Find Your Inner Creativity With Thinkertoys

It’s not too difficult to come across posts or comments to posts at other librarian blogs where there is a good deal of whining about the inadequacies of an LIS education. The number one complaint is something along the lines of “I didn’t learn anything.” Well, that’s unfortunate, but my reaction is “Were you listening or thinking while you were doing all that reading, writing and fieldwork?” None of us recalls everything that happened in LIS school, or from our undergraduate days for that matter, but I have several memorable experiences that were indeed excellent learning events.

One came in my now ancient PL1 programming course. The instructor was awful, but trying my hand at computer programming languages taught me a great life lesson: to solve problems you must look at them from a completely different perspective and the more complex the problem the more perspectives one must think through. When my programs failed to run, and how I dreaded re-doing those punch cards, I realized the only way to attack my failure was to stop my linear thinking and turn the problem completely upside down. I had no idea then, but I was using a Thinkertoy technique to release my inner creativity

I had never heard of Thinkertoys until I came across an interview at IdeaConnection with the author of the book. Michael Michalko has put together an interesting collection of techniques for creative thinking, and collectively he refers to them as Thinkertoys, which is also the title of his book on creative thinking. While some of the suggestions will come off as platitudes (e.g., creative thinkers are positive thinkers), others are rather thought provoking. For example, one of our greatest barriers to creativity is our own expertise. It leads us to use the same experiences and resources to approach problems in the same ways we have always used them. Sometimes that approach works fine, but mostly for simple decision-making scenarios. In other words it is critical to understand the context of the problem. If you attempt to resolve a problem with a complex context with your techniques that work well in the simple context, you will likely fail (for more on this see an excellent article titled “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” in the November 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review). Michalko says “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.”

What I found really interesting was the link between one of Michalko’s techniques for improving creativity to solve problems and Roger Martin’s new book on the opposable mind. Both propose that in order to release creativity in problem solving one must be able to resolve “two opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts or images that exist simultaneously and that may even be beyond logic” (Michalko). This approach is what moves creative thinkers into the realm of seeing totally new perspectives on their existing problems in ways that free them from the biases of their routine approaches. We think there can’t possibly be another solution, that we’ve thought it all the way through. But when we explore options that are in complete opposition to our existing solutions, and then make the effort to resolve the two opposites a new solution is able to emerge. [NOTE – in the HBR article the authors pose that some decision-making situations are so utterly complex that one can only create an environment that allows solutions to emerge from the people affected by the problem; master problem solvers and highly creative individuals have the knowledge and experience to both establish the right environment and avoid the urge to impose their own solution].

I believe this is what I experienced in my PL1 course when I learned that in order to get a non-thinking, highly logical computer to do what I wanted I needed to stop reading the code commands in the book and instead attack my challenge from a completely different angle that had never before occured to me. Unfortunately, that would usually happen only after many hours of frustration. But like Edison I suppose I was only exploring all the ideas that didn’t work before I found the one that did. Michalko has other good examples of this that are based on the methods of creative thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.

But is what Michalko has to offer anything more than what I might summarize as “think outside the box” which is simply a platitude that suggests we need to move beyond our inner biases and mental limitations? He even gives such basic advice as reading beyond the boundaries of one’s own profession (that’s a key element of the keeping up philosophy that I’ve been imparting for years) or seeking out experts from other fields for advice in solving problems. In seeking the answers to these questions I will need to read the book, and explore more of his creative thinking techniques. When I get to the end of it I will hope to be the monkey, not the kitten, when it comes to creative problem solving. Monkeys? Kittens? Go read the interview.


One thought on “Find Your Inner Creativity With Thinkertoys”

Leave a Reply