Four Steps toward Creative Thinking by Michael Michalko ……………5, 6, 7, 8 – why stop at four?

What is creativity?

Creativity isn’t something that is easy to pinpoint. Some people seem to be more creative than others. Creativity can be developed over time, and it can lead to something that changes the world, or it can happen on a much smaller scale. In Michalko’s paper he references the Sony Walkman as an example of creativity that changed the world. He describes the discovery of this as a “modification to an idea” that already existed.  Sony had tried to develop a recording playback machine, but their failed attempt at the recording function shelved the project. The chairman took the shelved product and combined it with their lightweight headphones making it into something else. The Walkman was created and changed the future of how people listen to music.

Not every creation changes the world, and in fact most don’t. However, the impetus to create is something that we as human beings are compelled to do. In his paper, Michalko discusses systems that can be used for creativity. Creative people develop systems, but can also use these systems as crutches. Just as patterns help us simplify complex things, they can also hinder our ability to be creative. Allowing ourselves to step outside of our expertise is another system that can help us with creativity, because sometimes too much knowledge can be restricting.

Do systems for creativity work? They can, but need to be changed on a regular basis. The same formula doesn’t fit all problems.

In my design work, creativity is solving a problem in a 2 dimensional space, which aligns with our clients’ business objectives and meets the needs of their customers, where the human benefits are more visible than the technology. It is solving an organization’s problem with methodologies and tools. Although we do this for many customers, the formula of what we do and how we do it changes for each customer.

In my art, creativity is looking at things in different ways by trying to capture a moment in time, or sensitivity about a particular thing. The way I achieve this is by trying different systems of thinking and doing, to get different results.

There are many discussions about creativity and what it is and what it is not. Creativity is in everything we do, from cooking, to managing money, we use it often in our every day tasks. Interestingly, many people don’t consider themselves creative.

In this brief paper, Michalko describes different systems to approaching creativity. He considers not thinking, reversing old ideas, perception expansion and getting crazy as steps in helping with creative thinking.

Not thinking: We typically think in structured ways, we categorize from our previous experiences. Our expertise can hinder our ability to be creative. If we try to forget what we know, it can help us be more creative.

Reversing old ideas: Common assumptions can stifle creativity, reversing these to change your perspective can bring forth new fresh ideas.

Perception expansion: Expanding the problem by making it less defined can change your perception of the problem. This will allow you to explore more possibilities and not be confined within a narrow space.

Getting crazy: Exploring the ridiculous, absurd or the preposterous may help. Word rhymes, creating double meanings, creating a song, or as Greg says making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, can fuel your creativity.

Having now been involved in a futures course and gaining an understanding of futures thinking, the creative thinking systems would compliment futures thinking. Some of the above can definitely help expand creative and futures thinking. Below are other ways to think about creativity with methods and tools to change how you think alone or in a group.

Other ideas to help with creativity:

  • Move to an environment with creative stimulation
  • Be open to all ideas initially, then hone in on the best ones
  • Try having a meeting standing up
  • Enhance your environment
  • Try moving your meeting to a place where you haven’t met before
  • Within a group setting, use stickies to quickly brainstorm ideas
  • Many minds make for more ideas, involve others as much as possible

A couple of creativity tools:

Oblique Strategies, Systems for Creativity – Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt

This is a deck of cards that offers thoughts to encourage lateral thinking and helps creative blocks.

Creative Whack Pack – Roger Von Oech

This is a deck of cards that encourages a fresh perspective by “whacking” you out of your same thought patterns.


Michalko, , M. (2000). Four Steps to Creative Thinking. The Futurist Date34(3).