ThinkingThe creativity secret from our family guinea pig

The creativity secret from our family guinea pig

Our family guinea pig, Fili, (named by my younger daughter after the dwarf) recently reminded me of one of the key secrets to creativity. But perhaps not in the way one might expect.

Every day Fili (pictured above) gets put out in her run – which is basically a large cage with no floor or top. She (I know Fili’s a boy’s name but take that up with my daughter) spends her day happily behind bars shuffling and eating and doing other guinea pig things. Recently, my elder daughter decided to take away the cage and let Fili have free range in the whole back garden. She’d done a risk assessment of sorts and blocked the most obvious exits under the fence.

So after a few days of this new freedom, what had happened? Well, nothing. Fili didn’t wander. She stayed in the patch of garden where the cage had been and didn’t venture further out. The bars had been taken away and she was still doing the same old things in the same old place. And that’s when it hit us. We might have taken away the physical cage, but the most effective cage still remained in place. The cage residing in Fili’s mind was still holding her back. And removing the bars of that cage was going to take a whole lot longer.

Creativity is a lot like this. Sometimes we have to remove the barriers holding our own thinking back before the ideas are really going to start flowing. And that’s why a lot of good creativity “hacks” aim to flip the way you think. They aim to throw your thinking, so that the normal patterns, the normal barriers, are escaped.

Here are two “hacks” I love. They work because they force you to reframe your thinking.

Reverse your assumptions

The first “hack” comes from Michael Michalko’s book “Thinkertoys“. He describes a great technique called “Reverse Assumptions”. The basic idea is that a lot of breakthrough ideas come when a business person reverses a long held industry assumption about the way an industry is meant to operate. Michalko talks about Alfred Sloan at GM examining the assumption that you had to buy a car before you could drive it. He reversed this assumption so that you could buy the car while driving it. And so auto leasing was born and GM saved.


Michalko suggests a technique as follows:

  1. Write out your assumptions about an industry. For example, if you were wanting to start a restaurant, write out your assumptions about restaurants. You might say: restaurants have menus; restaurants have waiters; restaurants charge you for the food you order.
  2. Now pick one of those assumptions and reverse it. Say, a restaurant will always have a menu. Reversing this – imagine a restaurant without a menu.
  3. Now ask yourself, how could I run a successful restaurant but without a menu? What creative thing would I have to do to make such a restaurant successful?
  4. Think through the possibilities for how you could still be successful with the industry assumption reversed and test ideas. For example, a restaurant without a menu might look like: the chef buying fresh ingredients from the market every day and cooking according to the season and produce availability. So that customers never knew what they would be getting. Or, even, could customers bring their own ingredients and could the chef do something unique with each? You get the idea.

Note how this technique uses the “guinea pig principle” of deliberately throwing you out of the “cage” of long held industry assumptions. It explicitly gets you to reverse them and see how you can still be successful. It breaks down the bars in our minds.

A school without teachers? A school without homework?

I’ve run this technique a few times with clients. I remember a few years ago having a really fun time working with students of one of Sydney’s leading independent schools. The Principal was wanting the students to have input into the school’s innovation program in learning. What creative ideas could the students come up with to improve their learning in truly transformational ways?

I got the students in small groups to write down their assumptions about school. They responded with the stuff you’d expect. A school has: homework; teachers; timetables; classrooms. A school operates from 8:30 to 3:30.

The students then had to pick one of these assumptions and reverse it. But the onus was on them to still have an effective school running – a school where students were still learning – even after this reversal.

One group said, let’s reverse the assumption about teachers. Let’s imagine a school without teachers. How would that still work? And the answer was very interesting. Imagine a school where the students taught each other. The teacher is still there, but the teacher no longer teaches. She facilitates the students each learning about aspects of a subject and then teaching their peers. As the students said to me “you never truly understand something until you can teach someone else”.

Another group said, imagine a school without homework. Well that’s fine, but how will you learn and consolidate everything? They proposed a redesign of lessons where more work is done. They said they were even open to the idea of “tutes” in the afternoon where consolidation work gets covered before students go home. School can go beyond 3:30 pm in their minds to make this reversal work.

I hope you get the idea that this simple reversal technique can break down our usual patterns of thinking and start to generate some truly interesting ideas in a short amount of time. The “guinea pig principle” works to rapidly remove the cage.

Ask a good question

The other great technique to apply the “guinea pig principle” and move your thinking rapidly is to ask a great question of yourself or your team.

Kevin and Shawn Coyne outline this idea in their great book “Brainsteering“.


The Coyne brothers contend that traditional brainstorming doesn’t work (and the literature would seem to support them on this). Instead, to help a group break out of its mental cage you need to ask them a great question. As they say:

“… if you ask the right questions, answers and good ideas soon follow.”

They spend their book giving you ideas about how to generate good questions. And they give some great examples. They talk about the birth of Compaq in 1981 arising from a question over lunch between three Texas Instrument executives: “How can we design an IBM compatible computer that can fit into the overhead bin of an airplane?”

Questions they suggest you consider include:

  • What group of potential customers is as large as our current customer base, but aren’t customers for one particular reason?
  • Who else deals with the same generic problem we do, but for an entirely different reason, and how have they addressed it?

You can see that questions like these apply the “guinea pig principle” immediately. Because they are questions, they throw your brain into a new “space”. (The Coyne brothers’ book is worth reading, if only for the 101 questions in their appendix that are just great).

The secret

So, the secret to creativity is to apply “the guinea pig principle”: to find techniques that remove the barriers in your mind and allow you to “freely roam”.

What type of guinea pig is Fili anyway?

Fili is a Himalayan Crested guinea pig. That little tuft on her head is a distinct marker. “And is she OK on her own?”, I hear you ask. It’s a good question. fili 1In some Scandinavian countries it’s illegal to have just one guinea pig. You need to have at least two because they are such social little creatures. Well Fili’s friend died recently, but she isn’t showing many signs of loneliness. She was always a little bit of an unfriendly guinea to other guinea pigs because she was hand-raised when she was a baby. The poor thing was apparently the runt of the litter and her own mother rejected her. So she’s always been more comfortable with people than other guinea pigs. So we just make sure we give her lots of pats.

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