Origins of How Might We?

Since the term “How Might We?” has been in the news so much recently we thought this might be a good moment to repost a small portion of an earlier article from our Lost Innovation Stories series that was published here on February 21, 2012.

In that tribute to the early work of Sidney J. Parnes Ph.D. we made reference to and gave due credit to the appearance of the term “How Might We” in Parnes’s 1967 book entitled Creative Behavior Guidebook. We consider that book to be among the top ten most important early books on the subject of Applied Creativity. Lets give credit where credit is due.

Many have since built on Sidney’s work. The good news is that much of what Parnes created and shared early on has long since passed into the public domain.

We consider Sidney Parnes to be one of several unsung pioneers in the still evolving OPEN Innovation movement. The truth is, that movement has its roots in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, rather than in 2003.

“Invitation Stems (“How Mights”)

The introduction of what are known as invitation stems, sometimes referred to as “How Mights,” are among the important tactical instruments included by Parnes in his Creative Behavior Guidebook published in 1967. Invitation stems became important, fundamental building blocks in the still-evolving logic of what is known today as “challenge framing” or “challenge mapping.” In Guidebook, Parnes introduces numerous key invitation stems that have sometimes been creatively attributed to later arriving others; included are: “How Might I?” (page131), “How Might We?” (page 125), “How Might You?” (page 161), and “In What Ways Might We?” (page 127). Since that 1967 publication, many additional invitation stems have been added by others, including “How Might They?”, “How Might Our Team?”, “How Might Our Organization?”, etc. Thanks to Sidney’s early work, “How Mights” have been in the public domain for decades, and have become integral to numerous creative thinking systems. Framed as questions in search of answers, “How Mights” can be seen in practical, everyday use within many innovation consultancies today, including Humantific, IDEO and many others. What’s different now is what we do with them.”

UPDATE: See Part 2 and Part 3 of Origins of How Might We? below in additional comments by GK VanPatter.

Note: Applied Creativity pioneer Sid Parnes authored 17 books from 1960 to 1997, including: Toward Supersanity: Channeled Freedom (1972), The Magic of Your Mind (1981), A Facilitating Style of Leadership (1985) and Source Book for Creative Problem Solving: A Fifty Year Digest of Proven Innovation Processes (1992). That list can be found on Wikipedia.

See the entire post here: Lost Stories Applied Creativity History.

Image Source: Parnes, Sidney J. Creative Behavior Guidebook. 1967. Page 125. Humantific Innovation Archives, New York.


Coming Soon:

Innovation Methods Mapping: De-Mystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design.

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Comments ( 4 )
  • John Rochelle says:

    Unless I misunderstand the thread, the development of abductive or generative reasoning, using the question “how might..?” developed long before Sid Parnes’ book. In his book “The Opposable Mind”, Roger Martin identifies this mode of thinking as an essential element in developing novel thoughts, and links it to both Charles Sanders Peirce and Thomas C Chamberlin. In the linked article he mentions only Thomas C Chamberlin, The link provides a synopsis of the book.


  • GK VanPatter says:

    Origins of How Might We?…Part 2:

    During the blackout last week I had a chance finally to write this response in two parts…Lets call this Origins of How Might We?…Part 2 & Part 3…☺

    Thank you for commenting, John Rochelle. That is quite a mind-bender bit of commentary there, made more complicated by you adding that particular link right here in our front yard. I guess you probably do not know that there is not much in that link document that we would agree with, but it’s going to be difficult to fully respond in this blog format. I would be happy to talk with you more about this subject in person– especially since you are at Booz Allen Hamilton, where we have several friends…:-) What’s interesting about your comments is how odd the sequential juxtapositions happen to be–by chance or by design, I am not quite sure. Conceptually, you have several tails wagging; several dogs there.

    Here are a few additional follow-up points for consideration:

    For any short readers, perhaps it might be best to start off by clearing up any potential fuzziness in your juxtapositioning. Let’s be honest and clear at the outset: Certainly as far as we know, Roger Martin has had nothing to do with the subject or logic behind “How Might We”. Not only has he played no role in the creation of invitation stems or challenge mapping, but it is well known that his work largely ignores the half century of directly related applied creativity innovation that had already taken place, prior to his arrival at the creative age party in 2006–some sixty years after the modern creative age party began. Few graduate students could get way with such blatent historical ommission.

