Michael Michalko is one of the most highly acclaimed creativity experts in the world and author of the best sellers Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck), Creative Thinkering (Putting your Imagination to Work), and Cracking Creativity (The Secrets Of Creative Genius). As an officer in the United States Army, Michael organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. His international team applied those methods to various NATO military, political, and social problems and in doing so it produced a variety of breakthrough ideas and creative solutions to new and old problems. After leaving the military, Michael facilitated CIA think tanks using his creative thinking techniques. Michael later applied these creative-thinking techniques to problems in the corporate world with outstanding successes. Michael has provided keynote speeches, workshops, and seminars on fostering creative thinking for clients who range from Fortune 500 corporations, such as DuPont, Kellogg’s, General Electric, Kodak, Microsoft, Exxon, General Motors, Ford, USA, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Gillette, and Hallmark, to associations and governmental agencies. In addition to his work in the United States, Michael has worked with clients in countries around the world.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
* * *
Morris: Before discussing any of your books, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Michalko: My mother was my greatest influence because she taught me by example that your life and happiness are determined by what you choose to or refuse to do.
We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: with purpose or adrift, with joy or with joylessness, with hope or with despair, with humor or with sadness, with a positive outlook or a negative outlook, with pride or with shame, with inspiration or with defeat and with honor or with dishonor. We decide that what makes us significant or insignificant. We decide to be creative or to be indifferent. No matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. In the end, the meaning of our own life is decided by what we choose to do or what we refuse to do. And as we decide and choose, so are our destinies formed.
Morris: The great impact on your professional development? How so?
Michalko: While in the military I observed that the more an expert one became in an area of military specialization, the less creative and innovative that person became. The paradox is that people who know more, see less; and the people who know less, see more. Consequently, the majority of the generals had a fixed mindset about what is possible and what is not. The creative and innovative solutions to military problem came from the youngest noncoms and officers who still had open minds.
I discovered the same paradox in civilian life. An example of this is when Apple Computer Inc. founder, Steve Jobs, attempted, without success, to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. As Steve recounts, “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary; we’ll come work for you.’ And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t gotten through college yet.”
It seems that once a person has formed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject. Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes. Pierrre Pachet, a renowned physiology professor and expert, declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
If we experience any strain in imagining a possibility, we quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the experts. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Michalko: The realization that most educated people have a fixed mindset that encourages robotic thinking and determines a person’s outlook and behavior. Think of the fixed mindset shaped like an upside down funnel. At the wide bottom, there is a wide variety of different experiences. At the top, there is the narrow opening which represents a fixed mindset that superimposes itself on all the experiences. Once people with a fixed mindset have settled on a perspective, they close off all other lines of thought. Whereas, a creative thinker’s mind is shaped like a right side up funnel with the narrow opening over one experience. At the wide top there is a wide variety of different ways to see and think about the one experience. This represents a creative thinker’s growth mindset.
Imagine a mud puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world. I find myself in this hole and I find that it fits me perfectly. In fact, it fits me so well, it must have been made to have me in it. Everything is fine and there is no need for me to worry about changing anything.” Yet every day as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up, the puddle gets smaller and smaller. Yet the puddle frantically hangs on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because the puddle believes the world is what it is and was meant to have him in it. The moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.
People with fixed mindsets are like the mud puddle. They were taught by authority figures that their genes, family, education and environment have determined their destiny, and they, like the atom, just are. Many of them were taught that they are not creative. Consequently, they believe they are a certain kind of person and there is not much they can do to change that. They might be able change some small things but the important part of who they are can’t be changed.
It was this realization that encouraged me to research, write and teach the importance of understanding these cognitive mindsets, how they influence us and how we can easily change the dynamics of a mindset and change the way we think and see things.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Michalko: What I learned from observing and listening to academics in college was their curious tendency to assimilate new information into their pre-existing views. Their mental image of the established view interferes with their perception and understanding of new ideas and concepts. In the case of real life, physicists could not see Einstein’s theory of relativity because of their established, accepted view. For years, they tried to incorporate his view into the established view without success.
Experts always try to assimilate new insights, ideas and concepts into their view. What happens in real life is, despite ambiguous stimuli, people form some sort of tentative hypothesis about what they see. The longer they are exposed to this hypothesis, the greater confidence they develop in this initial and perhaps erroneous impression, so the greater the impact this initial hypothesis has on subsequent perceptions.
