A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques

by Michael Michalko

Michael Michalko teaches you 39 techniques — called “Thinkertoys” — to think up new ideas for your products and businesses. He shows you how to break assumptions to come up with a flood of new ideas, tap into your subconscious and strengthen your intuitive thinking, lead team brainstorms, and evaluate ideas. This hefty tome is not the kind of book you can skim — you need to do each exercise to really strengthen your creative powers. But you’ll walk away a far stronger PM, founder, or job seeker.

Light Bulb in Black

Key Insights

Key Insight #1

The key to creativity is the quantity of ideas, not the quality. Focus on coming up with as many ideas as possible, not worrying about how good they are; only evaluate your ideas at the end.

Key Insight #2

To become creative, you have to use both your rational (left) brain and intuitive (right) brain. We tend to overemphasize the rational brain, ignoring the profound right-brain ideas lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness.

Key Insight #3

We usually do brainstorming wrong, leading to groupthink and the suppression of many teammates’ ideas. Do brainstorming silently and in parallel so everyone feels comfortable contributing. And don’t just stop at listing ideas — let them mix and build off each other.

Quotes in Black

Key Quotes

“In order to get original ideas, you will always need a way to create new sets of patterns in your mind. One way to do this is to force yourself to see relationships between dissimilar things. When you can do this, you will see ideas where none existed before.”

“The more expert you become in your field, the more difficult it is to create innovative ideas—or even obvious ones. This is because becoming an expert means you tend to specialize your thinking. Specializing is like brushing one tooth. You get to know that one tooth extremely well, but you lose the rest of them in the process.”

“If you try to get hot and cold water out of a faucet at the same time, all you get is lukewarm water. If you try to evaluate ideas as they are being generated, you will not get the ideas hot enough or the criticism cold enough. Do not evaluate ideas until the end of the [brainstorming] session.”

“The harder and longer you focus on a subject, the more difficult it becomes to break out of habitual patterns of thinking. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and combine your subject with something that is not related, then different, unusual patterns are activated.”

“We fixate on the conscious mind because we have been taught that it is the master of the universe. If you indulge yourself with this illusion about the heroic nature of the conscious mind and disregard the unconscious as you fish for ideas, you are like a fisherman who stands on a whale while fishing for minnows.”

Relevance Section


Book Review Icon


Creativity is one of the most important skills for PMs and entrepreneurs, and Thinkertoys is far and away the best resource I’ve ever found to strengthen your creativity.

Coming up with so many concrete, step-by-step methods to grow your creativity is impressive enough; most people resort to hand-waving generalities when asked how to strengthen creativity. What really makes Thinkertoys special is its explicit focus on businesspeople; it emphasizes on using these techniques to create new product ideas, business models, and monetization techniques. There are literally hundreds of case studies in the book — some of them charmingly dated, like cassette player businesses, but all still applicable — explaining how businesspeople have used these techniques to great effect (and profit). As a result, it takes very little work to figure out how the concepts in the book relate to your job as a PM — it’s like the book was written with PMs in mind before product management was even a field.

As the subtitle, A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques, might imply, you can’t just read this book cover-to-cover and expect to get anything out of it. You have to put the Thinkertoys to use and practice expanding your creativity. Some of the Thinkertoys have been hard for me to get started with, especially the ones about tapping into your subconscious, but they’re also the most valuable once you grasp them.

Simply put, there is no other creativity resource like this one. Most “creativity consultants” and online guides give you little more than generalities, but Thinkertoys blows them out of the water with its extremely well-packaged, actionable, and clear guides. It’s like that one mentor of yours who gives you clever, non-obvious, and detailed advice while everyone else gives boring, generic advice like “ask lots of questions.” This book is one of my must-have resources for PMs. Get it.

Learn Icon

What You Will Learn

Thinkertoys splits its creativity methods — its Thinkertoys — into five main groups, corresponding with its five main parts:

  • The first group, Initiation, focuses on removing the obstacles to creative thinking, like mental block and doubt.
  • The second group, Linear Thinkertoys, uses your analytical power (your “left brain”) to combine or alter ideas in new and creative ways.
  • The third group, Intuitive Thinkertoys, teaches you how to tap into your subconscious (your “right brain”) to extract ideas simmering in the back of your mind and get in touch with your gut feeling.
  • The fourth group, The Spirit of Koinonia, teaches team and solo brainstorming techniques.
  • The fifth group, Endtoys, explains how to evaluate and prioritize ideas.
Who Should Read This Icon

Who Should Read This

I recommend practicing all the Thinkertoys at some point, but that will take a while, so I’ll recommend a few Thinkertoys that different audiences should emphasize.

People interviewing for PM jobs will find this a great resource for improving their answers to design and strategy questions, where creativity is essential. The best Thinkertoys for these folks are False Faces (reversing assumptions), Scamper (modifying ideas), Stone Soup (asking “what if”), and Brutethink (forcing mental connections).

Founders and team leaders will find the book valuable for brainstorming techniques in the later part of the book useful for bringing out their teams’ best ideas. The best Thinkertoys for these folks are Warming Up (stimulating creative thinking), Brainstorming, Raw Creativity (identifying the essence of things), and Murder Board (evaluating ideas).

PMs at big companies trying to kickstart growth and improve existing products would benefit from Raw Creativity, The Great Transpacific Airline and Storm Door Company (identifying your business’s true purpose), Future Fruit (preparing for the future), and Tug of War (comparing best and worst cases).

PMs at small companies and startups trying to find creative new product ideas and business models will find a lot of Thinkertoys useful — after all, that’s the book’s primary use case. My favorites are Scamper, False Faces, Slice and Dice (improving each attribute of a product), Circle of Opportunity (free-association), The Three B’s (idea incubation), True and False (paradoxes), and Idea Box (exploring variations of ideas).