    The truth is today in a competitive marketplace deliberate ommission has become a strategic device now often being used in academic settings by academic leaders to create false frontier narratives that are out of historical sequence and don’t hold water in the real world. There often seems to be an assumption that the audience will be new generation, historically unstudied and have short attention spans..:-) Numerous such false frontier narratives now exist around the subjects of integrated thinking, creative intelligence, design thinking, etc. False frontier narratives are designed to shine the light on the person pitching the narrative rather than on contributing new knowledge to the professional community. False frontiers are fundamentally narcissistic in orientation. To a large degree the standards of historical crediting long taught in graduate schools been abandoned by those adhering to and modeling the false frontier approach. This is their innovative contribution. We do not subscribe to that orientation.

    The field of applied creativity is, today, vast and complex. It is a field that has many routes into it and has a long, well-documented history. Of course, it is always true that anyone studying the history of ideas can go back as far as the ancient philosophers–among them the gang of three, Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC), Plato (423 BC – 347 BC), and Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)–to find all kinds of generalized, foundational seeds that have played themselves out in one way or another over the centuries. I am sure if we took the time, we could unpack the brilliant historical work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and Thomas C. Chamberlin (1843-1928) and we would find many such connections. Painting such a generalized picture was not the purpose of our original short post above, referencing the documented appearance of “How Might We” in the 1967 Creative Behavior Guidebook, by Dr. Sid Parnes. That short Humantific post was, in part, a response to something that was improperly attributed by Warren Berger on the Harvard Business Review blog, entitled “The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use”, on September 17, 2012.


    We noticed that the Harvard Business Review article failed to reference our post from seven months earlier–entitled “Lost Stories Applied Creativity History”, published here on the Humantific site¬–in which the documentation of “How Might We” (by Parnes in 1967) had already been attributed.


    Historical Crediting

    You might know that the historical literature of applied creativity is quite generous when it comes to historical crediting. You might not know that Sid Parnes is well recognized as being a poster boy for best practice and highly ethical historical referencing. There are many historical references embedded in Parnes’ 1967 Guidebook and throughout the SidTrilogy. Having studied his work closely for several years while working on the Innovation Methods Mapping book, I have no doubt that Sid would be the first to point out that much of his work (and that of Alex Osborn) stood on the shoulders of many others who came before them. There is tremendous generosity in Sid’s work that is difficult for some to understand in the context of today’s competitive marketplace dynamics. The truth is, it is what happens much later (as in the marketplace today) that is often considerably less generous when it comes to properly crediting history.

    In the interest of time and space, I am going to compress considerable history here. To be brief: It is known that at least some of the early applied creativity pioneers, including Alex Osborn, were aware of Chamberlin’s “Multiple Working Hypothesis Theory”. Reference to it does appear in the first edition of Osborn’s Applied Imagination book, published in 1953, which we happen to have a copy of in the Humantific archives. Osborn was obviously also aware of the connections to Plato, Aristotle, and so-called “associationism”.

    Osborn in 1948: “Many students of imagination have stressed combination as the essence of creativity. The power of association can also lead us into creative undertakings…The ancient Greeks made much of this phenomenon. Plato played it up in his writings, and Aristotle stressed it as the very keystone of human psychology. They violently disagreed as to how this power works. Just so, psychologists and philosophers have battled ever since–with new and longer words like associationism and re-integration. But let’s skip these and call it association, or some simpler term like chain-thinking or link-thinking.”

    Osborn in 1953: “The basis of idea-finding ‘association of ideas’. In almost all idea-finding activity the talent that plays the leading part is that which is known as association of ideas – sometimes referred to as ‘associationism’ or ‘re-integration’. This phenomenon gears imagination to memory and causes one thought to lead to another. Its power has been recognized for over 2,000 years. Plato and Aristotle stressed it as a cardinal principle of human psychology.”

    Procedural Language Innovation

    Beyond the forever-difficult-to-unravel mysteries around what historical ideas inspired other ideas and who said what, when, there is, from the Humantific perspective, a much more important innovation story embedded here in this mix. It would be difficult to untangle your juxtapositions without some understanding of this. It is a story that represents one of the most important, and relatively unsung, chapters in applied creativity history. In this constrained format I can share it here in brief:

    Those who study the subject of innovation procedural methods would probably know that something happened around hypothesis creation in the context of applied creativity during the ten year period between 1953 and 1963. By the time Guidebook was published in 1967, a series of innovations had occurred that changed the procedural language of applied creativity–at least according to what we now call the Buffalo School.

