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Developing Forced Analogies Creates New Solutions

By Michael S. Slocum

People solve problems every day using analogies based on associations formed over time. This set of association standards is the source of an individual’s psychological bias. These association standards give people the ability to problem solve quickly, but also limits the search space for solution hunting. Standard associations are, therefore, both helpful and harmful.

In times of flight-or-flight situations, quick decisions are demanded. In these cases, association standards based on automatic intellectual functions are appropriate and can create the ideal rapid response for preservation. In situations where rapid decision making is not necessary, it is imperative that problem solving is not based on these association standards. An expanded set of associations is needed in order to bypass standard biases.

The focal analogy method is a technique that drives ideation by helping the problem solver to formulate a non-standard association set. This takes place in a simple fashion using three phrases to stimulate ideation.

Phrase 1: How is my problem like a (insert random object)?

The problem solver uses this question to create novel associations. The random object should be generated in a manner that ensures independence from any particular aspect of the specific problem (e.g., select a word at random from a dictionary or use special analogy cards). As the problem solving team answers the question with the random object inserted, a list of associations is created. Each association possesses traits specific to it and can be listed. The next step is for the problem solving team to use the association traits to brainstorm specific solutions to the problem in question. (The brainwriting technique could also be used if a non-verbal ideation process is preferred.)

Consider a device for cutting and clamping a vein/artery during surgery. The device resembles a pair of ergonomically designed scissors with a power source coupled to the mechanism to provide energy during use. A problem in this system is associated with the angle of approach to the vein/artery to be cut. If the angle is not 90 degrees then there is a quality loss.

How is my angle of approach problem like a crocodile?

Listing the properties (or traits) of the crocodile provides a list of potential analogic vectors for association forming (idea generation). A crocodile has:

  • Sharp teeth
  • A powerful jaw
  • A tough outer skin
  • A water resistant cover for eyelids
  • Ahead that can turn to attack

Then use each trait and create ideas using brainstorming, which in this case is constrained by the new association vectors, the crocodile traits:

  • Serrate the blade so that cutting effectiveness is enhanced regardless of angle of approach.
  • Design an alignment mechanism that orients the cutting blades as they close around the vein/artery.
  • Create a blade pivot that would allow the angle of approach to be other than 90 degrees, but allow the cut to be 90 degrees.

Phrase 2: How may I solve my problem with a (insert random object)?

How may I solve this problem with an elephant? The method of random object generation should be consistent with Phrase 1. This technique will cause the problem solvers to form new associations that will be leveraged for ideation, as with Phrase 1.

How may I solve this angle of approach problem with an elephant?

Traits specific to an elephant include:

  • Long trunk
  • Big ears
  • Very strong
  • Very heavy
  • Tusks

Now use these traits to create associations and solutions for the problem:

  • Make the handles longer and articulated like an elephant’s trunk to make it easier to achieve the required angle.
  • Increase the blade thickness to reduce impact of approach angle.
  • Create a guild mechanism that engages the vein exterior and may then be adjusted to modify angle of approach prior to cut.

Phrase 3: How would (insert famousperson’s name) solve this problem?

Associations are then formed between the selected person (fictional, living or dead) and the problem in question. The characteristics of the person are also listed. These associations and characteristics are used to ideate similarly to the previous two phrases.

How would Oprah Winfrey solve this angle of approach problem?

A list of well-known traits of Oprah could include:

  • Industrious
  • Hard working
  • Compassionate
  • Uses experts
  • Smart

These traits lead to the following ideas:

  • Use experts to redesign the device.
  • Find an alternate technology for cutting and clamping.
  • Find a way to achieve the objective that may not require the cut and clamp functions.


These techniques, under the forced analogy methodology umbrella, allow problem solving teams to create solution concepts based on non-typical associations. This is critical – otherwise the problem solvers will create solutions similar to those they typically create, which does not expand the search space or increase the likelihood of finding the ideal solution. Psychological bias is not defeated naturally. Methods like forced analogy are important as they give problem solvers constructs that may be used to defeat psychological inertial predictably.

About the Author:

Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) or visit