Michael Michalko
Michael Michalko : Interview

Creativity Interviews

Michael Michalko: Sharing Ideas with the Koinonia Technique

By Molly Anderson-Childers | Updated 11/15/15

Michael MichalkoMichael Michalko was an officer in the US Army, and worked with NATO and CIA think tanks to promote creative thinking and problem-solving techniques.

He has consulted with clients all over the world, including many Fortune 500 corporations, and is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques and Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius. He also created a tool for brainstorming: Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. These creative thinking tools help you solve problems, generate new ideas, and think like a genius!

Q: While looking over your website, I stumbled across the Koinonia technique; a way of dialoguing with others and sharing ideas. Can you discuss Koinonia, and its practical applications for artists' and writers' groups?

A: While researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, physicist David Bohm made a remarkable observation. Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other. During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other's mind and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind. They always paid attention to each other's views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.

Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work. Many refused to discuss their honest thoughts about physics because of the fear of being labeled controversial by their colleagues. Others were afraid of being called ignorant. The majority of scientists at the time lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics. They produced nothing of significance.

Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that they established to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as "Koinonia," which means "spirit of fellowship." The principles they established were:

Koinonia Principles

Establish dialogue. In Greek, the word dialogue means "talking through." The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person's mind. This is not the same as discussion, which from its Latin root means to "dash to pieces." The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were: "Don't argue," "Don't interrupt," and "Listen carefully."

Clarify your thinking. To clarify your thinking, you must suspend all untested assumptions. Being aware of your assumptions and suspending them allows thought to flow freely. Free thought is blocked if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions. For instance, if you believe that certain people are not creative, you're not likely to give their ideas fair consideration. Check your assumptions about everything and try to maintain an unbiased view.

Be honest. Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial.

The ancient Greeks believed these principles allowed thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon. Koinonia allowed a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts which cannot be accessed individually. A new kind of mind begins to come into being, based on the development of common thoughts. People are no longer in opposition. They become participants in a pool of common ideas, which are capable of constant development and change.

Jackson Pollock and a group of Surrealist artists collaborated to create conceptual combinations in words that would inspire random creative ideas for art. Artists in a group would take turns, each contributing any word that occurred to them in a "sentence" without seeing what the others had written. The resulting sentence eventually became a combination of concepts that they would study and interpret, hoping to get a novel insight or a glimpse of some deeper meaning. The technique is named "The Exquisite Corpse" after a sentence which happened to contain those words.

Another group of artists who call themselves futurists create collaborative art. They collaborate on a work with each artist working on it separately at different times. When the picture is finished, they cannot tell who painted what. The result is usually a remarkable product that reflects several different points of view, combined into something different over time. Collaboration over time creates a different dimension and different understanding of a subject in art.

Q: Edison's Idea File is an interesting and practical way of tracking inspirations and ideas. Could you talk about ways artists and writers can create an Idea File at home or in the studio, to track ideas that might otherwise get lost?

A: Leonardo da Vinci was Thomas Edison's spiritual mentor. Edison's notebooks illustrate the strength of their spiritual kinship. Following da Vinci's example, Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every step of his voyage to discovery in 3,500 notebooks that were discovered after his death in 1931. His strategy of keeping a written record of his work was a significant key to his genius. His notebooks got him into the following habits:

They enabled him to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next. When it became clear that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison had invested was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend poring over his notebooks and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company's efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same model of the iron-ore company.

Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison reviewed his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he'd abandoned in the past, in light of what he'd recently learned. If he was stuck on a new idea, he reviewed his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, Edison took his unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable, and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller's voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.

Edison often jotted down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He routinely combed a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest, and recorded them in his notebooks. He made it a habit to keep a lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you're working on.

Edison also studied his notebooks of past inventions and ideas to use as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. Edison's diagrams and notes on the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which, in turn, suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn't it? Genius usually is.

Walt Whitman was another creative thinker who collected ideas to stimulate his creative potential. His journals describe an ingenious technique he developed for recording ideas. Anytime an idea struck his imagination, he wrote it down on a small slip of paper. He placed these slips into various envelopes, titled according to the subject area each envelope contained. In order to have a place for each new idea he encountered, Whitman kept ideas in many different envelopes.

Whenever he felt a need to spawn new thoughts or perspectives, Whitman selected the various envelopes pertaining to his current subject or interests. He retrieved ideas from the envelopes — sometimes at random, or, on other occasions, only those ideas relevant to his subject. Then he wove these ideas together, as if he were creating an idea tapestry. These idea tapestries often became the foundation for a new poem or essay.

Q: How can artists and writers benefit from your Abstraction technique?