    To say this another way: Anyone trying to understand the history, present-day mechanics, and/or purpose of invitation stems (“How Might We”), multiple challenge framing, or integrative thinking by looking at the brilliant historical work of Charles Peirce and Thomas Chamberlin would essentially be looking not exactly in the wrong place, but not in the most direct, instructive place either–due, in part, to the deliberate disconnection of one pattern language and the creation of another. Jumping off literally from Peirce today is a bit of an academic game as it is the equivalent to skipping over, some might say conveniently ignoring a half century of procedural innovation history.

    Recognized Milestones

    Before I write more in that direction, let’s be clear that most graduate students studying innovation and conducting literature reviews of the subject history typically discover that, outside the bubble of logic currently being peddled by a couple of graduate business schools, it is widely recognized that the modern applied creativity movement has been active and evolving since the 1940s. That is when the central bonfire of the Modern Creativity Age party began–certainly not in 2006. It is in that early era that creativity became a serious subject, research became more focused, the increase of papers on the topic vastly multiplied, and many leaders of business and government started to become interested.

    Numerous recognized milestones and seminal moments of that modern movement exist, including the publication of Osborn’s How to Think Up in 1942, Your Creative Power in 1948, a now-famous speech by JP Guildford (entitled “Creativity”) in 1950, the publication of Osborn’s Applied Imagination in 1953, JP Guildford’s introduction to Guidebook (entitled “Creativity: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”), and, of course, Creative Behavior Guidebook itself–which represented at least 15 years of research and experiments by Parnes and his associates.

    For those who might not know, here is an abbreviated timeline of the interconnected and somewhat overlapping Modern Creativity Eras–the first 5 stages of which were denoted by Sid Parnes in 1992. Stages 6-8 have been denoted by Humantific in 2002-2012.

    Modern Creativity Eras:

    1940s: Era 1: The Cry in the Dark Stage*(P)
    1950s: Era 2: The Hope and Hunch Stage*(P)
    1960s: Era 3: The Research, Replication and Report Stage*(P)
    1970s: Era 4: The Widespread Application Stage*(P)
    1980s: Era 5: The Mainstream Application Stage*(P)
    1990s: Era 6: The Deepening Research & Innovation Stage *(H)
    2000-2010: Era 7: The Rediscovery & Readaptation Stage *(H)
    2011-Present: Era 8: The Global Collaboration & Readaptation Stage *(H)

    Having said all of that, it is true that you won’t find mention of hypothesis construction, multiple or otherwise, in Sid’s ‘67 Guidebook for the very simple (but important) reason that it was not what he was writing about! By 1967, thanks to Osborne, Parnes, and numerous other pioneers, the logic of hypothesis construction had been largely superseded as a procedural language in applied creativity. No mention of multiple hypotheses is there in Guidebook–as Parnes, Osborn, and other pioneers in the Buffalo School of Applied Creativity had already moved on, based on their many years of research, practice and teaching of applied creativity.

    To be ever-so brief: Framed hypotheses are possible solutions in search of validation. Framed challenges, in the form of “How Might We”, are challenges in search of multiple solution paths. These are, in effect, not only different procedural languages–they lead forward into very different landscapes of later-to-be-developed tools and instruments.

    The former remains central to scientific pursuits. The latter went on to become part of a language suite that many others have built on since then. If you miss that turn at that fork in the applied creativity road and remain on the hypothesis-generation path, you miss many years of procedural innovation. In staying on the hypothesis-generation path, you would likely not be aware of the many tools that have been developed by those who took the turn onto a new avenue at that important juncture.

    Perhaps most important to appreciate is that in those early days of the Modern Applied Creativity Movement, hypothesis creation was simply imported from science into or grafted onto what was, at that time, a fledgling field–the emerging discipline of applied creativity, one that did not yet have its own procedural language. As soon as that language took shape, with the help of Osborn, Parnes, and others, hypothesis creation was largely history in the context of applied creativity.

