Connecting the Dots

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” ~ Steve Jobs

The ability to connect unrelated things, or associational thinking, is a fundamental process that underlies creative thinking. Professor Mednick, who created the Remote Associates Test for creativity, defines the creative thinking process as “the forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet specified requirements or are in some way useful.” The more remote the elements, the more novel the solution. Consider how the structure of Benzene was discovered. August Kekule had a dream about a snake eating its own tail, which he couldn’t shake off. By connecting that image with his work on chemical structures he got the idea of the cyclic structure of Benzene, thereby making a significant contribution to the understanding of aromatic compounds. But is there a better way to increase creativity without having to wait for serendipity?

The answer is surprisingly simple – by actively looking for different associations! MacCrimmon and Wagner developed a software tool that can help find useful connections. They make a distinction between two kinds of connections – internal and external. As they describe it, “Internal connections are those between elements of the focal problem itself. External connections are those between the focal problem and external factors.” Internal connections can be discovered by combining various form and function attributes in different ways. Examples of external connections are finding connections with related problems or using random stimulus like poem fragments to trigger ideas. The 3-step creative problem solving approach encompasses the process of finding connections through dissection (internal connections), manipulation and association (external connections).

Playing games that help build associational thinking can improve creativity. For example, in  the Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) brainteasers at MindAntix, users have to find a plausible scenario for how a make-believe crime could have been committed. To do that, they have to incorporate some random pieces of evidence (like a feather or a belt) that were found at the crime scene. Similarly, in the Wacky Inventions category of brainteasers, users have to combine unrelated objects in interesting ways to create a new product. These games use random stimuli to trigger the brain to think in different directions.

And the simplest of all associative thinking games? Spotting shapes in clouds! A similar technique that Leonardo da Vinci used often was to throw a paint filled sponge at a wall and try to make sense of the meaningless stains. His ability to make remote associations helped him in connecting unrelated systems leading to his numerous inventions. It’s always possible to find some way to connect unlikely elements, even if that leads to bizarre ideas occasionally. Like da Vinci himself said, “Realize that everything connects to everything else.


MindAntix Brainteaser: Wacky Inventions

What’s the best way to spread butter on toast? It turns out that people have pondered this problem at length and have come up with many solutions, including a recently funded Kickstarter project for a ButterUp Knife . But did you know about this little known “invention”, Butterstick – butter that comes in a stick just like a glue stick or a lipstick? You simply twist the bottom and start applying the butter – simple, easy and no dirty knives!

The inventor of Butter Stick and hundreds of other such creative inventions is Kenji Kawakami, the progenitor of Chindogu, the Japanese art of “unuseless” inventions. The word Chindogu, translates to “strange tools” or tools that seemingly solve a problem, but as Kawakami explains, “chindogu have greater disadvantages than precursor products, so people can’t sell them. They’re invention dropouts.“ Nevertheless, Kawakami finds making Chindogu “an intellectual game to stimulate anarchic minds” and pursues this art with an almost spiritual devotion.

The art of Chindogu has spread all over the world since Kawakami created it in the late 1980s. Tina Seelig, professor at Stanford University and author of InGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity, considers Chindogu to be an indispensable tool to spur innovative thinking (the Imagination component in her Innovation Engine model) and routinely uses it in her courses. Chindogu, as Dr. Seelig describes, is about  “putting things together in surprising ways – they are not useful, they are not useless but when you put them together interesting things happen.”

Chindogu is the inspiration behind the MindAntix brainteasers, “Wacky Inventions”. But there is a twist – instead of identifying a problem and then building a gadget to solve the problem, you have to combine the two random objects in the brainteaser in a meaningful way to solve some problem.

At a recent Creative Thinking session, I gave a group of 4th and 5th graders an additional task – not only did they have to make an invention using two random objects, they also had to make an infomercial to sell their neat gadget to their classmates! It didn’t take long for the creative juices to start flowing. We soon had impressive ideas from different teams like Jumbrella Skiing using an umbrella and a jump rope (because water skiing while standing is hard, so why not sit down and relax while you are being pulled?), and a Hold-a-Loon using a balloon and a paper clip (you never have to worry about carrying heavy books again). Not only did all teams accomplish their goal of creating something novel, they were all amazed at having created something useful out of completely random elements.

Connecting and combining ideas from different domains is the essence of creativity. Fun exercises like Wacky Inventions and Chindogu are a great way to build associative thinking skills. Nurturing such little-c and mini-c creative adventures is an essential element in paving the way for groundbreaking innovations later.