What is it
Use known solutions to find new solutions to difficult problems.
Why use it
- Uncover novel solutions to existing problems.
- Cross-pollinate ideas from diverse domains.
- Enhance understanding of the problem by using analogies and metaphors.
- Bring diverse perspectives to bear.
When to use it
- When confronting a unique, surprising, confusing, or rare problem that does not provide a clear path to the solution.
- When standard solutions to the problem are not effective or well established.
How to do it
Define the problem in specific terms. Frame it as precisely and uniquely as possible. Use the word specific as often as possible in the problem statement, to designate various dimensions of the problem that are unique to your situation.
For example, the problem might be: “This specific satellite image file is too large to send to a specific special operations soldier in a specific location in a specific country using the specific IT link with a specific amount of bandwidth available in support of a specific mission.”
Restate the problem in general terms. Piece by piece, replace specific references with general descriptions.
For our example, we might start by saying “This generic thing is too large to send to a specific special operations soldier in a specific location in a specific country using the specific IT link with a specific amount of bandwidth available in support of a specific mission.”
- We could further generalize the problem by saying “This generic thing is too large to send to anyone over the specific IT link…”
- Continue replacing specific references with generalized alternatives, iterating the problem statement until it no longer has any specific references.
- You may end up with a problem statement that sounds something like “We have a mismatch between file size and bandwidth,” or even “This thing is too big to fit through that small aperture.”
Identify general solutions to the general problem. We have transformed the question from “How do I solve this specific challenge?” to “How does anyone solve this category of problem or this type of challenge?” The transformed question is usually much easier to answer.
When we temporarily introduce a little intellectual distance from the problem, solutions often become more visible. In our example, we may now ask “How does anyone fit a large object through a small aperture?” or even “How does anyone send anything to anyone?”
You can pass large objects through small spaces in several ways:
- Break the large object into smaller pieces
- Make the small hole larger
- Find a new access point
In the process of breaking a large object into small pieces, we may discover that some pieces are more important than others or are needed sooner, or not at all.
Reintroduce specific details from our situation, restating the general solution as a specific solution. In our example, we might note that big things can often be cut into smaller pieces, then reassembled on the other side.
The specific solution might then involve creating a mechanism for the specific special operations soldier to request a specific image chip to be delivered through their specific IT link in support of their specific mission timeline, rather than requesting the entire image in the first place.