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Creativity and the Idea Grid


Michael Michalko has a fascinating pedigree. As an officer in the Army, he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics to research, collect and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. After leaving the military service, he was contracted by the CIA to facilitate think tanks using his creative thinking techniques.

His book, Thinkertoys, ranks among the best books on creative thinking techniques available.  It’s a tool box of the myriad ways you can define and solve problems (or identify opportunities) creatively.

One of the great strengths of Michalko is his ability to weave his techniques with insight.  A great example, is his description of the idea grid.  Developed by Richard Vaughn, a research director at the advertising agency Foote , Cone and Belding (FCB) in the late 1970’s, it has been a staple at agencies to illustrate how a product or company can differentiate themselves by occupying or owning  position that no one else is currently exploiting.

It is the grandfather of Blue Ocean Strategy. 

Michalko begins by illustrating what is known as the Ponzo illusion.  (See figure). The two horizontal lines are the same length yet the top one appears to be longer. 

The phenomenon is our brain’s attempt to comprehend the image as a whole pattern and we are led by our experiences to see the vertical lines as if they were railroad tracks receding in the distance.  The only way to grasp what is really there is to examine each line individually as a separate event.

This is Michalko’s creative way of introducing the idea grid.  It is a way to visualize complex information by looking a the components that make up the whole.

The grid is divided into four quadrants. It is a contrast between two sets of opposites (Think vs. Feel) and (High Involvement vs. Low Involvement).



In general, high involvement represents items like an IPhone, low involvement represents items like a household cleaner. Think represents numerical or cognitive products (computers, cameras) and Feel represents products and companies that appeal to consumer’s emotional needs (beauty products and jewelry).

You place your company or product on the grid by researching both the product (or company) and its potential market.  For example, a fly swatter would most likely be located in the lower left quadrant. (Low Involvement and Think.)  A product like a Mini automobile would be high involvement and feel. 

You can use this grid to identify holes in the market, to predict the demand for new products, reposition your product or business or for virtually any project where you need to identify where you are and where you’d like to be.

Here's another example by Ram Charan.

The Wii was developed by going where Sony and Xbox wasn’t. It was less about graphics and more about physically interacting with the game.

Side note:  If you read Michalko’s chapter on the Idea Grid, (written in 1991) you will see the words ocean and sea used to describe the effect of illustrating the whole vs. the parts. The best-selling book Blue Ocean Strategy was published in 2005.  (See P.S for overview).  Blue Ocean is about value creation and extends the complexity of the idea grid but the DNA from the FCB grid is evident.

Creatively, you can take the four quadrants and put virtually any two sets of contrasting ideas to take a visual snapshot of a situation and develop ideas on how to zag when others zig.

Here’s an example for a business meeting. The four quadrants could be low and high costs and high and low involvement.  High cost and high involvement would be an meeting held at a resort or business center.  A low cost and low involvement may be a downloadable PDF.  A low cost and high involvement may be video conference.  A high cost, low involvement might be a taped video presentation available or live streaming of an event).

Ultimately, the idea grid is one more tool you can use to understand the big picture and to investigate how you can position yourself within that picture to create new opportunities.


The metaphor of red and blue oceans describes the market universe.

Red Oceans are all the industries in existence today—the known market space. In the red oceans, industry boundaries are defined and accepted, and the competitive rules of the game are known. Here companies try to outperform their rivals to grab a greater share of product or service demand. As the market space gets crowded, prospects for profits and growth are reduced. Products become commodities or niche, and cutthroat competition turns the ocean bloody. Hence, the term red oceans.

Blue oceans, in contrast, denote all the industries not in existence today—the unknown market space, untainted by competition. In blue oceans, demand is created rather than fought over. There is ample opportunity for growth that is both profitable and rapid. In blue oceans, competition is irrelevant because the rules of the game are waiting to be set. Blue ocean is an analogy to describe the wider, deeper potential of market space that is not yet explored. 

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Reader Comments (1)

I think this is perfect this man facilitating us those techniques because most of time people who has worked in the military army never reveal those techniques, actually he was temptedViagra Online in order to design a project with them.

June 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrogelio

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