You go through life solving problems all the time. And life keeps up a perennial fusillade of problems to work on. It's problem coffers are unlimited, it's variety astounding. It is no wonder that stress rules a human being's life.
But problem solving is not a choice. It is the very means of survival first and thereafter progress and success. You confront problems at home, work, during commute, crossing the road, buying coffee, making an online purchase and so forth. Problems permeate every walk of life. You name them and you have them. These decisions (problems may make them sound more daunting than they are) are actually choices you are making based on whatever data or rationale or emotion you use. And believe me, choices are the bane of modern life. The bewildering gamut of options at your disposal just leave you drained and more critically, confused.
Your Decision Model
It is the manner in which you collect and compile information and then make a judgement that determines the choices you make and the decisions you take. Some of us are data compulsive by nature. You ferret out every conceivable scrap of information, whether related to your purpose or not (more often, not) and then you are accosted by a mountain of data to consider. You flog to death the monetary implications and finally pick the choice that impacts the wallet the least. It is most probable that the choice you made may not have been the optimum one, it just happened to be the cheapest one (many times you think it is the cheapest one but that may not have been the case).
Then there are the impulsive decision makers amongst us. The ones who are driven by their emotions than any quantum of data. These individuals listen to what their hearts are telling them and almost always the story is one of what is "perceived" rather than reality. For these persons data and information have no role to play. Very often this approach lands them the most expensive choice but they are happy internally - they have followed their hearts, remember.
Between these two rather extreme approaches lie a variety of permutations and combinations some focusing on cold numbers while others forsaking them for gut feel and the "feel" factor.
Out of the box thinking
A much cliched and maligned approach is the out of the box thinking approach which suggests looking at alternatives in a lateral thinking manner. These are the not so obvious but effective thinking approaches to a problem. Most times they do happen to be the most creative ones.
The Forced Association technique
One of the established tenets of creativity (that includes to a great extent creative problem solving) is innovation - a new perspective, an entirely new paradigm shift. It postulates turning upside down the traditional techniques of problem solving.
Forced Association is one such creative problem solving approach. It taps into the very heart of innovation.
The human brain is extremely nimble in detecting patterns and relationships even where they do not seem to be any or are apparent to us. Utilizing this capacity of the brain, the forced association technique involves comparing disparate elements and making what is known as "forced or random association".
How does this work?
Forced Association is a technique of problem solving where you connect the problem to something which conventionally is not related to it. In a manner of speaking, you force an association. For instance, if you are trying to mobilize sales of personal computers, you connect that to say the game of ice hockey. The more unrelated the association to the problem on hand the better the chances of an unusual solution.
The brain is at its most creative phase when you are a child. But as you grow into an adult you often lose and/or stifle these tendencies. You rely instead on rules, experience, beliefs and scientific knowledge. You get guided by dogma. These are effective at dealing with existing entities, but are less useful with innovation. Forced Association overrides the logical thought processes and stimulates latent creativity.
It unearths the "not-so-obvious."
'Bisociation', is a term coined by Arthur Koestler in his book, 'The Act of Creation
', where he discusses the principle of forced association, amongst others. He combines 'bi' for two ideas and 'association'.The Process
State the problem to be solved in the form of a question and write down 10 ten points related to that problem.
Choose an element that is completely unrelated to the problem. The most powerful applications of this technique include completely different industries, sports, games, concepts and so on.
Write ten typical characteristics of this industry, sport, game or concept.
For instance, if the problem in your company is stagnating revenues in a mobile phone business, create a forced association of that with a question such as: "How would this be tackled in a Non Profit organization?" or "How would it compare with the features or elements of the game of football or tennis?"
Compare the ten points of your problem with the corresponding ten points of the forced association and go through them one by one. See if it is possible to relate any of the points from the forced association to your problem.
The forced association may not necessarily work at the first attempt, but most times it provides a definite "think outside- the-box" element that may ultimately lead to the solution. Many times, this technique will need to be modified before execution, but most importantly, one is looking for the "aha" moment of inspiration.
Real world example
Some years ago, when I was heading the Finance division of a multi-million dollar hotel property in China, I was faced with a dilemma. Due to an archaic salary scale system ( which you could not overhaul owing to relationship issues with local owners), team members of my Purchasing department had reached a ceiling limit on their salaries: where salary scales could not simply be increased without repercussions on position titles, comparison with other divisions, not to mention the probability of not being welcomed by the local owners.
Due to this, employee turnover was increasing alarmingly and I was not able to do anything on the salary front to retain those leaving. In this situation, I decided to carry out a forced- association problem-solving exercise as follows:
I wrote down the question: How can I retain people in my Purchasing department without being able to increase salaries all the time?
I then wrote 10 ten points related to this question (causes, effect, statement and so forth).
I used the game of Cricket (one of my favorites of all time) and wrote down ten typical characteristics of that game.
I created a forced association between my problem and the game of cricket.
Among the 10 characteristics that I wrote down for the game of cricket (typical features), one was: "People love to become cricketers since they could become famous personalities and give endorsements even if their regular pay was not very attractive.
This point about cricket gave me the idea to come up with non-monetary incentives that would give employees a sense of pride and fulfillment (not accompanied by any changes to salaries) so that they continue to work in the organization.
I then created a scheme in which each quarter, I would nominate one Purchasing team member to attend a merchandise fair or a vendor exhibition at company cost. This meant that the employee would travel beyond the city in which he/she lived to a fair/exhibition that lasted an entire day or even two in duration.
It worked like magic. People felt so happy that the company was sponsoring them they shared this with their families and friends with pride. In the next couple of years, employee turnover came down significantly and productivity increased tremendously.
As a bye product of the goodwill generated by this experiment and through word-of-mouth appreciation of the employees the organization came to be known in the market as a caring employer.
Let me leave you with this suggestion.
The next time you are in a jam at work or even at home or you are brain storming for ideas, try the forced association technique to come up with a truly lateral thinking solution.
You are certain to surprise yourself.