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One day, while I was working for a college, the school was closed and a day was put on for all staff and faculty, to do some professional development all at once. During the afternoon sessions I found a workshop about creative problem-solving with metaphors. It caught my interest.

The process we learned was remarkable and, according to the originators, William J.J. Gordon and George M. Prince, guarantees to provide a solution that would not have been found using other methods. It began way back in the 1950s when companies were beginning to realize that innovation was no longer something that could occur through a single person. They realized that innovation needed to occur in groups or teams. Wondering how this could be encouraged, the Arthur D. Little Invention Design Unit took tape recorders into meetings to discover how creativity and innovation happens. After analyzing the tapes, distraction from the problem turned out to be the key.

When a group became distracted from the problem, innovative solutions usually resulted. Eventually, a carefully constructed set of instructions was developed. The person who was teaching us the process, had attended a workshop with one of the developers back in the 1960s and could produce only a single page of instructions for us.

At the time, I was doing a Masters of Education with a focus on transformative learning. I wondered if this might be a transformative process, so I began to research and was finally able to develop a workshop that I could deliver based on the original process. I called it Creative Outlooks—creative problem-solving using metaphors. I delivered it to my study cohort and many times over the following years.


The process is simple. It is called Synectics, meaning, “the joining together of different and apparently irrelevant elements.” The problem with solving a problem is that one may know too much about the problem. Problem-solving, according to the developers, is the opposite of learning, which intends to take the strange or unknown and make it known. Problem-solving involves making the familiar strange. In a way, we need to forget what we know about something in order to think creatively. They came up with using analogies or metaphors to distract one’s thinking away from what they know about the problem.

What has always amazed me, and I discovered I have a knack for metaphoric thinking, is just how much we can learn about something by using a seemingly unrelated and unconnected metaphor of something else. It demonstrates the unique interconnectedness of everything in our world.

In one of the workshops I was delivering, when we came to the step where groups selected a metaphor, someone raised their hand and asked if dryer lint would work. I got it immediately as an excellent example of a metaphor that has interesting characteristics. Characteristics is the foundation of the process.

Once the group has done a brainstorming session on the problem and selected an unrelated analogy, they carefully analyze the analogy for all its characteristics. With dryer lint: it is made up of tiny pieces of other garments; it looks grey from a distance, but actually may have many colours; it is soft; it is light in weight; it is fuzzy; it comes apart easily. The list can go on for quite a length. The process even involves someone becoming the metaphor and the other group members interviewing it.

Once all the steps are done, the group then force-fits the characteristics back on to the problem with amazing new insights, results and solutions. While not all the participants are quick to catch on the process, when they do, it becomes and exciting time of imagination and creativity within the group.

We usually think of creativity and innovation as being something that is not easily prescribed. Yet Synectics is a prescription for achieving creativity and innovation in a group setting with guaranteed results. Learning Synectics gave me a new tool for looking at the world and learning new things. In the Bible, Jesus always used parables (a metaphoric story) and metaphors to teach concepts.

The Synectics research lead to many innovative learning tools. I continue to learn through metaphors and gain new insights by applying a metaphor to something seemingly unrelated.

My workshop, Creative Outlooks, works well in about 2–4 hours. This provides time to learn the process and run through a couple of problems in each group.

Gordon, William J.J. Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity. (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1961)