Suppose an expert has an established theory about the danger of boxes and their effect on human life and the environment. The theory is that boxes might be harmful and the use of boxes should be regulated. Now, suppose that I leave a box on the floor, and my wife trips on it, falling against my son, who is carrying a carton of eggs, which then fall and break. The expert’s approach to an event like this would be that the best way to prevent the breakage of eggs would be to outlaw leaving boxes on the floor. As silly as this example is, it is analogous to what is happening in the world of global warming. If you survey the history of science, it is apparent that most individuals who have created radical innovations did not do so simply because they knew more than others. One of the most important experiences Noble laureate, Richard Feynman, had in his life was reading a copy of James Watson’s typescript of what was to become his famous book, The Double Helix, about his discovery, together with Francis Crick, of the structure of DNA. Feynman had become unproductive and began to believe he had run out of ideas. The discovery Feynman made was that Watson had been involved in making such a fundamental advance in science, and yet he had been completely out of touch with what everybody else in his field was doing.
As told in Watson’s classic memoir, The Double Helix, it was a tale of boundless ambition, impatience with authority and disdain, if not contempt, for received opinion. “A goodly number of scientists,” Watson explained, “are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid.” Feynman wrote one word, in capitals: DISREGARD on his notepad when he read that. This word became his motto. That, he said, was the whole point. That was what he had forgotten, and why he had been making so little progress. The way for thinkers like himself to make a breakthrough was to be ignorant of what everybody else was doing and make their own interpretations and guesses.
So Feynman “stopped trying to keep up with what others were doing and went back to his roots, comparing experiment with theory, making guesses that were all his own.” Thus he became creative again, as he had been when he had just been working things out for himself, before becoming a famous physicist in academia. While this is an important lesson for science, it is a supreme lesson for any discipline where “current knowledge” can be dominated by theories that are simply incoherent.
Make your own interpretations of your experiences to shape your own beliefs and concepts about your world. This is the lesson Feynman called the most important of his life. This is the lesson I learned during my college years.
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Michael cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Psychology Today Blog: Creative Thinkering
Facebook Fan Page
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Chad Storlie for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
* * *
This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.
How does your team respond when a plan changes?
Does everyone seem to know what to do or is there confusion, a lack of meaningful activity, or people standing around waiting to be told what to do next? Planning is difficult whether in business or the military.
Military planners use Commander’s Intent, a key element to help a plan maintain relevancy and applicability in a chaotic, dynamic, and resource-constrained environment.
Commander’s Intent is the description and definition of what a successful mission will look like. Military planning begins with the Mission Statement that describes the who, what, when, where, and why (the 5 W’s) of how a mission will be executed. Commander’s Intent describes how the Commander (read: CEO) envisions the battlefield at the conclusion of the mission. It shows what success looks like.
Commander’s Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in enemy situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed. The role of Commander’s Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment. Commander’s Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like. Commander’s Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.
Battlefield Example of Commander’s Intent: During World War II, the sea and airborne invasion of France on June 6, 1944 (D-Day) had been planned for years. British, Canadian, and American airborne forces planned and rehearsed for months a precise series of glider and parachute landings that were designed to secure bridges, road junctions, and other key terrain that would enable the ground invasion forces to advance rapidly inland. The airborne invasion forces took off from England and months of planning appeared to vanish instantly. Parachute forces dropped into unmarked landing zones, gliders landed in the wrong areas, and thousands of soldiers from different units were mixed together in the night.
It appeared that a military disaster had occurred. Yet, only hours later, the original military objectives were bring accomplished by ad-hoc units that faced much fiercer German resistance. Commander’s Intent had saved the day. Leaders and soldiers at all levels understood that no matter where they landed, they had to form into units and seize the bridges and key terrain. The plan was a failure, but good Commander’s Intent and superior training allowed improvisation and initiative to save the mission.
Hypothetical Business Example of CEO Intent: At FedEx, led by Fred Smith (a former U.S. Marine officer), planning is of vital importance. FedEx operations start at package pickup at customer origins, then move to the packages entering a large consolidation facility for transport to their destination. Once at destination, packages are unloaded, enter the destination sort facility and are assigned to a driver to go to the final delivery address. This seemingly simple process is extraordinarily complex when you add traffic, weather, customer preferences, cost elements, safety, customs clearance, and package handling requirements. So, when a snow storm closes the roads between Denver and Kansas City, the FedEx plan must adapt. The FedEx CEO Intent is to get all packages to destination in a safe, damage free, cost effective manner within the shipment period specified by the customer. Therefore, FedEx managers start re-routing drivers from Denver to Oklahoma City, scheduling extra planes in Memphis, getting extra truck trailers at Saint Louis and adapting sort schedules in Kansas City. FedEx uses initiative and improvisation to adapt the plan to meet the CEO Intent of an on time delivery despite the snow storm. CEO Intent, like military Commander’s Intent, ensures a successful end state as business conditions change.
