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The Secrets of Creative Genius

Many businesses owe their success to a secret — think of the recipe for Coca-Cola or Google’s web page ranking algorithm. Likewise, many geniuses rely on secret formulas to help them “think different” and create great ideas. Over the years, I watched these geniuses and creative leaders and tried to figure out their secrets. So far, I identified more than 60 creative cognitive strategies that I have integrated into Thinkergy’s Genius Journey method. In this article, let me introduce to you some of these creative cognitive strategies that you can use to free your thinking and give you ways to come up with new and better ideas.


The challenge
As with most things, these principles are best explained with an example. When you meet someone new, you give them your business card. Assume that you want to go beyond handing over a plain vanilla business card and to do something that will leave a lasting impression. Challenges are best stated as simple “How to” questions. This challenge could be, “How to introduce myself to others in an impressive, memorable way?”

Remember that when ideating, you are only generating ideas, without regard to whether those ideas are sensible or meaningful. The best thinkers know that in order to produce the best ideas, they need to come up with many, many ideas, from the mundane to the insane.

Questions: What is a challenge that you face now? How can you express it as a “How to” question?


Creative cognitive strategy 1: Reverse it
Try to reverse your challenge and look at its opposite. In other words, turn it on its head and engage in “upside down thinking”. According to Michael Michalko, Henry Ford’s use of the assembly line resulted from a challenge reversal which changed, “How can we get people to the things they need to work on?”, into, “How can we get the work to the people?”

In our sample challenge, one way to reverse it is, “How to make others introduce themselves to you and find you memorable as a result?” One way to do this might be, “Address people who are wearing name tags by their name and with a big smile; this will prompt them to ask for your name — and remember it.” Another could be, “Wear special glasses with face recognition software that projects the name of the person on the inside of the glasses, thus allowing you to amaze a stranger by greeting them by name.” (Welcome to the brave new world of Google Glass.) Another way to meet this reversed challenge might be, “When shaking hands, take their hand in both of yours and smile at them.”

Questions: How can you reverse your challenge? What ideas come to your mind when you reverse it?


Creative cognitive strategy 2: Change dimensions
Try changing the dimensions of your challenge. You can go up from 2D (surface) to 3D (space) to even 4D (space and time) or down from 2D to 1D (line) to help with your ideation. Moving from 3D to 4D was one of the things Einstein did while working on the theory of special relativity.

For our challenge, changing dimensions may result in ideas like these: “Make a business card with your information printed both normally and in the raised dots of Braille, so the blind can read it” (2D to 3D); “Add a URL to your business card that links to your CV” (2D to 4D); “Use a laser beam to draw your name on a wall or surface” (2D to 1D).

Questions: What dimension is your challenge in now? How to resolve it by shifting into another dimension?


Creative cognitive strategy 3: Ask “What if”
Asking “What if” questions and engaging in wishful thinking is certain to fire up your imagination. Formulate a question that starts with the words “What if”, followed by a statement that isn’t true. For example, Einstein asked the question “What if I were traveling on a ray of light through the universe?”

For our example, we could ask, “What if we only had one second to memorably introduce ourselves to another person?” One idea is, “Wear a shirt with a giant rubber stamp on it, and hug the person you’re meeting to imprint your name and contact info onto their shirt.” This question: “What if you were judged on how much fun your introduction was?” might trigger the ideas “Give them a squeeze ball with your personal information on it, that they can play with and use to reduce stress”, and “Sing your name and contact details, or give them a business card that sings that info for you”.

Questions: What contrary-to-fact “What if” questions can you ask about your challenge? What ideas are prompted by those “What If” questions?


Creative cognitive strategy 4: Play with time
Travel backward or forward in time, speed things up or slow them down, or change the sequence of events. In his master’s thesis, Fred Smith imagined speeding shipments up and creating an overnight delivery service for time-critical components. Although his “infeasible idea” earned him a “C”, Fred Smith went on to found FedEx and create a new business model and industry segment.

For our challenge, going back to an earlier time produced the idea, “Wear a formal hat, and introduce yourself while removing your hat and bowing.” Another idea based on time is, “Introduce yourself while speaking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y to give them more time to hear your information.” Or, “Use software to simulate how you will look when you’re 90 years old, and introduce yourself by describing what you hope to have achieved by then.”

Questions: How can you play with the time associated with your challenge? What ideas do you get when you do this?


Creative cognitive strategy 5: Omit an essential element
Omitting something you think is essential to your challenge can free you from false constraints and lead to surprising ideas. Steve Jobs challenged the idea that a computer had to have a keyboard and a mouse. This freed the design team from those constraints, and led to the iPad.