    As part of that emerging procedural language, invitation stems (“How Might We”) go on to become key building blocks in the logic of challenge constellations. This interlinking or mapping is not something found in the procedural language of multiple hypotheses creation.

    If you are interested in this rather unsung innovation story, I can think of one still relatively easy-to-locate set of historical documents, where you can literally see the ushering-in of creative problem solving procedural language and the ushering-out of hypothesis construction. If you can get your hands on three copies of Alex Osborn’s Applied Imagination book (the original 1953 version, as well as the 1957 and 1963 versions), this migration¬–this procedural innovation introduction–becomes clear in several key rewritten chapters.

    In the original 1953 first edition of Applied Imagination, there was a chapter heading entitled, “The Value of Thinking Up Plenty of Hypotheses”. In the revised 1957 edition, that chapter heading became, “The Value of Copious Ideation”. In the third revised edition of the same book published in 1963, that chapter had been expanded and that heading became, “The basis of idea-finding–‘association of ideas’”.

    By the time Parnes published Guidebook in 1967, Osborn had passed away–and so had hypothesis creation as a central element in applied creativity methodology brewing from the Buffalo School. In its place was a new procedural logic–still a work in progress–focused around the framing of multiple challenges, the generation of ideas, the balancing of imaginative thinking/analytical thinking, and the orchestration of divergent thinking/convergent thinking.

    Anyone missing that innovation cycle would be missing one of the most important procedural knowledge constructions in the history of innovation methods, and one that Osborn, Parnes, and their associates deserve considerable credit for. If you missed that turn onto a new road, it is unlikely that you would be able to appreciate not only why Chamberlin is a wild goose chase, but also what integrative thinking was then (and still remains today).

  • GK VanPatter says:

    Origins of How Might We?…Part 3:

    The GIANT Irony

    It is very important to have a sense of humor in this business…☺ The GIANT irony in your comments, John Rochelle, is that beginning in the 1940s, numerous American applied creativity pioneers (including Osborn, Parnes, Guildford, and Torrance) were strongly suggesting that our Western education system, including the business schools, wake up to the possibilities of applied creativity in order to better adapt to a changing world. Decade after decade passed, and that advocacy remained constant–but the truth is that widespread adaptation was extremely slow to arrive in business schools. Many examples of that advocacy can be found in plain sight within historical applied creativity literature.

    Here is Alex Osborn in 1942: “The thinking mind finds it easier to judge than to create. Nearly all of our education tends to develop our critical faculty. And our experience likewise builds up our judgment…The more we exercise our judgment, the less likely we are to exercise our imagination. By overuse of our judicial power we may even cramp our creative power.”

    Here is Sid Parnes in 1963: “Education does much to develop our reasoning power, sometimes to the point of over-developing critical ability at the expense of creative ability. Experience likewise builds up judicial power…”

    Parnes in 1967: “The basic techniques of invention and innovation ought to be, but are not, among the fundamentals generally taught in engineering and business schools.”
    Hundreds of such examples exist.

    Evidently many educational institutions and business school leaders did not listen to that message for a very long time. Organizational leaders saw the importance of applied creativity long before most business schools caught on.

    It is no secret that the business schools, then and now, were/are primarily geared up to teach decision-making, e.g., convergent thinking, judgment thinking. What they have been selling for decades–their official doctrine, their central value proposition–was/is the idea that decision-making represents the highest form of value. Regardless of how some might want to creatively slice and dice that term, at the end of the day, decision-making is convergence.

    What is important about all of that is to appreciate that it is in the early concern and advocacy by the modern applied creativity pioneers (beginning in the 1940s) that you can find the early roots of integrative thinking awareness–not in abstract terms, but rather directly in the context of business and society.

    Sidney Parnes: “In adapting all the evolving programs that we have been able to synthesize with our creative problem-solving courses and institutes, we have always been trying to develop a balance in individuals – a balance between judgment and imagination, between the open awareness of the environment through all of the senses and the deep self-searching into layer upon layer of data stored in the memory cells- between the logic and the emotion- between deliberate creative effort and the incubation between the individual working with the group and his working alone. The longer I work in this field the more the underlying problem seem to become one of developing this balance between these extremes by strengthening the weaker aspect, not by stunting the stronger side.”

    To state this ever-so-briefly in the context of today: It is pretty much well known everywhere, outside of a couple high-profile business schools, that integrative thinking is not now–nor has it ever been–a decision-making technique… Integrative decision-making has never been the equivalent of integrative thinking. You cannot set integrative decision-making as an inclusive culture-building strategy.

    Imagine yourself in an organizational context, telling those who have divergent thinking preferences that you want to create an integrative thinking culture, but you are going to do that by privileging convergent thinking/decision-making and those with convergent thinking preferences. How long do you think that innovation initiative would last?

    Since the privileging of convergence orientation has, in various forms, been around for decades, (thanks to the business schools) we already know that is a formula for maintaining the status quo, rather than for new inclusive culture building. No creative repackaging is going to change that.

    How all of this connects to “How Might We” is that business leaders today are facing the challenge–not of balancing two hypotheses in their heads while deciding/converging, but, rather, how to make sense of and interconnect hundreds of fuzzy, complex challenges simultaneously. In pursuit of innovation goals, change-making leaders today are seeking to build inclusive cultures capable of maximizing the brainpower in their organizations. To do that, one has to have some awareness–some knowledge of human thinking dynamics, beyond the promotion of decision-making.

    We already know that for most organizational leaders working in the context of today’s complexities, balancing two solution options in their heads is kindergarten stuff. We already know that associationism/building on/combining ideas has, for decades, been taught in introductory boot-camp applied creativity workshops. It has never been considered an advanced skill.

    The truth is, leaders have much bigger fish to fry if they intend to build innovation-oriented cultures. Training a bunch of “deciders” is not going to get them there. Continuing to build organizational cultures based on old notions that convergent thinking is the highest form of value is a formula from yesteryear–not a roadmap to the future. Many are working hard to overcome those very legacy system dynamics in order to tap into the innovation potential inside their organizations. This is where the forward thinking leaders are working today…on that set of heavy lifts.

    What it comes down to is this: If you, or anyone else, were trying today to understand the development of airplanes, and you went looking, instead, at trains created during 1914-1928, that might be really informative and useful.

    On the other hand, if you ignore 80+ years of airplane innovation, but then announce that you have invented a new airplane concept, based on what you learned about trains in 1914-1928, it is likely that you would have on your plate a lot of out-of-sync and rather elemental ideas that would probably end up wasting a lot of people’s valuable time–even if you are very creative in packaging your concept. On the other hand all of that commotion might drive a lot of eyeballs to your web site. Can omission be an effective creation and marketing strategy? Ho Hum. Of course, any graduate student can tell you what happens if they ignore 80 years of directly related historical knowledge while conjuring up “new” concepts. To ignore eight decades of innovation that supersedes your concept and then claim that what you are doing is innovation does not make much sense. If that does make sense to you, there is a bridge here in Brooklyn that maybe you might be interested in buying.

    In high contrast, what is truly remarkable is that by 1967, Sid Parnes (building on the previous work of Alex Osborn and others) had much of that thinking integration knowledge not only created, but also codified and in workshop-delivery form. These were not academic theories. In Guidebook, what Sid lays on the table is far beyond his contribution of “How Might We”. Sid lays out how to go teach this stuff in step-by-step detail. For decades, that SidTrilogy treasure trove has fueled a lot of subsequent innovation. As the multiple stage Modern Creative Age rolls forward, surely we can take a few minutes along the way to give Sid Parnes and his associates some long overdue credit. Regardless of how each of us might choose to slice and dice that picture, their contributions have been significant. They did some amazing, relatively unsung work that continues to inspire many of us still today.

    I hope this is useful to you, John, as well as others readers.

    For those interested in this subject we always suggest reading from some original historical materials rather than airport newsstand-type books…☺

    Among the applied creativity classics are these three:

    Your Creative Power, How to Use Imagination, 1948, by Alex Osborn
    Synectics, The Development of Creative Capacity, 1961, by William Gordon
    A Sourcebook for Creative Thinking 1962, edited by Sidney Parnes & Harold Harding

    Coming Soon:

    Innovation Methods Mapping
    De-Mystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design

  • John Rochelle says:


    Thank you for taking the time to provide such a comprehensive “brief” response. As my question demonstrated, I am a novice in the field of design thinking, and the works that you mention in the post provide a number of focus areas for me to continue my research.


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