Solve your problems creatively using Synectics concepts

We are all interested in solving problems fast and coming up with great new ideas to bring about the future we want. As mentioned in the last post, Synectics is a fairly robust and proven approach for problem stating and problem solving. However, its nuances can be difficult for people to follow especially if people are used to traditional ways of working or need to feel safe within a more defensible thinking environment.

Why take something that exists and make it new?

A work colleague asked me why re-craft what already exists? My answer was that the language used between the textbooks differ, people I spoke to found it awkward thinking between ideas, goals and solutions. Lastly, the language of excursions and absurd thinking was limiting in a conservative work context.

The next question was what is the difference between standard SNAP and this approach? My response was that SNAP is designed to make framing a direction fast – in this sense we use the tool as it is, we just add a creative overlay for generating ideas about ‘how we are going to get there’ moments. The combination allows any ideas generated to be anchored or aligned to our overall aims. People who facilitate will appreciate this in compressed time frames.

So why have I done this?

  • To give you the benefit of structure or process to your work, especially if you are working within a group.
  • Some degree of flexibility to dart around the place, yet be anchored to the task and think creatively without losing sense of where you are supposed to be going towards.
  • Allow you to be guided as its not going to be possible to have a ‘facilitator’ all the time.

The next step for me is to convert this variation into a tool or template you can use. First, some points about:

  1. Use of the Canvas to shape questions
  2. Run through of the Synectics method
  3. Application to our SNAP and Canvas tools

SNAP and Canvas help frame and reframe

I use the Canvas (twin triangles) to help formulate questions that let me focus on what is the gist of the problem and outcome I am dealing with. Each point represents a notion about the problem (left) and about the outcome (right).  Because it is quite a simple tool – it helps you concentrate on the main aspects in the shortest possible time. SNAP however is another basic tool I use that helps me focus on developing a narrative that describes the broad business direction (I’ve described SNAP in another post).

If used correctly, both tools give you a type of standard pattern questioning to define a problem within a context and the people that it affects. SNAP helps you focus direction, the Canvas on the questions you could ask. I’ll be using these tools in the example, so don’t worry too much if this doesn’t make sense now.

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Priming the general regions for problem framing and re-framing using the Canvas. (click to enlarge)

As a quick refresher – in the first triangle, each point could be seen as a set of layered questions that centre on stakeholders, problems and the context in which it occurs or is known. When looking at a problem from a persons point-of-view, you’ll start to elicit the beliefs or values of a person, why or how they perceive it to have occurred to them and the context they experience it in.

This gives us the ingredients of ‘perspective’ (beliefs or ideas of the problem) and ‘perceptions’ (views or how they see it). The third element using our triad system is to understand how to solve it as ‘positioning’ (where they are with respect to it). You could think of this as how you wish to reposition yourself towards this future space and how you’ve come to be in this problem space or position to begin with.

On the second side of our ‘question generating canvas’ are the new concepts (ideas and insights required to resolve) that arise from this ‘re-position’, the required activities, functions or things that ought to be done to get these results become ‘purpose’ (things with relevant meaning and use) and ‘placement’ refers to how the solution must sit (within current constraints and rules).

These are like your boundaries.  On a side note, rules are an interesting thought, when shifting our thinking. We can look at it as ‘where you could be placed within or outside of the rules and policy settings’.  This for instance is a great creative thinking opportunity to be disruptive as you think about breaking the constraints.


Synectics run through

I’ll step you through my best understanding of the Synectics approach as written by Gordon, Prince and Hicks. Michael Hicks incidentally spent much time with the successors of this approach and received first hand insight into the method. Not exhaustive, the main parts are:

1. Problem as given – This is a brief account of the events leading to recognition of a problem by the problem-owner. We are to be mindful that this is not the best description of the problem necessarily or cautious not to be complacent that this is where we should be starting from. In the facilitation the key is not to dwell too much on this as to create limitations or force a solution on the working group.

2. Task Headline – The workshop leader writes up the problem-owners immediate quick view of an ideal solution or outcome. I.e., if the problem was “our company needs to change greatly to meet the demands requirements of the future, why can’t our people see this? To ‘how to convince my colleagues of the need for change?’

3. Headlines – Goals direction – This is a part where the work group look at the problem in different ways to think about solving it. There are some variations listed by Hicks being:

  • Goal orientation: descriptive because what we are trying to do is view the problem situation in a number of ways, so that we look for a solution in the most appropriate direction.
  • Goal Wishing: stress that speculation wishing is permitted and desired
  • Springboards: reinforces the idea that we are looking for launching places from which to take off.

The working group is encouraged to suspend their judgement and support the problem-owner and facilitator or workshop leader. It is important that these ways of looking at the problem are goals that are stated as ‘how to…’ and ‘I wish…’ statements. It is noted by all three authors that these prefixes provide positive direction and allows making associations that promote creativity. They also talk about Springboards can be thought of as problem redefinitions.

