Invent Anything with John Cronin Transcript: Episode 4 – Types of Creativity: Associative Thinking


Welcome back. This is John Cronin in Invent Anything. In Episode 4 here, we will talk about Types of Creativity 2: Associative Thinking. The topic here that we will talk about is associative thinking in terms of Part 1, where I give numerous examples, and then Part 2, where I give training and some tools, and then we will wrap up.

Audience: Groups, Individuals, Kids, Inventors, Engineers, and Marketing

Getting started, as in Episode 3, we talked about the audiences. Certainly, the audience of people that like to facilitate groups is in the right place. How about the audience where you are individuals and you want to do certain things on your own? These are very useful tools to sit by yourself on your own. Also, I talked about that secret facilitator that could essentially work these tools and thinking into conversation to get people to be very creative without someone even knowing that that is what you are doing.

But here, clearly, there are some new audience possibilities. This is great fun for kids. You can almost turn it into a game. It is also great for teachers who try to teach kids to be more creative. It is also great for inventors and engineers. This is where I learned the trade of associative thinking to come up with many inventions. This is a great tool for folks in marketing, or really anyone who is looking for new ideas.

What is Associative Thinking?

So, what is associative thinking? Well, the basic idea here is to combine two or more elements together at once to produce a final new element. When I talk about two or more elements, we will talk about how they could be elements that are objects, elements that are data, or elements that are problems, et cetera, but we will make it easy and start with objects. It is the basis for all new idea generation. It works just the way your brain does as a neural network, combining two different things which are usually occurring in your unconscious, and then, when it triggers an idea of your unconscious, it brings it forward. This is the basis for all creative thinking, and what we will find is in order to get higher novelty such as wilder ideas, as we talked about before, you need to combine two or more things together where one of those things is very different from a domain perspective.

Part 1: Examples of Associative Thinking

So, let’s get into Part 1: Examples. Let’s take an ordinary cardboard box. What I would like to do is have you put this podcast on pause and maybe give yourself 30 seconds by your watch. While it is on pause, think about a cardboard box, but come up with improvements that you can think about for a cardboard box, and then come back, and we will get back into this, providing some different examples that you might consider.

Try it yourself now.

Welcome back. So, how many ideas did you come up with to improve the cardboard box? In 30 seconds, if you did five or six, I would think that would be pretty good. If you got five to 10 or even more, that would be excellent. By practicing associative thinking techniques, you can improve your “fluency,” which is the number of ideas per unit of time, more and more and more, up to where it is practical to pull out ideas every four or five seconds, though every couple of seconds may not be possible.

Associating Two Objects for Invention

We don’t we try it? Suppose I asked if we could combine our cardboard box with a knife. So, let’s go off and think about that, and let’s just say we came back, and someone said, “I have it, John. Why don’t we have a box cutter?” Well, that is kind of neat, to put together a box and a knife cut into a box cutter, but that is really an association of words, and you really did not do what I asked, which is to improve the cardboard box because “box cutter” is really an association that does not improve the cardboard box.

So, let’s try it again: The cardboard box and knife, but now we want to improve the cardboard box. So, let’s just say that someone comes up with a box with cut-out handles. That is really kind of interesting, and that certainly is improving a cardboard box, using the association of a knife, which is used to cut. However, as we understand, cutouts for boxes for handles are already known.

Getting More Creative – New Associations

So, what if I asked one more time to improve that cardboard box using the object of the knife, but to try to get more creative? So, why don’t you try having some new associations with a cardboard box and knife? How would you improve a box with a knife to come up with something that you may have not seen before? Let’s just try it again for 30 seconds. Let’s just put this on pause, and we will come back. Go for it.

Well, welcome back. How did you do? A lot of people would say, “John, I think it would be a little bit easier for me to improve a cardboard box if I had the knife versus just telling me generically to improve a cardboard box,” and we explored that before with divergent thinking and convergent thinking, where if you give someone more definition behind what you are after, they tend to do better, up until the point where you teach them how.

So, here we go. I am going to improve the cardboard box with the knife, and when I have thought about it, I am going to have a cardboard box that comes with a unit of tape, and after the box is folded and packed and the flaps are down, the cellophane tape can be pulled off the side of the box and is just long enough to be used to basically seal the box. Are we not always looking for tape to seal these boxes? When you buy these boxes, unfold them, and get them ready, wouldn’t it be nice to have tape attached to the box that you could automatically use to fashion and seal the box?

That is certainly improving the cardboard box, is it not? It takes the object of the knife and the box and puts them together. We know we can make it. You might say, “Hey, John, is that an invention?” I do not know. I guess I would have to search the prior art, but I certainly have not seen it before.

