Metaphor, Analogy & Simile Exercise

Posted on by Brandon Klein

Synectics is a group problem-solving process that involves the use of metaphor, analogy or simile. The synectics method incorporates principles and techniques of problem-solving that we often apply in designing DesignTeam assignments, and thus is a valuable area of study.

The root meaning of synectics is “the joining together of apparently different and irrelevant objects.” The techniques are aimed at changing participants’ thinking (stepping out of their conceptual “box”), and “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” For example, in a synectics exercise, you may ask participants to use imagination or fantasy to look at a situation from a radically different frame of reference. For example, by giving “things” autonomy or life:
• Imagine your organization as a living being, having sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and goals just like a person. Dialog with the organization. What’s important to you? Where is your attention? How do you feel? What do you want? Treat your organization as a participant in designing a mutually-satisfying solution to the current situation.
• Define the problem you seek to solve, and imagine yourself literally becoming that problem. Give it life, awareness, feelings, emotions. Explore your world and its potential. Or by exploring a direct analogy:
• How is your organization’s situation like NASA’s in the early 1960’s, when it had the challenge of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade? Or a graphic analogy:
• In what ways is your organization like a tree?  

Synectics exercises “make the strange familiar” by comparing something hard to understand with something familiar or “make the familiar strange” by comparing it to something unexpected or from an unexpected vantage point. The full method involves (at a minimum) the stages of problem definition (examining initial viewpoints, criticizing assumed relationships and restating the problem), taking on a new viewpoint (finding and applying a useful analogy clearly “detached” from your normal view of the problem, and assessment (gathering the insights the exercise provided). As James Adams points out in Conceptual Blockbusting, “It is difficult to walk up to a group of strangers and tell them to think more playfully. However, it is possible to assign the rules and rituals of synectics to them and they will think playfully in such a disciplined way they may not even realize they are doing so.”

To see a problem or situation “fresh.” To uncover hidden design assumptions by looking at the situation differently. To use both right brain and left brain modes of problem solving, integration and resolution.

Strengths — Provokes new thinking. Provides stretch/challenge. Provides structure that allows for play and innovation. Format is a very adaptable: the principles can be applied to many situations. Synectics is well documented and well tested. Weaknesses — Can be overused. Looks easier than it is — specific challenges need to be well honed and rigorous in order to be effective.

York: Harper & Row, 1961); The Universal Traveler: a Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem-Solving and the Process of Reaching Goals, Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall, (Los Altos, CA: Crisp Publications, 1991); Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, Edward de Bono, (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); Conceptual Blockbusting, James L. Adams (Redding, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990). See also: Analogy; Living Systems.

Also see other Metaphor examples