grain of sugar on the table. Does one grain of sugar constitute a pile of sugar? If I add another grain, does it become a pile? How many grains must I add to make a pile of sugar? Can I even have a pile of sugar? If I added an infinite number of grains of sugar, does it ever constitute a pile?

15. Question: Are you working on your next book?

Michael Michalko:
Yes I am. The book will be about how to use creative thinking to transform lives and societies. I never discuss my current writing projects in detail, as I have found that if I talk about the projects, inevitably I never do them. In other words, the talking replaces the writing.

16. Question: What is the most important advice you would give to a young person who wants to become more creative?

Michael Michalko:
You can’t make a tree. You cannot will it into existence, or build it according to some blueprint. You can’t go into the woods and collect roots, a stump, and branches and make a tree. It is far too complex and far too subtle to be born out of your mind or built by hand. It has a thousand billion cells, each one adapted perfectly to its conditions. This can only happen because the tree is not “made” but generated by a process which allows the gradual adaptation of these cells to happen hour by hour. It is the process which creates the organism. And it must be so. No thing that lives can possibly be made in any other way. The process of growing a tree starts with a seed and then you let it, the seed, grow the tree.

The seed of a tree contains the whole future tree in latent form. The seed falls at a certain time onto a particular place, in which there are a number of special factors, such as the quality of the soil and the stones, the slope of the land, and its exposure to sun and wind. The latent totality of the tree in the seed reacts to these circumstances by avoiding the stones and inclining toward the sun, with the result that the tree’s growth is shaped. Thus the individual tree slowly comes into existence, constituting the fulfillment of its totality.

Without the seed, the image of the tree is only an abstraction with no reality. With us, it is the intention that is the seed. Without the intention to become a creative thinker, the wish of becoming creative is only a meaningless thought. Intention begins the process of becoming creative.

17. Question: What would you like to say as you last word, so to speak, to our readers who want to increase their creativity?

Michael Michalko:
Your intention creates your thoughts.
Thoughts become your words.
Words become your actions.
Actions become your habits.
Habits become your character.
Your character becomes your destiny.

Vern’s Conclusion:
No one will read this book without learning some helpful tips on how to increase their creative capabilities. But you can not merely read the book; you have to work with the various Thinkertoys that are of interest. Michael Michalko recommends that Thinkertoys not be read cover to cover as if it were a textbook. Rather one should “play” with the Thinkertoys to stimulate ideas from one’s imagination. Imagine being told to play!

Thinkertoys, Second Edition can be purchased from [Amazon]. As well, I have seen it in the business section of local bookstores. Shopping in person is still a treat. The author’s website is [].

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