Using Analogies for Creative Problem Solving
When you are stuck on a problem and need some new ideas, you can get creative ideas by making analogies to some other field.
An analogy is an abstract parallel between two quite different things. For example, you might analogize driving to project management. In both cases it helps to have a map (i.e., a plan) for where you're going.
When you find one parallel, you can often find others--which is why analogies help with creativity.
For example, suppose you were a manager with an employee who was causing problems, and you were looking for ways of dealing with him. You might get some ideas by comparison to other human relationships. You might use strategies that parents use to manage children, if they were appropriate. Or you might adapt military management techniques for civilian use.
But if you are looking for something new, it pays to go farther afield. Suppose you were to compare the problem employee with a problem program on your computer. Here are four things you might do to deal with the problem program:
a) uninstall the program and use a competitor
b) reinstall the program fresh
c) upgrade the program
d) check users' groups on the web for plugins or settings to get help with the problem
To complete the analogy, translate these back into suggestions for dealing with the employee:
a) fire the employee
c) send the employee to training
d) ask around on discussion groups for suggestions for dealing with this particular problem
Of these, "reinstall the program fresh" didn't have an obvious counterpart--so that case warrants more thinking. Here are three things that "reinstall the program" could suggest for dealing with the employee:
- From the word "reinstall": Write up a description of model employee behavior, then have a private talk with your employee to see if he'll start anew and commit to this behavior.
- From the word "fresh": Find a different position in the company which is a better fit for the employee.
- From the fact that reinstalling the program removes corrupted files: Make a list of all the prejudices and negative generalizations you've made about this employee and do some soul-searching on whether you've been fair and whether you've contributed to the problem. Then talk with the employee about your findings.
None of these are point-for-point analogies to reinstalling a program. But when you are using analogies to generate ideas, you don't need to be that exact. The test is not whether the analogy passes a strict test, but whether you got a helpful idea.
For more ideas on how to use analogies in thinking and communicating, see Anne Miller's book on "Metaphorically Selling."