As humans, many of us have lost the sensitivity to deeper relationships and essences because we’ve become educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. For example, suppose we were asked to design a new can opener. Most of our ideas would be driven by our experience and association with the particulars of existing can openers, and we would likely design something that is only marginally different from existing can openers. If, however, we determined the essence of a can opener to be “opening things,” and looked for analogies and cues in other worlds, we increase our chances of discovering a novel idea. One example of “opening things” are pea pods. Ripening weakens the seams on a pea pod and it opens. This inspires the idea of opening a can by pulling a weak seam (like a pea pod). Instead of an idea to improve the can opener, we produced an idea for a new can design.
One of the early design problems in the space program was the problem of reentering the earth’s atmosphere without burning up. Scientists were baffled until they determined the essence of the problem. The essence of the problem was to survive frictional heating. They brainstormed and listed every conceivable possibility they could imagine that contained that essence and settled on a meteor. They studied how meteors survived frictional heating. They discovered that the frictional heat generated during entry into the earth’s atmosphere was dissipated into the heat of vaporization of the meteor surface. Consequently, an analogy between the space capsule and the meteor led to the use of a sacrificial material of the capsule surface that vaporized and thus dissipated the frictional heating.
Working with principles and essences will break you out of the habit of associating qualities with things and will expand your thinking. For example, the principle of “resonance” lies in the heart of much of Nikola Tesla’s work. Resonance describes the way in which large quantities of energy can be exchanged between such systems when their vibrations coincide. An example of resonance is a little girl pushing her brother higher and higher on a swing by timing her pushes to coincide with the natural oscillation of the swing. If the pushes are in resonance, then each impulse adds progressively. Tesla saw this principle at work in all systems in nature, for example, in the swing of the pendulum in a grandfather clock, the notes of a violin, oscillations of an electric current, the waves of a lake, etc., and used this principle as the basis of many of his inventions, including the Tesla coil, a device that turns ordinary household electric current into current at a very high voltage.
The guidelines for thinking this way are: Decide the major principle represented by your problem. What is the essence of it? For example, the essence of a new marketing strategy might be “attraction.” Namely, how are things and people attracted. Once you determine its essence, then generate a list of things from other worlds that represent the major principle. Examples of attracting are:
– Bees attracted to honey.
– Magnets attracting metal.
– Politicians attracting voters.
– People attracted to a Web site on the Internet.
– Colleges attracting premier athletes.
Select one and describe it in as much detail as possible. For example, politicians attracting voters suggest many things including the themes of values, canvassing voters door to door, and debates. Use the descriptions to suggest analogies and look for cues to stimulate ideas. For example, both major political parties campaigned on the values theme differently in presidential election. One party used the adjectives honesty, honor, and reliability; whereas the other used verbs and specific accomplishments. The campaign using verbs was the more successful with voters who identified it as proactive and action-oriented. This triggers the thought of an action-oriented marketing strategy using action verbs and specific customer benefits.
Sometimes the descriptor itself will provide the cue for an idea as it did for a group of engineers who wanted to improve the telephone. They determined that the essence of a telephone was a way of communicating. They listed several different ways of communicating including:
– With sign language.
– With nonverbal language.
– With hugs and embraces.
– Cats communicate by rubbing.
– Police use codes to communicate with each other.
The descriptor “hugs and embraces” was the cue that inspired them to invent a telephone that could actually reach out and touch you. The telephone incorporates video, audio and touch. When you press down on a pad of pins (force transducers), the pins come up at the other end of the line. Wherever you touch, or however you move your fingers, that exact same pressure and design will be transmitted to the other pad.
Thomas Edison had a particular talent for identifying the essence of a problem and then finding an appropriate analogy. For example, one of his discoveries was how to send four simultaneous messages along a telegraph wire, two in each direction at once. This was important at the time as it would quadruple the power of the telegraph without the need of having to build four times the number of wires. The essence of his problem was “flow of current,” and he looked to the world of water. He built an” analog” of the electric wire, with pipes and valves and assorted gadgets for affecting the flow of water in the pipe. Using gadgets to force water back and forth in the pattern of wires, he tinkered and ended with separating the separable features of the flow of current, sending one message controlled by one, and another controlled by another.
Like a spark that jumps across a gap, an idea from one world is used to create a new idea or creative solution to a problem in another world. The idea that the solar system is continually restored came to Pierre-Simon Laplace, the brilliant French astronomer, when he considered the body’s self-healing system. Many years after Laplace’s insight, Bell engineers developed a technology designed to be a self-healing communication system based on a similar analogy with the human being’s circulation system. When important telephone arteries are damaged or cut, the system will pump phone service through new channels, keeping communications alive. The self-healing network links each central office with optical fiber cable in a loop. Next, the central offices are equipped with a special switch, a special device that duplicates signals and sends them in opposite directions on the ring, ensuring that at least one arrives even if there is a problem. If there is a problem, like the human being’s circulatory system, the system is designed to go around it.
You can’t Google the word “vacuum” without seeing the name Dyson. Since their introduction of their innovative bagless technology, the company’s devices have become known as top-of-the-line products to suck the dust from your carpet.
Today, the company’s founder and namesake, Sir James Dyson, has an estimated net worth of $4.6 billion. Not a bad deal for someone who 20 years ago was just a guy with a game-changing idea for a better vacuum — that he couldn’t sell to a manufacturer if he tried. And trust him, he tried.
Dyson’s journey to the top of Vacuum Mountain began when he decided there had to be a way to build a better device than the popular vacuums of the day. “I started Dyson with an idea: a bagless vacuum that didn’t lose suction. It seemed so simple — bagged vacuums begin to lose suction as soon as they fill with dust,” he told New York. “So, I invented a vacuum that didn’t rely on bags, and cyclone technology meant the vacuum wouldn’t lose suction.”
The idea came to him after seeing a local sawmill which used a 30-foot-high conical centrifuge that would spin dust out of the air. The same technology, Dyson reckoned, could be shrunk down and built into a vacuum cleaner, omitting the need for a bag and ensuring the device wouldn’t lose suction and become less useful over time.
Your mind is lying in wait for some cue or suggestion that will initiate thinking about your problem in a different way. When you use analogies between your subject and a subject in another world, you produce cues and hints that will make novel combinations and connections more likely. Philo Farnsworth’s interest in farming gave him the clue that led to television. One day, while sitting on a hillside in Idaho, he observed the neat rows in a nearby farm. The neat rows inspired the idea of creating a picture on a cathode ray tube out of rows of light and dark dots. He was 14 at the time, and the next year he presented the concept at a high-school science fair, and he later demonstrated the first working model of a television set when he was 21.
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