Edison’s Creativity Tools

The Creative Thinking Habits of Thomas Edison:

  1. Quantity: Create a lot of ideas, regardless of quality. One excellent way to ensure quantity is to create quotas. The ideas within the lists will become more creative as you struggle to meet a difficult quota.
  2. Challenge all assumptions: List out your assumptions about something, and then try to flip them. (Assumption: restaurants have menus. Flip: A menuless restaurant could list ingredients on hand, and let customers request their custom-built meals.)
  3. Nothing is wasted: Even those ideas which do not work teach you something. Edison enthusiastically recorded what each of his failures revealed.
  4. Record your ideas: Write everything down. This helps clarify and preserve ideas. When on a creative dry spell, you can go back and improve old ideas for a boost.
  5. Constantly improve ideas and products: Return to old ideas, both yours and those of others, and find a way to modify or apply it in a new way.
  6. Be exploratory: When you find something intellectually interesting, investigate it! Do not apply judgments too quickly.

Above were those of Edison, as listed by Michael Michalko. In keeping with Rule #1 above, I decided to set myself a quota of 15 additional strategies for fostering creativity. Below is my list of unproven ideas.

  1. Most outrageous solution contest: Several people each try to come up with a more ridiculous (but still relevant) solution than the last person. After the winner collects the well-deserved cookie, the group discusses the usable elements of each solution. (Assumption: Being correct is good. Flip: Strive for the most incorrect.)
  2. Top-Down Method: The first person gives a high level solution. Each subsequent person says something that can’t be done. In the end, try to come to a solution that fits all constraints. Try several rounds with the same high level solution, but different constraints. (I.e. Combat global poverty with universal education… Without sending teachers to poor countries… Without building schoolhouses… Without giving lectures… Without any curricula… Solution: Organize community meetings where they teach each other farming techniques.)
  3. Bottom-Up Method: The first person gives one relevant piece of information. Each subsequent person (without asking clarifying questions!) explains or adds slightly to that piece. Continue until a solution emerges and then, maybe, pare down that solution to the most important part and begin again. (I.e. Poor people have little food… Which directs their focus to getting enough food… Which means they have little time for other activities… Education is an important activity… Lack of food prevents the poor from spending time on education… If the poor had more food, they could focus more on education… Solution: Distribute food aid in exchange for class attendance!)
  4. Simplify: Examine someone else’s solution and select a very small number of important features. Find a way to implement those few features better than anyone else while ignoring the other features. (I.e. Apple)
  5. Become a Novice Again: If you are an expert (and therefore liable to closing off possibilities via your knowledge), become a novice again. Ask a novice for ideas, and then deeply investigate whether they could work.
  6. Delete a Step: Go through an established process without performing one or several of the steps. Try predict the exact outcome, and if that predicted outcome is not observed, investigate more deeply.
  7. Add a Step: Add a step, and check whether the outcome is exactly as predicted. If not, investigate more deeply.
  8. Change the Parameters: Run the oven 50 degrees hotter, and tune the bake time. Try another 50 degrees hotter, and tune the time once more. Keep adjusting until the process breaks down. Analyze what you find.
  9. Apply an Old Solution to a New Problem: Are education costs too high? Henry Ford reduced costs without sacrificing quality by implementing a revolutionary assembly line. Could you do the same to an unimportant aspect of an instruction program?
  10. Sketch It Out: Sketch out the problem or a proposed solution. Choose one point, and sketch that in more detail.
  11. Change Your Shoes: Approach the problem as if you were a politician or historian or linguist or chemist or biologist. What would be important issues to such an expert?
  12. Put on Famous Shoes: How would Thomas Edison have solved the problem? Steve Jobs? Leonardo Da Vinci?
  13. Random Item Solution: Stick your hand in a messy drawer, and pull out one item. How could that item be used to solve your problem?
  14. Read About It: Read another paper on the topic. What do they think are interesting questions? What are their assumptions?
  15. Take a Walk: Some of the best insights have come on a leisurely walk in the middle of months of struggling with a difficult problem.
  16. Revise a Failed Solution: Someone else has probably already failed at this problem that is besting you. Why were they defeated by the challenge?
  17. “Almost There” Ideas: Try to come up with ideas which are really good, but that you know would fail in the end. Why do they seem so good, and why would they eventually fail? Make sure you don’t cheat and use ideas that have already been tried!
  18. Sleep On It: Do something else for a while, and then come back to it with a fresh perspective.

It took me two separate sessions on different days to compile this list. I initially ran out of ideas after #8 of my list. I picked up the task again, and got up to #13. Right as I was grinding to a halt once again, I came up with a burst of several ideas to exceed my original quota, including my favorite of my list: “Almost There” ideas.

What are some other strategies? I’ll start a list of readers’ ideas.

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