The key to successful Commander’s/CEO Intent is trained, confident, and engaged military personnel/employees. Employees must understand the plan and when they have to deviate to ensure the Commander’s Intent is accomplished. Military personnel have to employ a “Spectrum of Improvisation” when they execute Commander’s Intent. As they adapt the plan to meet Commander’s Intent, they do not want to change proven processes and other common work techniques that are part of the plan and strengthen operational outcomes. Many times the plan is a source of strength; business leaders need to adapt only the portions of a plan that require adjustment. The Spectrum of Improvisation is to retain processes and systems that support mission excellence and adapt only necessary elements.
Steps to grow initiative and improvisation are essential to have an employee base that can execute Commander’s Intent. The following are training ideas and concepts to grow an employee capability for Commander’s Intent:
Simulation Training and After-Action Reviews. Organizations need to find a way to allow employees to simulate new product introductions, competitive analysis, and store openings. These simulations can incorporate dynamic changes in the base business situation that will force employee’s to adapt themselves and their teams to new changes to meet the existing business objectives.
Small Projects. Empowering a subordinate or a team to enter a small, untested market or attempt a new project has little risk to the core business and is an excellent testing ground to build confidence, improvisation, and a strong employee base with nominal risk.
Business History, Military History, and Current Events. A strong understanding of past events provides context, ideas, and a perspective on the value of improvisation in history and business.
Commander’s Intent is the definition and description of what a successful operation will yield. Good Commander’s Intent allows employees and teams to adapt the plan using improvisation, initiative, and adaptation to reach the original plan objectives.
* * *
Chad Storlie is a Senior Business Director at Union Pacific Railroad and the author of Combat Leader to Corporate Leader: 20 Lessons to Advance Your Civilian Career.
Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders
Portfolio/The Penguin Group
Deutschman’s objective was to write what turns out to be an especially entertaining and engaging as well as informative analysis of “real” leadership, what Bill George would characterize as “authentic” leadership. He explains that aspiring rulers struggle to preserve their positions, stewards focus on strengthening the status quo while preserving its values and priorities, and “lemmings” repeat the same practices and strategies that previously ruined other organizations whereas “real” leaders establish and instill the one or two values “that will be most important for an organization or a movement or a community.” They “talk the talk” (i.e. affirm the right values) and “walk the walk” (i.e. consistently demonstrate those values in their behavior). The exemplars include Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher Martin Luther King, Jr., Wendy Kopp, Ray Kroc, Nelson Mandela, Danny Meyer, Fred Smith, and both Thomas Watson Sr. and Jr. Deutschman differentiates real leaders from those whose behavior (invoking another cliché phrase) “talk a good game” but don’t play it. For example, Mark Fields, Al Gore, Frank Lorenzo, Laura Turner Seydel, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
There is much of substantial value in this book when Deutschman stays out of the pulpit and concentrates on real-world situations that demonstrate the core values of real leadership. For example, there is some fascinating material in Chapter Two when he first discusses Ray Kroc obsession with cleanliness in every McDonald’s location, Fred Smith’s obsession with FedEx’s punctuality, and Charles Schwab’s obsession with impeccable integrity throughout his entire organization. All of them led by example, working side-by-side with their associates, asking no one to do what they had not already done themselves. Deutschman also discusses several military leaders, all of whom also led by example. In modern warfare, it makes no sense for generals to place themselves directly in harm’s way but Norman Schwarzkopf, Richard Cavazos, and William Latham had already demonstrated their courage in brutal combat on numerous occasions in the past. By the time they became general officers, their reputations for both valor and integrity had preceded them. They had earned – and deserved — the respect and trust of those who served under them.
At the conclusion of the final chapter, Deutschman observes: “The final proof of leadership isn’t having new ideas; it’s pursuing an idea obsessively – with every action, in every moment, with everyone watching – for many years or even for several decades. That’s when you’re a real leader.” All real leaders exemplify in everything they do and how they do it the same values they so passionately affirm.