Can you improve your ability to think creatively? Yes. Like any skill in life, the more you practice it, the better you get at it. And this thinker toy is designed to help you think outside your normal thinking box.

One of the most influential books I've read is Mechanism of Mind by Edward de Bono. It explains how we think and how to bypass our hardwired, automatic, thinking highways in order to come up with creative ideas. Daniel Kahneman calls this system 1, the automatic, fast response based on past experiences so practiced that you can do it without thinking.

De Bono, who coined the term lateral thinking, spent his life helping people and organizations think more creatively. All the games he created formed the foundation of the design thinking methods now so widely used. He explains in his book how to bypass system 1 thinking to break old patterns of thinking.

How thinking works

Thinking is like a train of thoughts, each thought linked to the next one. The more we think in a certain way, the more likely we are to rethink these same thoughts in the same sequence, much like a path forms the more people use it in the wild. This is why it is often so hard for people to come up with a different perspective or idea when faced with a problem. Naturally, our mind takes the path of least resistance, or system 1 thinking, which is the road we use most frequently in our mind's highway. We are in fact designed to take the easiest and fastest route to a destination. It comes naturally to us.

Taking the metaphorical road less traveled, like in real life, means we have to explore territory where we have not yet been. It takes courage to face the uncertainty and the ability to sit with the discomfort while we create new connections in our brain, or at least interrupt the pathway of our older, habitual train of thoughts in order to come up with a different idea. We need to re-arrange the compartments of our train and change the tracks in order to arrive at a different destination.

So how do you do that?

Quite simple actually.

All you need is a random input. Something to interrupt your old thinking patterns. It can be a random word in a book you pick up. Or a random object you find based on criteria you specify (like the 5th red object I see), or a random input tool like this Thinker Toy specifically designed to help teams and people break habitual thinking to come up with new ideas.

Originally designed by Michael Michalko, author of the book Thinker Toys, Soap, Soup and Sand is a simple tool that helps you to find a fresh perspective on a problem. Whether you are stuck in your team not able to improve your process or keep running into the same problem, or a designer looking for a novel idea, or a marketer looking for a new angle, this tool can help you come up with a fresh perspective.

How to use

  1. Next time when you feel stuck, or looking for a fresh perspective, navigate to Thinker Toy and draw a random card. This word will spark a fresh association of ideas in your mind, allowing you to think outside your normal habitual train of thoughts.

  2. Spend the next few minutes thinking of all the characteristics or attributes of the word you drew. Focus only on the word, refraining from jumping to solutions too early.

  3. Force connections (without any judgment) between your problem and the word. Brainstorm as many as possible ideas with no idea too crazy. At this stage in the process, the goal is to come up with as many as possible ideas. Quantity over quality.

  4. Now go through all the ideas and look for something practical you can apply to come up with a novel idea. Repeat the process if needed. The more iterations, the more creative you will get.

Some Examples

Here are a few examples of how to use it.

Audience | Product design

Problem | How might we reduce the noise of social media? Currently, social media is filled with so many ads and posts you're not interested in, with artificial intelligence algorithms designed to display more of what you already have on your feed, making it boring.

Random input | Television

Attributes | What does a television do? How does it work? What makes it unique?

  • A television has a number of channels.

  • You can change channels.

  • You can switch the television on and off.

  • There's a predefined schedule when which programs are on.

  • Certain time slots are focused on specific target audiences, like the 8pm news, or the Saturday morning cartoons for kids, or the 5pm after work soapies, or the Sunday evening movie.

  • There are replays for popular content, but most content is only available at the time it is on. If you're not in front of your television at a specific time, you miss the show.

Force connections | How can these attributes be used to improve your social media feed?

  • Have different channels for different content personalized by the user. One channel could be a general browser where there is the normal noise-filled channel. But then you can also switch channels to fields of interest of your choice, or locations of your choice. For example, a channel just for inspiring quotes and feel-good vibes. Another channel for news updates. Yet another for technology updates, and another for discovering new people.

  • Schedule ad-free time slots. Or timeslots dedicated to ads only. If you're looking for specific products or services you can browse these channels.

  • Switch ads on and off.

Audience | Agile coaches

Problem | How might we reduce the number of bugs and regression after a new release? Each time a new release is deployed, a lot of time is wasted updated changed unit tests, fix bugs, and identify issues you didn't include in your tests.

Random input | Sink

Attributes | What makes a kitchen sink useful?

  • It has an outlet to get rid of the dirty water.

  • It holds water to re-use while cleaning the dishes.

  • It is a dedicated area where you can work with water without making a mess.

  • You can easily open and close a tap, or choose hot or cold water to come out of the tap.

  • You can fit a filter that can easily be removed and cleaned.

  • You can add in-sink garbage disposal for vegetables and compostables.

  • You can add a water filter to the tap.

Force connections | How can these attributes be used to reduce regression after a release?

  • You could have a staging production area where you do a soft release with a few users before rolling it out to everyone, like an A/B test. This will reduce the impact on the users and also make it easier for developers to fix issues without the pressure.

  • You can add a filter that will catch the bugs before it reaches the users (like bugsnag).

  • You can switch on or off the unit tests to give developers time to update them without impacting the users.

  • You could shred outdated unit tests.

Further resources

Book | Thinker Toys by Michael Michalko

Book | Mechanism of Mind by Edward de Bono

Game | Forced Analogy Gamestorming game (different name for the same principle or game).