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What is this similar to? What isn’t this similar to?

Problem definition is probably the most critical step in creative problem solving. Once a problem is defined, solving it is often relatively simple. However, as explained in Table 2, individuals tend to define prob- lems in terms with which they are familiar. Even well- trained scientists suffer from this problem: “Good sci- entists study the most important problems they think they can solve” (Medawar, 1967). When a problem is faced that is strange or does not appear to have an eas- ily identified solution, the problem either remains undefined or is redefined in terms of something famil- iar. Unfortunately, new problems may not be the same as old problems, so relying on past definitions may impede the process of solving current problems, or lead to solving the wrong problem. Applying tech- niques for creative problem definition can help individ- uals see problems in alternative ways so their defini- tions are less narrowly constrained. Three such techniques for improving and expanding the definition process are discussed below.

Make the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange

One well-known, well-tested technique for improving creative problem solving is called synectics (Gordon, 1961; Roukes, 1988). The goal of synectics is to help you put something you don’t know in terms of some- thing you do know, then reverse the process back again. The point is, by analyzing what you know and applying it to what you don’t know, you can develop new insights and perspectives. The process of synectics relies on the use of analogies and metaphors, and it works this way.

First, you form a definition of a problem (make the strange familiar). Then, you try to transform that defin- ition so it is out of focus, distorted, or changed in some way (make the familiar strange). Use synectics—analo- gies and metaphors—to create this distortion. Postpone the original definition of the problem while you examine the analogy or the metaphor. Then, impose that same analysis on the original problem to see what new insights you can uncover.

Your answers might be: “This problem reminds me of trying to turn a rusty bolt,” “It makes me feel like I do when visiting a hospital ward,” “This is simi- lar to the loser’s locker room after a basketball game,” “This isn’t like a well-tuned automobile,” and so on. Metaphors and analogies should connect what you are less sure about (the original problem) to what you are more sure about (the metaphor). By analyzing the metaphor or analogy, you may identify attributes of the problem that were not evident before. New insights can occur.

Many creative solutions have been generated by such a technique. For example, William Harvey was the first to apply the “pump” analogy to the heart, which led to the discovery of the body’s circulatory system. Niels Bohr compared the atom to the solar system and supplanted Rutherford’s prevailing “raisin pudding” model of matter’s building blocks. Con- sultant Roger von Oech (1986) helped turn around a struggling computer company by applying a restaurant analogy to the company’s operations. The real prob- lems emerged when the restaurant, rather than the company, was analyzed. Major contributions in the field of organizational behavior have occurred by applying analogies to other types of organization, such as machines, cybernetic or open systems, force fields, clans, and so on. Probably the most effective analogies (called parables) were used by Jesus of Nazareth to teach principles that otherwise were difficult for indi- viduals to grasp (e.g., the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, a shepherd and his flock).

Some hints to keep in mind when constructing analogies are:

Include action or motion in the analogy (e.g., driving a car, cooking a meal, attending a funeral).

Include things that can be visualized or pic- tured in the analogy (e.g., circuses, football games, crowded shopping malls).

Suppose you have defined a problem as low morale among members of your team. You may form an analogy or metaphor by answering questions such as the following about the problem:

What does this remind me of? What does this make me feel like?

Pick familiar events or situations (e.g., families, kissing, bedtime).

Try to relate things that are not obviously simi- lar (e.g., saying an organization is like a big crowd is not nearly as rich a simile as saying that an organization is like a psychic prison or a poker game).




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