The Trick to Associative Thinking – How the Mind Works

Well, what is the trick here? How did we do it? How did we take that knife and cardboard box and come up with this attachment to the box that is predefined tape? The secret here is actually watching what the human mind is doing as it is associating, So, when I am associating “knife,” I am actually going one level deeper. I am thinking about the attributes of the knife, and what I did is to start thinking about a knife, and then I thought about stabbing something with the knife, and then I thought about the handle of the knife, and then I thought of the attribute of throwing knives, which I just recently invested in a pair of, but also, I started thinking that knives have holders, and holders triggered me to say, “Well, I want to hold the box better. Maybe there is a way to pre-fashion holders.” And, there we go. I have my pre-fashioned tape on the side of the box. So, cardboard box and knife with the attribute of a holder for a knife got me to that pre-adhered tape.

Iterating Associations for More Inventions

Let’s try it one more time with the cardboard box and knife, and let’s keep going. As I thought about it, I thought about sharpening a knife, and that did not do anything for me. Then, I thought about how a knife is dangerous, and once again, I thought I could choose “dangerous” to improve the box. People do ship things that are fragile or dangerous, and they are always fishing around for those labels, so why not have a cardboard box come with a modicum of different stickers that are used based upon what you are shipping? So, a box may cost $1.50 to make and build, but these stickers are practically throwaways. So, why don’t we do that to “improve” the box?

That is really kind of cool now. I have a box that has tape and stickers on it, but suppose that I want to take it one more step. Let’s get out of this direction of adding stickers to the box, and let’s come up with something different. Let’s continue using the knife. Okay, here we go again. I have the knife, and I start thinking about this, and I know that I have to clean my knife after dinner after use. Well, that did not do anything for me. In looking at the knife, I started to recognize that good knives have the shank in the blade so that they are stronger, so I started thinking what I could put inside the box to make it stronger, and I immediately thought if there could be a way to have this box also come with some cardboard that can be fashioned like a honeycomb where needed so that you can make reinforcement beams.

So now, I have a cardboard box like the banker boxes where you build the box and have a top. This is a box that has maybe some extra cardboard to build an I-beam or two to make it even stronger in the center. So now, we have something here that is very useful and can actually be done, and once again, I am using the knife.

Infinite Possibilities

Well, think about it. How many random objects can I associate “cardboard box” with? Millions. How many attributes of those random objects? Thousands, maybe hundreds. So, literally, don’t I have an infinite amount of new cardboard boxes? Given what the market would be and all the problems you would have to solve, if you were in the business of making cardboard boxes and new products, this associative thinking tool is certainly for you.

But, suppose I wanted to enhance the novelty of these ideas. In other words, I want to go beyond some of the ideas that I have shown you hear today. Suppose I want to enhance the novelty. As I mentioned earlier, one way to do this is to pick something that is very different in the domain, so I am going to pick a flower, and a flower is very different than a cardboard box, and there are many attributes of a flower. So, if I want to get to be wilder and more novel, I can start generating ideas for “cardboard box” that are very highly novel and even wild, and I will not go through exercises here of all the different things that I have done to associate, but if you want to have more enhanced novelty, you pick more random objects that are away from the domain.

Directing Novelty

You can also direct the novelty of associative thinking. Suppose you have the cardboard box, but you want to have method inventions. Method inventions are ways to make the box, handle the box, pack the box, or even dispose of the box, so by having method elements, if you will, we can direct the associations to methods.

Suppose I want to go in reverse. Suppose I was to show you a box, and then I said, “This box is the kind of box that Lowe’s has that has a box inside of a box, and they go in and out. They are meant for storage. What do you think the person was thinking about in order to create that box?” Of course, one knows about drawers and drawers going in and out, so maybe the first time this box in a box was developed, it was done because that person had immediately thought about the drawer opening and closing. It is pretty simple, but the point is that you can take any idea that is new and reverse it and likely get to the decomposition of what the associative element was. There had to be one, right?

So, what if I asked if there was anything that I could associate? The answer is yes, but if I try to associate a flower with a knife and improve the flower, it is pretty difficult to improve things in nature. No matter what, improving a flower to get a better flower with knives could lead you in some directions, but generally, it is probably more futuristic when we start thinking about genetic engineering, et cetera. So, man-made things are much easier to associate with, and things that are made in nature are much more difficult, if not impossible, so that is kind of a facilitator’s note.

Part 2: Training and Invention Tools

Let’s get into some thinking and some training on some different tools. So, I talked about associating two objects. Maybe you associated a microscope with a match, and to you, that association means having a different sized match for a cigar versus a cigarette because you started thinking about the microscope going in and out of magnification.

Associative Thinking to Identify Problems

Suppose I asked if we could associate two objects to get a new problem. So, I have a microscope and a match, and maybe the problem that resulted would be how to analyze the quality of matches, because certainly microscopes could do that. So, you see, I have two objects, but I can associate them to get a new problem instead of to get a new object.

Suppose I want to associate a problem with some data. Suppose I have kids in school that are tardy. The data that I have says that the bells always ring on time. Maybe what I can do is ring the bell 10 minutes before with a special ring, and then have the final bell. That is associating a problem with a piece of data to get a new idea.

How about associating a problem with an object to get a new piece of data? Basically, I could talk about how to improve school tardiness by using a brick, and maybe the associative problem with that object of the brick tells me that I can get data that shows that the teachers are letting tardiness slip. So, you can see how we can take anything, like a problem, a piece of data, ideas, solutions, objects, or even criteria like “Will it be this? Will it be that?”, and associate it with problems, data, ideas, solutions, objects, or criteria. I can literally associate a problem with a solution, an object with a piece of data, and as with the cardboard box and the knife, objects with objects. Boy, that is pretty powerful, isn’t it?

As I mentioned before, domains that are very close do not produce novelty. So, if I try to link a microscope for electronics and a microscope for biological slides, it is difficult to get more ideas out, but if I linked a microscope with a heart, a heart is very, very different, and we can associate that and get very novel, different directions from a microscope.

Associative Thinking Invention Tools

So, let’s talk about some tools. This is a tool called 1). “Go Fish.”, 2). Visually identifying relationships, 3). Kinesthetically identifying relationships, 4). Audibly identifying relationships, and then, Nos. 5, 6, and 7 are point of view, metaphor mapping, and morphological matrix. There are many tools for associative thinking, but I have organized them into one that is fun, “Go Fish,” and then, knowing the types of learners people are, such as visual, kinesthetic, or audible, I have arranged those tools in action, and then I have used a class of tools which are based upon how you think through a metaphor or point of view.

Tool 1: Go Fish

So, let’s go fish, Tool No. 1. How is this played? Well, let’s just say that we want to improve that box. The way it is played is a person throws out a random object to a friend and says, “Okay, Bob. Let’s see what you can do with the knife to make the box improved.” Mike is given time to think about it, but if he cannot answer in 30 seconds, then the person who started the associative object gets to go again. So, it is just liked playing Go Fish, where you are pulling cards in and out. “Do you have a 7? Do you have a 3?” Can you make this association on the knife?

Now, what happens in this game, which is really fun, is that people associate different things for themselves, and they will try to pick what they think is an element that is very hard. So, I can pick an element that I thought was hard for me, but fine when I give you that association that you can already do rapidly. Just because one person can associate something very easily or with difficulty does not mean that the other person is going to find the same level of ease or difficulty. It is critical in “Go Fish” to make sure you do this and give everybody the same amount of time. Note that this is a very fun tool, it is easy to do, and kids love it.

Tool 2: Visually Identifying Relationships

The next one is visually identifying relationships. In Episode 3, we talked about how 60-70% of people are visual learners, so what we do is take a picture, such as a picture of a bridge, and the bridge is like the one over the San Francisco Bay, and it has pylons, cables, and a road, and it is curved, and it is in the sunset, and I give you a picture of that, and I ask you to take that picture and come up with new ideas for a box, as we did before. So, those pictures provide us attributes, and the attributes supply us with all that we need to know to improve the box or improve the situation.

But, it turns out that when you are looking at the picture, there is a lot more depth. When we did the association for the box and the knife, if you could see the knife, it would be better, and having different pictures of knives would have been even better again. If you have very different pictures, it leads to very different levels of novelty, and if you have those old National Geographics having around, they are great to use when you are working on a problem. Just open up a National Geographic magazine, look at a picture, and force yourself to write down a number of attributes, and all of a sudden, the ideas will start flowing.

Tool 3: Kinesthetically Identifying Relationships

The next one is kinesthetic associative thinking, and this is where you actually give people toys or physical objects to play with. It turns out that 10-12% of people are kinesthetic learners, so why not have Lego blocks, gears, and screws, or even that knife, if it is safe to hold it and use it? What you do is take an object, think about attributes of that object, and then come up with those associations. Once again, this associative thinking tool of kinesthetically identifying relationships is really designed for those people who are more kinesthetic, and you know if you are a kinesthetic person. You probably love martial arts, or you really like to work out, or you are a dancer. You are really kinesthetically oriented.