Any new goal or idea to resolve the problem is referred to as Headlines. Any person that raises the item must give a small amount of clarification or background to the suggestion. This gives others in the group insight into what their thinking is and can spark off in other people’s minds new ideas. These ideas can come from the original problem description, connections or building on from existing ideas.

4. Selection – The problem-owner needs to go through this list (headlines) and pick several that are known to be feasible, novel and appealing. This is known as NAF and serves as a type of criteria. There are things that the problem-owner and leader can do:

  • Identify obvious ideas and actions for doing immediately
  • Treat interesting but difficult ideas as a springboard for generating new ideas (I.e., how might we bring this about?). This is like doing a second springboard exercise
  • If the ideas seem difficult but the leader or problem-owner wishes to pursue it, the group can use personal, direct or symbolic analogies. Otherwise you could use imagined analogy (excursion). This done by creating some word associations to the original headline and make up a story:
    • Each person takes turns to add to the story
    • Use words within the association to inspire additions to the story
    • When finished, group reflect on aspects of the story and think of absurd solutions to the original problem
    • Give ‘I wish…’ statements for headlines and provide explanations
    • Problem-owner selects some absurd solutions; group then finds ways to make into practical whilst retaining the concepts. This can occur through revising into more appropriate ‘I wish…’ statements and give some explanation to the rest of the group.

5. Itemised Response – The problem-owner gives responses to the ideas by referring to the idea in the following areas:

  • Giving plus or positive points toward the idea,
  • Provide a concern about the idea,
  • Give or accept ideas from the group for overcoming the concern
  • Repeat for each concern
  • Hone in on a possible solution

6. Devise next steps to action these and gain commitment.

How to apply to our tools (SNAP and Canvas)

Here I am going to try showing you how to use the SNAP and Canvas tools with the Synectics problem-stating and problem-solving mindset. This demonstrates its utility in framing and re-framing our thinking in a structured manner. I will go through each point from the Synectics run through so you can draw parallels. So using the SNAP and Canvas tools, we get:

1. Problem as given

We ask for the stakeholder or person to give us an account of the problem as they see it. We want to understand the basics of their point of view and not too much detail. The Synectics approach asks for “events leading to recognition” of the problem.

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Using first triad of the Canvas to start framing problem (click to enlarge)

We use the first triangle to help us elicit some early information of the problem by helping us devise the following questions about when the problem is known, who is affected and the nature of it, where does it exist or occur?

These can refine as you need to, giving different views of the problem each time.

If you’re not getting close to understanding what the problem as given is, add the extra level of questions to complete the first attempt at framing the problem. This collection should give you a sense of the current situation. Its up to the team or working group to come up with their own type of questions, but use the prefixes as a guide.

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Additional questions to help frame (click to enlarge)

What you get that corresponds to the Synectics early questions are:

  1. When type of questions describe the relevant events of the problem
  2. Why type of questions give some background explanation or view points to the problem
  3. Where type of questions give context and boundary
  4. How type of questions give some background explanation or view points to the problem
  5. Who type of questions give rise to shaping the affect of the problem based on the stakeholder
  6. What type of questions describe the values and importance as experienced by the stakeholder

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This gives us a more fuller sense as how to anchor the current situation – in other words ‘where are we now’ in our SNAP tool.

2. Task Headline

This aspect is concerned with quickly identifying or determining the immediate ‘off the cuff’ problems the owner is happy to state. In using our SNAP tool, we would use ‘P’ and would look like:

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An important aspect of explaining succinctly what the stakeholder really wants is the motivation behind it all. So, we will add our part of the tool that aims to get the problem-owner to square it for us: ‘what is the benefit they are seeking or at least the logic behind wanting this future place?’ This will help us quickly link the current situation and proposed future. We have to be careful not to constrain the problem-owners view because this may inadvertently censor some nuance that is relevant to the owner and not the group. At least it creates a good narrative to use later.

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3. Headlines goal direction

Here the Synectics method asks us to raise immediate ideas about goals that could address this issue or problem and perhaps how we might get to our future destination. At this point it is like a brainstorm, but not so free-form that we get away from the task at hand. How do we achieve this task headline asked of us? This is really our challenge isn’t it? The ones that other designers use ‘How might we…‘ in order to shift our thinking to creatively dealing with overcoming our issues rather than dwelling on the problem. Synectics uses the terms ‘How to…‘ and ‘I wish…‘ in their method back in the 50’s and 60’s.

Keeping in mind that some ideas can be obvious to us or not. We can look at this in our SNAP method with ‘N’ for things we ought to address now.

