Idea generating (analogical)


In this chapter we will be examining the use of analogies and metaphors as aids to stimulating ideas. The techniques in this chapter are best suited to use when looking to stretch an existing paradigm or to break the existing one. The techniques covered are synectics, story writing, free association, and attribute association chains. Aspects of synectics are explored in some detail. The use of these methods is most useful when applied in a group creative problem solving session when people with a variety of thinking styles are present. Not only are divergent thinkers required but also those who can produce practical suggestions based upon the less practical ones that may be generated. Essentially, this means that an experienced facilitator would be helpful in leading such sessions.


Synectics was developed by William J. Gordon (see Gordon, 1961). Like brainstorming it is a complete problem solving process and is particularly useful for problem identification and idea development. Synectics encourages the use of analogies (operational mechanisms) to make the familiar strange: through using personal, direct, symbolic, and fantasy analogies. It takes place with a group of people and a facilitator. We will first outline the stages in the process.

Stages of the synectics process

There are eight stages, as follows:

1 Problem as given

A general statement of the problem is read to the group.

2 Short analysis of the problem as given

The main purpose of this stage is to make the familiar strange and then the strange familiar. This can be achieved in a number of ways: for example, the group can make use of metaphors and analogies. This may in fact generate satisfactory insights or even solutions into the problem. We will look at these operational mechanisms later in the chapter.

3 Purge

Here we eliminate rigid and superficial solutions suggested in the first two stages. This also can help to clarify the problem statement. The next step is called the ‘purge.’ When people hear of a problem they think of solutions. This is an opportunity to suggest them. These will be referred to the problem owner/poser for evaluation. Quite often it is something he or she may have tried and she or he will be asked to explain what happened and why it did not work.

4 Problem as understood

This stage begins with a selection of a part of a problem to work on. Each participant describes how he or she sees the problem. The facilitator then writes down each of these viewpoints. One is chosen in conjunction with the problem owner for further analysis.

5 Excursion

This part of the process may be viewed as an artificial vacation or holiday from the problem. It is during this stage that the operational mechanisms may also be used. The facilitator asks questions that will require or evoke an analogical answer. Following the generation of a number of analogies, the facilitator might then select one for more detailed analysis and elaboration.

6 Fantasy force-fit

Here the group has to work with the problem and the analogies until a new way of looking at the problem is found.

7 Practical force-fit

At this stage a practical application of the analogy developed at the previous stage is made.

8 Viewpoint or new problem as understood

The synectics process has to end with the production of a viewpoint (a way of looking at the problem). Once a viewpoint is selected, guidance needs to be provided to transform the viewpoint into a solution to the problem.

In summary, there are three major parts:

Defining and analysing the problem

Increasing understanding or making the familiar strange and vice versa Integrating the results of using the operational mechanisms with the problem

76 Idea generating (analogical)

Operational mechanisms

Personal analogy

Personal analogy is the use of emotions and feelings to identify an individual with the subject of a problem.

The problem may be how to vary a food product such as a fish finger. It may feel pain, be boring and may have a fishy odour which may not appeal to people. This may lead to some new element such as a tomato sauce filling being added to the product to negate the undesirable characteristics.

Personal analogy can involve:

  • a) Describing the object by listing its basic characteristics and relating these to the problem
  • b) Describing the emotions the object might have in a given situation
  • c) Describing how someone feels when using the object
  • d) Describing what it feels like to be the given object

Based upon such an approach, it might then be possible to develop solutions to the problem.


Imagine that the problem is ‘how to market a new perfume.’ The personal analogy could be to imagine what it feels like to be ‘the new perfume,’ Some suggested feelings might be:

‘I feel excited’

‘I feel alluring’

Alternatively, of course, we could consider the characteristics of the perfume - fresh, long-lasting, etc.; the emotions that the perfume might have in given situations, etc. - sensitive to others at dinner, gay and joyful at parties; or what one might feel like when using the perfume - sophisticated, exciting, modern, playful, etc.

We might then look at ways of how we could try to incorporate these feelings into the promotion of the product (or, where negative, compensate for them in our promotional messages!). It is through such a technique that we are able to release ourselves from looking at a problem in terms of its previously analysed elements.


Fresh and long-lasting


Sensitive to others at dinner, gay and joyful at parties

Feeling when using

Sophisticated, exciting, modern, playful

Object feelings

Excited, alluring

Direct analogy

The direct analogy compares the problem with homogeneous facts, information, or technology. A heating system might be compared with a volcano, and from this, new ideas may arise. A direct analogy is a mechanism by which we try to make comparisons with analogous facts, information, or technology. In making use of this device, we have to search our experiences and knowledge to collect phenomena that seem to exhibit similar relationships to those in the problem in hand. It is often fruitful to compare animate systems with inanimate systems, or to make comparisons between biological, ecological, and other natural science systems and social systems.


Decision-making can be likened to finding one’s way across paths over a marsh. There are many pitfalls and wrong turnings along the way. The various paths have different pay-off's, so we need to estimate the value of the various pay-off's. Will they enable us to reach our destination or objective?

The idea is to describe a clear, straightforward relationship between the problem and some object, thing, or idea with the expectation of being able to transfer insights back to the problem in hand. In this instance:

What are seemingly paths across the marshes often lead you the wrong way.