A: Creative geniuses perceive essences, functions, and patterns that enable them to make abstract connections and conceptualize original ideas. We have been educated not to do this. Over time, we have cultivated the habit of putting the major emphasis on separating subjects into particulars and focusing on the particulars.

A rainbow seems to be an object made up of colored arcs. If you assumed that the rainbow was an object and walked toward it, it would not be found. Instead, you would find raindrops falling and sunlight. If you studied the raindrops and sunlight as separate events, you'd never understand the rainbow. However, if you study the interrelationship between light and raindrops, you will discover the essence of the rainbow, which is the blending of falling rain and light refracting off the rain. It's a process, not an object.

Martin Skalski, professor at Pratt Institute, believes that working with "essences" and "abstractions" lead to more innovation than the more typical approach of basing new products on specific existing objects. Students designing automobiles, for example, might be asked to draw abstract compositions of "things in motion." Later, they will use the drawings to stimulate their imaginations while designing automobiles. As one of his students related, "When you see a fish you don't think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water...you want just the flash of its spirit."

Former students of Skalski worked on streamlining the airplane. Instead of working to improve existing designs, they explored how "things reduce drag." The simple golf ball led to their breakthrough idea. They discovered that the dimpled pattern of a golf ball reduces drag efficiently, so the surfaces of airplanes will soon have rough surfaces.

Many ideas seem obvious to us in retrospect, once we see the connection between dissimilar things. George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, was asked to make a better zipper. George did not think of zippers. Instead, he thought about the essence of "fastening" — e.g., how do windows fasten, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do mountain climbers fasten themselves to a mountain, how are tops fastened on bottles, and so on. One day, he took his dog for a nature hike. They both returned covered with burrs. He made the analogy between the burr and the zipper when he examined the small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. This inspired him to invent a two-sided fastener similar to a zipper- one side with stiff hooks like the burrs, and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants. He called his invention "Velcro," which is itself a combination of the word velour and crochet.

The creative thinking George de Mestral demonstrated when he made abstract connections between burrs and zippers is an ability we all have. We are all born with this ability to determine the essence of something, to recognize patterns between dissimilar subjects, and to make the make the metaphorical-analogical connection

Q: Can you tell us about the Lotus Blossom Brainstorming Technique, as it applies to writing and art?

A: Lotus Blossom is a technique that organizes creative thinking around core themes. It was developed byYasuo Matsumura of Clover Management Research in Chiba City, Japan. It is a creative-thinking technique that diagrammatically mimics the strategy T. S. Elliot used creating his poem The Waste Land, which is arguably one of the most famous and influential poems in history.

Elliot started with the central theme of "the decline of self and civilization" and branched out into sub-themes. Each of the stanzas is pregnant with meaning, and could launch a separate poem on a separate topic. This strategy not only conveyed to the reader a universe of poetry, but provided several different universes.

In Lotus Blossom, the petals around the core of the blossom are figuratively "peeled back" one at a time, revealing a key component or sub-theme. This approach is pursued in ever-widening circles until the subject is comprehensively explored. The cluster of themes and sub-themes which are developed provide several different possibilities.

Ideas evolve into other ideas and applications. Because the components of the technique are dynamic, the ideas seem to flow outward with a conceptual momentum all their own. Reality is made up of circles, but we're biased to see a straight line cause-effect view of the world. Geniuses look for the circles and tend to operate more in terms of "loops of interaction" or "mutual interaction" than linear or mechanical cause-and-effect. This thinking strategy typically allows them to track whole systems of interacting elements.

Freud, for instance, viewed mental processes as "merely isolated acts and parts of the whole psychic entity," and claimed that the "meaning" of a symptom could only be found in its relation to the larger system. Einstein rejected the mechanical statistical approaches to physics because he thought they ignored the deeper dynamics of the system and focused too much on the results and not enough on the processes. Freud and Einstein both believed that unless you look at the whole system and all of its components, you may miss the key relationships and how they interact.

Consider nature's creations. Nature doesn't just make leaves; it makes branches and trees and roots to go with them; it makes whole systems of interacting elements. Similarly, Edison just didn't invent an electric light bulb — other people had invented electrified lamps — he invented a whole practical system for electric lighting, including dynamos, conduits, and a means for dividing up current that could illuminate a large number of bulbs.

Q: What are thought experiments? How do they enhance creative thinking and problem-solving skills? Could you give us an example of one?

A: A thought experiment is an experiment that you do in your head — an experiment that you cannot, or do not intend to, carry out. Its purpose is to help you understand some aspect of the Universe that you live in. Einstein's classic thought experiment, which helped him develop the Theory of Relativity, came about when he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. This was something that he could never do in reality, but imagining it stimulated his creative thinking, and opened his mind to insights and understandings of how light and time functioned. From those imaginings came his world-famous theories in quantum physics.

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