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You could also think of this as unrestrained and unjudged view of ‘N’ ‘now what we can do’ as opposed to ‘how’ just yet. In essence, these give rise to qualifying where our simple ideas can fit – we begin with giving placeholders to them and for tougher ones is where Synectics terms springboards and we’ll work with these later.

4. Selection (and building on it)

If any of these ideas can be used immediately and are obvious, then the leader will park them to be pursued as action items to be done by specific people etc. In the SNAP method, we can refer to it as ‘A’ actions as to how we will address this problem or need. Each ‘N’ should have more than one ‘A’ associated to it. This can also serve as the basis for the planning component in strategy to support the repositioning in strategy.

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As we are using this as an anchor for our thoughts, we should be cautious when listing ‘A’ or our actions, that we align them to the benefit we are after and the outcome we are seeking. Think of the ‘A’s as producing outputs. The collection of these should get us to our outcome. It is useful to consider for each ‘A’ action the following aspects:

  • Concepts – the terms for broad things we need or capabilities to address our solution
  • Actions or Interventions – the activities pursued to collectively achieve the solution
  • Resources and Constraints – the limitations and assets we have to work within our solution

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What if there are other meritorious ideas which are interesting and don’t seem possible in our current situation? Using our second triangle from the canvas we get to use a range of questions to help us redefine the problem goal headline as the Synectics author referred to it.

Now our basic second triangle is outcomes based. It shapes the concepts we have of our solution, the actions we might need to make or take, and the resources we have or situation we are constrained by. If we are getting stuck in this immediate phase of creating things to do in getting closer to a good solution, then we jump into treating the ideas as springboards and jump by asking these questions:

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First set of re-framing questions to spark inquiry and shift our view of the problem and goal (click to enlarge)

Each of these questions use prefixes that help to re-frame the question in a way that helps the mind reorient towards the ideal solution. Equally the mind can start thinking about possibilities or alternatives to our immediate mental barriers. It will trigger new ideas that could be used in ‘N’ and then onto ‘A’ provided the leader and problem-owners are happy with it.

Now if these aren’t obvious at this stage, we need to move into the excursions that is characterised by various forms of analogy. Again, Synectics uses four types of analogous thinking I can find:

  • Personal Analogy
  • Direct Analogy
  • Symbolic Analogy (Metaphors)
  • Imagined Analogy (Absurd thinking or Fantasy)

The use of analogous thinking helps with the next use of this tool, which is to shift our thinking. The use of how might, where would, why can’t and what if gives us a prod to keep our thinking moving along and not judge or stop before we get to a good conclusion.  The first three types can work well with these re-framing questions. The use of imagined analogous thinking will provide us these bigger shifts:

  1. How might and Where would / else questions give rise to ‘shifting in context’
    • you ask where would/ else first to shift your mind out there, then how might to bring the element back to overcome your point.
  2. Why not and when would / could questions give rise to ‘shifting in time/space or circumstances’
    • you ask when would / could questions first in shifting out to other known examples, then why not to challenge the concept of time in our own problem area.
  3. What if and who should /ought questions give rise to ‘shifting in values and meaning’
    • you ask who should/ ought questions first to shift our thoughts to characteristics, attributes of qualities that have worked, then what if to rethink possibilities in our own relationships

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When you think about it, the use of analogies allows merging or connection to other ideas or elements borrowed from other known references. In some cases a complete shift is discoverable where what is previously impossible can become possible. The differences between the types considered here are:

  • The personal, direct and symbolic analogies used as an excursion by the leader can benefit from this second layer of thinking. The facilitator would use in your sessions these points to help encourage different thinking patterns.
  • The imagined analogy or absurd thinking allows us to move entirely from what is possible or reasonable in order to allow us to borrow and bring across things we would not have imagined possible through shifts. We are literally shifting our thinking into a new area, square, box or boundary.

5. Itemised Response

In the canvas example in my text, I talk about the G-goals and R-results on either side of both triangles. Using the itemised response session and knowing what the group would have gone through, this is an opportunity to really assess as analysts and designers something like:

  • G being a process of reframing “are these the goals we really wanted?”, are they close to the original headline.
  • R being the results that we should re-evaluate “was this the outcome we are really interested in or the benefits we first thought of?”.

This last dialogue is useful for the stakeholder. We are adding a new type of benefit or value they didn’t consider earlier. This gives a novel way to prioritise the ideas through Newness, Appeal and Feasibility as we are opening up our stakeholders to other benefits they may not have conceived of earlier.

6. Devise next steps

In our framework, this could be the measure or KPIs we would consider.

Next Steps

Appreciate there is much to digest here or parts might be a little confusing. I’m going to run this through an example problem and present some novel ideas through the use of this adapted method. I will also include creative commons tools or templates to go with this. If you are interested in any of this please get in touch with me. Stay tuned…

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