“Highly creative people are good at seeing connections.  By enhancing your ability to see connections, you can enhance your creativity.”  – Dorte Nielsen.

In the last issue of Inspiration for Innovation, I gave some examples of innovations that came from the process of connecting things that don’t seem to be related, like a waffle iron and the invention of the Nike shoes, cockleburs leading to the invention of Velcro, and construction site hazard warning flashers that inspired the invention of the pacemaker.
The sure-fire way to get new ideas is by using Forced Connections. Making connections is at the core of creativity.  The more unexpected connection, the more dramatic the breakthrough.  Forced Connections helps you get ideas flowing when you are stuck.

“Creativity is just connecting things.”  – Steve Jobs

I tell people that are interested in creativity that this method will save them hundreds of dollars they would spend on books designed to help them think outside of the box. Why? Most techniques in those books are based on this simple method.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Consider the problem you are trying to solve.
  2. Pick an object from a completely unrelated area.
  3. Find or force a connection between the problem you are working on and the seemingly unrelated object.

The result of this new connection is a New Idea.

In my creativity training programs, we always do a warm-up exercise before we take on the main challenge. One of my favorite warm-ups is the creativity classic: generate ideas for the perfect bathtub.

Of course, I go over the rules for generating ideas first: (1) defer judgment; (2) strive for quantity; (3) seek wild and unusual ideas; and (4) combine and build on ideas.  Then, the group starts generating ideas for the perfect tub.  After a few minutes, the group starts to slow down. They have generated the typical ideas for improving a bathtub. But, they are stuck and their ideas have dried up. It is time to introduce Forced Connections.  I like to use pictures.

I start by showing them a picture that is totally unrelated to the problem.

“What ideas do you get for improving a bathtub from a bunch of bananas?” I get ideas like: make it non-slip, make it yellow, put a soft bottom in the tub, shape the tub to fit your body, and my favorite—have a bunch of my friends over.

I show them another picture: an airplane cockpit.  This picture generates ideas like: put in temperature controls for the tub, put lots of windows around the tub, put seats in the tub and of course make the tub fly.

One more picture to complete the exercise: a photo of a beautiful beach. The group generates ideas such as: put salt water in the tub, serve cocktails in the tub, have a tub for two, have soothing sounds like the sound of the ocean, and have a tub outside.

You don’t need pictures for this technique to work. All you need to do is look around. I am sitting at my desk while I am writing this.  So, if I were working on a challenge and got stuck, I would ask myself—what ideas do I get from my telephone, or the books on my bookcase, or the fan on my desk, or the trees in my back yard, or my model rocket that I built when I was twelve, or my Iron Man action figure?
With Forced Connections, the ideas you get may not be the breakthrough answers you are looking for, but you will have more ideas to choose from. Research shows, when you are trying to create a breakthrough, the more ideas to choose from the greater the chance of getting a good idea. Try it. You will be delighted with the results.

Roger L. Firestien, Ph.D.


The i4 Studio is a creative space where new ideas are born and then applied for the purpose of making the world a better place to live, work and play.  Located at the Innovation Center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the i4 Studio is Buffalo’s hub for creative thinking. i4 Studio was created to stimulate imagination, inspiration, ideation and innovation.
The i4 Studio provides 4 basic services.

  • Training in Creative Thinking –  Teaching you and your team how to integrate creativity into your natural work flow.
  • Idea Labs where you bring your toughest business or scientific challenge and we assemble a group of trained brains, who are industry experts and are highly trained in creative problem solving to help you create breakthroughs.
  • Vision and Strategic Planning – Helping you to create a vision, and a path to accomplishing your goals
  • Custom Programs where you bring us a challenge or opportunity that you are facing and we work with you to design a program that creates breakthroughs.

i4 Studio is a collaboration between Vic Nole, Director of Business Development for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Inc. and Roger Firestien, senior faculty member at the International Center for Studies in Creativity (ICSC).  Part of SUNY Buffalo State and the first program to offer the science of creativity at the graduate level, ICSC is globally recognized for its programs that cultivate skills in creative thinking, innovative leadership practices and problem solving skills.