When people are engaged in problem solving, it is not uncommon that they get stuck when searching for solutions. Or, you may not be stuck per se, but you feel your ideas lack imagination. When either of these occurs, we can benefit from some external stimulus to help us break through to new creative insights. One tool that you can use is called Innovation By Analogy.
University of Texas Cognitive psychologist, Dr. Art Markman, is one expert into how people think. He explains in his book Tools for Innovation: The Science Behind the Practical Methods That Drive New Ideas that very often we have in our minds the information to creatively solve problems, but we often have difficulty accessing it or even recognizing how what we already know can be applied. Often, innovative solutions are merely the re-application of other solutions in some slightly different way. The trick is figuring out which pieces of knowledge are relevant to the new problem you are trying to solve.
We think, says Dr. Markman, by looking at a problem in a certain way, and then searching our mental “data banks” as if our brain were like Wikipedia looking for the right entry to read. Just as in Wikipedia (or using Google, for that matter) the references you uncover are dependent on what “search words or phrases” you decide to type into the search window. For those of you who have tried Google searches before, you know it is somewhat of an art form. Deciding on the correct search terms is key.
Imagine this as your problem:
You have just started a weight training program, 4 days per week. Your spouse bought you a weight set for the holidays, and you have been highly pleased with your progress so far. You are assigned a new job that will require extensive travel, and you would not like to see your new personal health initiative abandoned. You can’t depend on the chance that every hotel will have an adequately equipped fitness center. The idea of lugging your weights with you (in a separate suitcase, perhaps) seems like it will push you past your baggage weight limit with the airline). So, how might you solve this problem?
There are multiple solution pathways you might go down. The one(s) you choose depends largely on how you choose to frame the problem statement.
You could think of the problem as “how do I bring my personal weight set with me when I travel?” Framed in this way, it is a transportation problem. What is the cheapest means of shipping precious or heavy materials with you when you travel? You could pay the baggage surcharge and ship them on the airplane. You could consider other freight forwarding services as well.
If you wanted to get creative, you might ask yourself, “Who else has solved this problem?” What about musicians who perform in a different city every night? What about someone with a health condition who needs oxygen or other specialized medical equipment to be nearby? Investigating these analogous situations (even though they do not have anything to do with your weight shipping problem), may lead you to other possible solutions. Perhaps the solution is traveling by bus or van (where you can bring more weight). Maybe there are freight-forwarding services that specialize in quick, personal service. Maybe you could choose to rent some equipment in your destination city.
Another way to think about your problem might be, “I prefer NOT to lug my weights with me, what can I do when I get to my hotel that allows me to keep up with my exercise regime?” In this case, you have taken YOUR WEIGHTS out of the equation. Now this is a problem of substitution – what else might I be able to do while on the road the yields the same benefits as my weight program? This line of thinking may lead you to improvising exercises with things you will readily find in your hotel room (how about a new use for your night stand?). Or, you might think about other forms of physical conditioning that build core body strength without depending on weights. You might ask here, “who else has solved this problem? Well, your research might lead you to a program developed by the Navy Seals called TRX Training. It replaces machines and weights using your own body weight to provide the resistance you need for muscle development. So, you might find some TRX exercises that you could easily adapt to some of the settings you might find in a typical hotel.
Or, how about reframing your problem this way: “I want to have a set of weights that don’t have the weight or the bulk in them while I’m travelling, but can have the weight added at the time I want to use them.” Notice, that what we’re doing here is to think about the problem more abstractly for a second. We’re not really talking much about the weight as the item to be transported any longer. Instead, weight is just something to be added when it is going to be used.
Does reframing the question in this way lead you down yet another path? What other things can you think of that collapse when in storage, but can have something added to it when you want to use it?
How about an air mattress? In this case the analogy is a bit removed in that the thing you fill an air mattress with has very little weight. But the idea is the same, filling something in your hotel room, (say with water at 3.785kg per gallon). Now your analogous thinking has led you to consider what you could bring (e.g. a deflatable pouch that could be filled with water and hung from a bar in some manner.)
So there in a nutshell is the process in innovation by analogy. Just follow these steps.
1) REFRAME the problem. Like we did with our weight problem above. Re-state it making different assumptions as you go. (taking my weights, substituting something for them, and taking them in a different form than is common) You might want to reframe multiple times to force yourself to consider a richer array of solutions.
2) ASK “What is it like?” Use analogies, metaphors and associations to connect other situations to your newly framed problem statements. As an example, one oil pipeline company concerned with the habitual problem of leaks, considered the process of clotting in the human blood stream as their analogy. They investigated what chemical additives they could add to the pipeline contents that would exhibit similar clotting behaviors as human blood when exposed to air.)
3) ASK “Who (or what) else solves this problem?” Think about other organizations products, groups companies (most likely outside of your industry) who have tackled the aspect of the problem you are now considering. Think also about examples from nature. Then study them. Here is another example: One health care organization I know was thinking about improving its patient satisfaction scores. They recognized that one source of patient dissatisfaction came from waiting – which is a common occurrence. They asked themselves who else has managed to make waiting seem less unsatisfying. Their thoughts turned to DISNEY. This led them to consider how they could make their waiting environments more stimulating, educational, and engaging with artful decoration, TV programming, toys for children, etc.
4) CONSIDER “how might I adapt their solution to my situation?” This step should be easiest. You need to figure out how the analogous solution could be modified in some manner to work in your specific situation, cultural environment, within your desired budget, and so forth.
So the next time you are stuck, or unimpressed by the inventiveness of the options you are considering, try the technique of Innovation By Analogy. Who knows where it might lead you?
How to use analogies for breakthrough innovations, by Dipl. Wi.-Ing. Katharina Schild, Prof. Dr. Cornelius Herstatt, and Dr. Christian Lüthje, Institute of Technology and Innovation Management, Technical University of Hamburg
Analogies Are the Way of Breakthrough Innovation, by Michael S. Slocum, realinnovation.com