Transfers back to:

Unfamiliar and potentially hazardous options need careful prior analysis when making decisions in order to avoid mistakes.

78 Idea generating (analogical)

Symbolic analogy

Symbolic analogy is the use of objective and personal images.

If the problem is to fit 50 people into a small conference room, it may be likened to cramming sardines into a can or the London Underground. Symbolic analogy involves making use of objective and personal images to describe a problem (e.g. like an Indian rope trick, like a thief in the night, like a pirate).


It may be difficult to get hold of the boss because the boss is nearly always out of the office. Finding the boss may be likened to finding the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel. It might well be that in trying to suggest ways of finding the elusive flower (or fictional character of Baroness Orczy, who shares the same name) we may get some further insights into how to keep tabs on the whereabouts of the boss.

Getting hold of the boss is like finding the Scarlet Pimpernel. ‘We seek her here, we seek her there, we seek her everywhere!’

Finding the flower might take account of the fact that it was once found in cornfields, but is now in decline due to intensive agricultural practices. It can still be found in arable fields, on roadside verges and waste ground, and on coastal cliffs. Can one find equivalent places in or outside of the organisation where the ‘boss' might be found? For instance:

Arable fields - drumming up business, sorting out important matters

Roadside verges - travelling on business

Waste ground - sorting out routine problems

Coastal cliffs - firefighting

Who might know? - diary, personal assistant

Solution - an electronic diary on an intranet available for all to see. Who might know?

Fantasy analogy’

This is based on Freud’s notion that creative thinking and wish fulfilment are strongly related. It is usually prefaced by the words ‘How do we in our wildest fantasy ... ’ For example, when considering a problem dealing with needing to introduce but at the same time disguise price rises, permanent or temporary, by making it appear that no price rise is in fact occurring. This might lead to such ideas as:

1 The discount structure can be altered so that the total profit to the company is increased, but the list price to customers remains the same.

  • 2 The minimum order size is increased so that small orders are eliminated and overall costs thereby reduced.
  • 3 Delivery and special services are charged for.
  • 4 Invoices are raised for repairs on purchased equipment.
  • 5 Charge for engineering, installation, and supervision.
  • 6 Interest is collected on overdue accounts.


Various types of excursion are used in the synectics process. The choice of excursion depends on the degree of novelty required in a solution, the element of risk the leader is prepared to take and the type of material which is being worked upon. Hicks (1991) distinguishes between ‘imaging or fantasy excursion’ and ‘example excursion.’ The imaging excursion is possibly the most unorthodox form of excursion and can be a potential disaster with a conservative-minded group - though it often works dramatically well when it is least expected and produces the most innovative ideas.

Fantasy excursion

For a fantasy or image excursion the gr oup is asked to describe a mental pic-ture/story inspired by the last item in a word-association preliminary exercise, starting with a word taken from the ‘springboard.’ One person will lead off, and then every other person in the group has to add to the story. They should be invited to jump in whenever they like and told that the more colourful, outlandish, weird, or exotic the story the better. It is usually better to keep the story in the same location, if possible, as this makes for better imagery. Everyone should try to add about a minute to the story, and then someone else takes over. The changeover may be left to the discretion of the leader.

If the story tends to stagnate on some minute detail of one particular image, the leader can ask someone to make something surprising happen. Conversely, if images are insufficiently developed because storytellers move too quickly to other images, the leader can pin people to one scenario by asking for more detail. People may be anxious about producing mental images in public and about their ability to contribute to the story. It is, however, the violent changing of direction and having to build another mental image after the destruction of the first that makes the story rich in speculation and evocative images.

Absurd solutions

When every group member has had at least one chance to contribute to the story the leader stops the imaging and asks the group to replay the story in their mind and try to think up some really absurd or impractical solutions to the problem. The absurd solutions are written up on the flip chart.

Having moved so far from the problem with the fantasy excursion, it usually becomes desirable to return to the real world and the problem in several stages, the first of which is this drawing up of absurd solutions. If a group member immediately comes up with a sensible and novel solution, one should obviously not reject it.

The leader needs to check with the problem owner to see if any of the absurd solutions intrigue, fascinate, or appeal to them. There should be no problem with picking too practical a solution as there should not be any. After the problem owner makes his or her selection the leader asks the group to examine the chosen absurd solutions and to try to find ways of changing them into something more practical and closer to reality, while retaining as much of the original idea as possible. It is better not to attempt to do this in one step but to spend some time modifying them, because there is a tendency to lose the novel feature contained in the absurd solution by jumping back to reality too quickly.

Example excursion (includes the use of analogies)

The example excursion is perhaps most commonly applied and easiest to interpret, though it is thought to be less generally applicable. It is introduced in the same general way as the fantasy excursion. When moving into the excursion we ask the group for examples of a keyword chosen from the problem restatements in a different ‘world.’ The choice of appropriate world is a matter of past experience and knowledge of those that seem to have worked well in the past. Almost any ‘world’ can be used - for example, sport, fashion, warfare, nature, physics, astrophysics, engineering and so on. Examples, of course, are only one form of analogy, and one can also ask for other forms of direct, personal, fantasy or symbolic analogy - see the examples of synectics in action in the next section. One often combines examples with some other form of analogy. All ideas are of course written up and eventually explored to see how they can provide insights into the problem under consideration.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >