Imagine That!

You, too, can be a creative genius.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the April 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

Do you need ideas for a new business or ideas to make your existing business better? Michael Michalko can help. In Cracking :The Secrets of Creative Geniuses (Ten Speed Press, $24.95, 800-841-2665), due out this year, Michalko reveals the secrets of creative geniuses like Edison, Mozart and Einstein.

Business Start-Ups: What barriers keep us from being creative?

Michael Michalko: As soon as we're educated, we develop patterns of thinking. When facing a problem, we apply past experience. Say you want to start a new business. You think "What have I been taught, in life, school or experience, about starting a new business?" That's reproductive thinking; it will lead you to the same old ideas you always get.

Creative geniuses don't think reproductively; they think productively. When confronted with a problem, they think "How many different ways can I look at the problem? How many different ideas can I come up with?"

BSU: How can we do the same?

Michalko: One way is to give yourself an quota. Say, "I'm going to come up with 120 ideas." To meet that quota, you'll be forced to list every idea you have--and to defer judgment. It's extremely important when you're generating ideas not to evaluate them. Nothing kills creativity faster.

When you've met your quota, you'll find the first third of your ideas are the same old ideas you always have. The next third are more interesting. The last third are the most fascinating of all.

BSU: How do you decide which ideas to follow up on?

Michalko: People tend to apply their prejudices to an idea before they explore its possibilities. To avoid this, use a technique I call PMI--"plus, minus, interesting." First, list all the positive (plus) aspects of the idea. Then list all the negative (minus) aspects of the idea. Last, list everything that's interesting, but you're not sure if it's a plus or minus. You'll get one of three results: You'll decide it's a bad idea, you'll decide it's a good idea, or you'll recycle it into something else.

BSU:Is quantity the only key to creativity?

Michalko: You also need variety. Geniuses come up with a rich diversity of ideas and then introduce some unrelated factor to disturb their existing pattern of thinking, so they begin to think in unpredictable ways.

One way to do this: Challenge assumptions. If you're starting a restaurant, you assume you must have a menu. Reversing that assumption, you might get the idea for a restaurant where the chef comes out to the table with a tray of fresh ingredients and asks what you would like him to make.

Another way: Force a connection between unrelated ideas. Our minds are such that we cannot think of two things, no matter how dissimilar, without a connection being formed. When hired his assistants, the first thing he'd say is, "Walk through town and list 20 things that interest you." When the person came back, Edison would have him list 10 things in one column and 10 in another. Then he'd say, "Randomly combine objects from Column A and Column B and come up with as many inventions as you can."

BSU: How can we stop our internal critic from evaluating ideas too soon?

Michalko: Come up with the craziest idea you can think of, then force yourself to turn it into something workable. Once, I was working with a greeting card company looking for new products. I asked them for the craziest idea they could think of, and one person said, "How about sending greeting cards to dead people?"

The principle behind that was communicating with the dead, so we brainstormed different ways people communicate with the dead--seances, Ouija boards, prayers--and when someone said, "Leaving things at the cemetery," we went to a cemetery to look around. We saw little mementoes people had left, and that triggered the idea of cards on sticks--little memorial messages. Today, the cards--sold at flower shops near cemeteries--are that company's leading product line.

Contact Source

Michael Michalko, 165 Percy Rd., Churchville, NY 14428,


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