In our example, omitting an essential element may lead to ideas like these: “Hide your face behind a mask or helmet to hide your identity while adding enigma and intrigue”; “Don’t give your name, or use a pseudonym, to add suspense and mystery“; and “Don’t tell people what you do, and make a game out of figuring out your role and position.”

Questions: What do you think is ‘essential’ about your challenge? What ideas come to mind when you omit each of those essential elements?


Creative cognitive strategy 6: Repeat, repeat, repeat
Repeat an action to create new, interesting effects and ideas. The Roman senator Cato the Elder concluded every speech he gave with the words, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.” (“Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed.”) Eventually this convinced others, and Rome conquered Carthage in the third Punic war.

For our sample challenge, this technique might produce these ideas: “In your voice mail greeting, repeat your name several times in a row to make it more memorable”; and “Introduce yourself in a rap, repeating several words for emphasis”; and “Repeat the name of the person you’re meeting at least five times in the first 30 seconds to help remember their name — and to make them want to learn your name, too.”

Questions: What is a challenge that you face now? How can you express it as a “How to?” question? How can repetition help you resolve this challenge?


Creative cognitive strategy 7: Divide and conquer
Break a whole into parts to get ideas. This approach is also known as ‘segmentation’. As the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes said, “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.”

What ideas for our challenge can division produce? One idea is to “Divide your information into parts (i.e., name, title, company, contact info, etc.), then print them on jigsaw puzzle pieces and let the other person assemble them.” Another is to “Display your information in separate frames, then play them in a video as a countdown from 10 to 0 where 10 is your website, 1 is your name and 0 is a funny photo of you.” Finally, we could look at each step of the introduction process separately (e.g., first encounter, introduction, handshake, exchange business cards, small talk), and then focus on each part in turn to come up with ideas: “When someone offers to shake hands, give them a hug instead to make you stand out.”

Questions: How can you break up your challenge? What ideas do you get as a result?


Creative cognitive strategy 8: Exaggerate
Make something about our challenge bigger, better, longer, or worse that it really is, or exaggerate parts of it out of all proportion. Caricaturists use this technique when they exaggerate one feature of a politician to easily identify them.

With regards to our practice case, ideas based on the principle of exaggeration could be “Give myself a playful or exaggerated business title to stand out from the crowd, such as ‘Chief Entertainment Officer (CEO)’ or ‘Senior Executive Cat Herder’”; “Have a large banner with my photo, name and contact details hanging on the outside wall of my office building to show everyone that I work here”; and “Create a business card with a fake Time magazine cover on the back showing me as the ‘Person of the Year’.”

Questions: What can you exaggerate about your challenge? How can these exaggerations help create ideas?


Creative cognitive strategy 9: Expand your senses
Add more sensory appeal to your challenge, or emphasize other senses. Leonardo da Vinci cultivated a stimulating sensory environment because he understood the power of the senses: “The five senses are the ministers of the soul… Yet, the average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”

In finding more innovative ways to introduce yourself, you could “Add a fragrance to your business card that fits the spirit of your company or your personality”, or “Use rectangular biscuits imprinted with your information as your business card, so that the people you meet can eat and enjoy the ‘card’ once they’ve noted down your information”, or “Create a unique cocktail and give it to the other person as an introduction.”

Questions: How can you use other senses with your challenge, or enhance the senses already in use? What ideas does this give you?


Creative cognitive strategy 10: Go wild
Finally, let’s have some fun. All the ideas you produce here must be wild, shocking or provocative. While working on the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, Danish physicist Niels Bohr said about a particularly wild idea: “We all know the idea is crazy. The question is whether it is crazy enough?” Richard Branson used wild promotions, such as rappelling from Big Ben, and dressing up as a bride, to create free advertising for the Virgin group.

What are wild ways to make yourself more memorable to those you meet? Here are a few examples: “Handcuff yourself to the other person and make sure they learn all about you in great detail”; “Tattoo your information onto the other person so they will always remember you”; “Give out fake million dollar bills with your picture and information printed on them”.

Questions: How to meet your challenge with wild, shocking, provocative ideas?


Conclusion: In this article, I’ve shared with you ten creative secrets to use to get different, unusual ideas. Some of these ideas can lead to meaningful idea concepts, or even breakthroughs. As Lao Tzu said, “To see things in the seed, that is genius.” There are many more of these secrets if you take the time to look for them. At Thinkergy, we have identified more than 60 that we teach in a creative leadership training of Genius Journey, our creative leadership method. How much longer do you want to wait before using these creative cognitive strategies to realize your genius?


This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on May 23 2013 and June 6 2013 under the title “The secret creative principles of creative genius (Part 1 and 2)”.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2013