Tool 4: Audibly Identifying Relationships

So, the next tool is audibly identifying relationships. This might be a little bit weird, but there is a percentage of people that really learn more from what they hear than what they see and touch. So, No. 4, audibly identifying relationships, says that you are working on a problem, you want to improve that box somehow, and all of a sudden, we play snippets of music, no more than 20-30 seconds, and snippets of music will actually start to have a person start to go into their unconscious a bit and associate.

So, whether it is an Elvis Presley snippet or a classical piece snippet, it does not really matter, but when you are working on a problem and you play a snippet of music, what will happen is you will end up generating lots of new ideas, and I can remember doing this with groups and just being totally surprised watching some people struggle with visually or kinesthetically identifying relationships, showing them a picture or giving them some toys to play with to come up with new ideas, without much progress, and as soon as they switched over to audibly identifying relationships, it was amazing to me how some people just lit up and came up with many new ideas. By the way, it might be worthwhile for you to do some pictures, toys, objects, and snippets to try to find out which is the best associative thinking tool for you.

Tool 5: Points of View

So, let’s go into No. 5, points of view. I think one could easily take on the point of view of an ant, or an alien, or a plumber, and by taking on those points of view and once again trying to improve the box, you can think about improving the box as if you are an ant, so as you are walking around the box, you are feeling what the box looks like, and you might have ideas that are related to improving the surface of the box, et cetera, or if you are a plumber, you might start thinking about where things leak, et cetera, and you might start thinking about a box that might be more or less leak-proof. So, by using a point of view, such as a profession, you can improve pretty much anything through associative thinking.

Tool 6: Metaphor Mapping

No. 6 is metaphor mapping. Metaphor mapping takes that profession to the next step. So, we talked about the metaphor in Episode 3 about a plumber and how he could go through all the parts finding the leak, testing the leak, taking the system apart, depressurizing the system, then replacing the part, repressurizing the system, and doing a leak check, and all that part of a metaphor of a leak for a plumber. Now, we can use an entire metaphor for associative thinking to improve our box. So, as one explores a metaphor, in essence, they become attributes, just like our knife had many attributes.

Tool 7: Morphological Matrix

Finally, to close with a more complicated one, we have Tool No. 7, morphological matrix. Morphological matrix is nothing more than doing associative thinking across several categories. So, suppose I wanted to make a piece of new furniture and I said, “Okay, I am going to deal with shapes, and I am going to list some shapes, like oval, square, triangle, et cetera, and I am going to deal with kinds of furniture, like chairs, beds, or tables, and I am going to try to deal with types of materials, like wood, plaster, or cork, and maybe some functions of the furniture, like a sleeping function, a storing function, or a cooking function, and maybe different styles, like Shaker, Italian, or Western.”

By simply going through this matrix and picking one from each category, you start to develop a picture of a new association. What about a circular wood table that stores tableware in the Italian style? So, you see, by having different categories and by choosing different elements from different categories, one can develop an overall picture. I said it is more complex, but it is actually almost derivative that you are creating concepts by just randomly linking things from one group to the next. By the way, this is great for computer programmers.


So, let’s wrap up. What did we do? We talked about associative thinking, that we can combine two or more objects together to get a new object. We went to the next step that said there is more than just objects. You can link an object with a piece of data to get a problem, or you can link two problems to get a new piece of data. We just gave examples early on of all the objects to produce with new objects to get a new object. And, in these many quick examples, we talked about some interesting things, like if you could reverse the association that somebody else did or you could improve Mother Nature, which we said is going to be very difficult.

We went through seven different associative thinking tools, and the idea there was to try to give you some random tools that are in some order, “Go Fish,” which is kind of fun, visually identifying relationships, kinesthetically identifying relationships, or audibly identifying relationships depending on what type of learner you are. Then, we talked about points of view, metaphor mapping, and a morphological matrix, ending with the morphological matrix almost cutting into developing full concepts through associative thinking. So, there we go. That is associative thinking. I hope that you practice it. I hope that you use it. To me, it was really fun when I got up this morning to think about creating this box and all these new things that I could do with it.

Up Next

So, what is coming up in Episode 5, “Continuous Thinking”? I am going to talk about what it is, why it was developed, and once again, some tools and techniques underneath this. After we get through continuous thinking, we will have completed the creative thinking modules of Episodes 2, 3, 4, and 5, and by doing that, we will have equipped ourselves to go forward because continuous thinking and continuous improvement thinking allow us to take something and make it really work. I think we could have said that the box with the predefined tape is easy to make work. You can see how to make it work.

Maybe it has to have a double-sided sticky tape, or maybe it needs some cellophane to stick to the box and then be pulled away from the box to then be used on the box. So, maybe there are improvements there. But, as things get to be more complicated, we need a system by which we can take ideas to continuously improve them. And so, until next time, this is John Cronin from Invent Anything. See you then.