Creative Thinkering, Conceptual Blending, and Making Connections

A guest post for Handshake 2.0 from Michael Michalko, author of Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work:

Michael Michalko, author of Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work We are educated to be analytical, logical thinkers. Consequently, we have the ability to make common associations between subjects that are related or at least remotely related. We are far better at associating two things (for example, apples and bananas are both fruits) than we are at forcing ourselves to see connections between things that seem to have no association (for example, a can opener and a pea pod).

Jeff Hawkins, in his book On Intelligence, explains how our ability to associate related concepts limits our ability to be creative. We form mental walls between associations of related concepts and concepts that are not related. For example, if asked to improve the can opener, we will make connections between all our common experiences and associations with can openers. Our fixation with our common associations will produce ideas for can openers that are very similar to the can openers that exist.

Developing the skill of forcing connections between unrelated things will tear down the walls between related and unrelated concepts. What connections, for example, can you force yourself to see between a can opener and a pea pod?

The function of a can opener is “opening.” How do things in other domains open? For example, in nature a pea pod opens when a seam weakens as the pod ripens. Thinking simultaneously about a pea pod and a can opener in the same mental space will force a mental connection between the pea pod seam and a can opener. This inspires the idea of opening a can by pulling a weak seam (like the one in a pea pod). Instead of an idea to improve the can opener, we’ve produced an idea for a new can design. This idea is one you would never get using conventional thinking.

This is an example of conceptual blending, which is the act of combining, or relating, unrelated items in order to solve problems, create new ideas, and even rework old ideas. It succeeds because it is not possible to think of two subjects, no matter how remote, without making connections between the two. It is no coincidence that the most creative and innovative people throughout history have been experts at forcing new mental connections via the conceptual blending of unrelated subjects.

Michael Michalko is the author of Creative Thinkering, Thinkertoys, Cracking Creativity, and ThinkPak. While an army officer, he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics to find the best inventive thinking method. He has expanded and taught these techniques to numerous Fortune 500 companies and organizations. He lives in Rochester, New York.

Excerpted from the book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work ©2011 by Michael Michalko. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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  1. Great post. My coach and I discussed something similar to this recently: calling it free or “open” association. Very interesting where this leads! Thanks for another great post.

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