Synectics is the basis of creativity since all creative action is based on the conjugation of previously existing ideas or things to give rise to a completely different original product. In fact, the word synectics has its origin in the Greek word synectikos which means “The union of different and apparently irrelevant elements”. It began to be part of the vocabulary of creativity specialists when William Gordon, in 1961, published the book Synectics.
Synectic thinking, therefore, is the process of discovering the connections that link seemingly unconnected elements. It’s a way to disarm things mentally and rejoin them to get a new perspective that can be applied to all kinds of problems.
Companies, scientists and inventors have turned to synectics. This technique has inspired ideas to create Pringles fries, magnesium-impregnated bandages, disposable diapers, space-saving Kleenex and many other innovations.
What is synectics?
The question of what synectics is doesn’t have a linear answer since it is a theory and a method at the same time. As theory, it has an eminently operational sense since it studies the creative process and the psychological mechanisms of the creative activity with the aim of increasing the chances of success in the solution of problems. As a method, synectics is a structured approach whose purpose is providing a repeatable procedure that can increase the chances of achieving creative solutions.
The principles of synectics
William Gordon, a psychologist and co-creator of the problem-solving approach based on synectics, developed three fundamental precepts on which he based his theory:
- People can be more creative if they understand the psychological processes that are at the base of creativity.
- In the creative process the emotional component is more important than the intellectual one, and the irrational side more important than the rational one.
- To increase the chances of success in the creative process, you must understand and work together with the emotional and irrational elements.
Gordon recognized a leading role to metacognition in synectics, as well as the emotional, irrational and unconscious elements in the creative search. However, we can’t forget that in no case these are separated from logical or convergent thinking, which is responsible for ensuring that creative ideas can be put into practice. The brightest idea will go out if we don’t find a way to concretize it.
The psychological mechanisms of synectics
From these basic theoretical principles emerged the two most interesting elements that constitute the true essence of synectics in practice:
- Making known the unknown.
- Making unknown what is widely known.
Gordon himself summed it up in one sentence: “Trust in things that are alien and alienate the things you trust.” With this he wanted to emphasize the importance of being alienated from the original problem, feeling comfortable with the novelty, so that new solutions emerge. In fact, synectics fosters our ability to deal with complexity, uncertainty and apparent contradictions. It frees our irrational thinking, unlocks the creative process and lets the unconscious flow.
How does it do it? Through a guided psychological process:
- Attachment/Detachment. It is the first state when we face a problem. We discover its existence, interact with the different elements and develop an emotional resonance, a kind of attachment to the situation. In the detachment phase we must do just the opposite, assume a psychological distance from the problem.
- Deferment. In this phase we must look for different perspectives and points of view before trying to reach a solution. That way we avoid going too fast and making a bad decision.
- Speculation. In this phase we leave our irrational mind free so that it can propose all kinds of solutions. Since it’s not a new problem, it is likely that our unconscious was already working on the solution, so sometimes we just have to make sure that our rational mind doesn’t silence it.
- Autonomy of the object. It’s about assessing, among all the possible solutions, the one that is most appropriate for the problem and for us. In this phase we must allow rational and convergent thinking to take over again.
Synectics plays with analogies because the ability to perceive similarities is one of the most important aspects of cognition. It’s crucial for recognition, classification and learning and plays an essential role in creativity.
– Personal Analogy. With this synectics technique what is intended is identifying ourselves personally with the problem or with its elements. The simplest way to put it into practice ask ourselves the question: If I were…? This produces an imaginary fusion between the person and an object or situation. This fusion allows a look from within. For a few moments we come out of our skin and imagine being that object or situation. So we approach the problem from another point of view and we can acquire new knowledge that allows us to find a solution.
– Direct Analogy. This synectics technique is very simple since it seeks to establish all kinds of comparisons between facts, knowledge, technologies, objects or organisms and others, which have some degree of similarity. It begins with simple comparisons between similar objects and then progresses towards more abstract concepts. The power of this technique lies in the fact that when we free our non-rational mind, we will begin to generate our own analogies and detect similarities between remote and apparently disconnected objects or ideas.
– Symbolic Analogy. This mechanism is also called “Book Title”. It means formulating very compressed statements with a poetic sense based on a given problem. The procedure consists of selecting a key word related to the problem and asking ourselves what will be its essence, to then try experiencing or feeling the meanings discovered. Finally, we have to integrate that whole web of meanings and feelings into one or two words as if it were a book title. These expressions, sometimes poetic, sometimes paradoxical, have the virtue of integrating very different realities, opening a new field of discussion and possible solutions.
– Fantastic Analogy. With this mechanism, all forms of logical and rational thinking are isolated, and complete freedom is given to fantasy. Starting from a specific problem, this freedom usually leads us to the open expression of disjointed thoughts and many times totally alien to common sense. This leads us to imaginary solutions that are outside the universe of the possible, but can lead to concrete and realizable answers. It’s simply a matter of not getting stuck and thinking the ideas that come to mind are too bizarre or impossible.
At first, these ideas may seem outlandish, but with practice they gradually open us to a new world of vast experiences and perceptions because they help us break the psychological inertia that keeps us trapped in conventional ways of thinking. And if they don’t work, we can always resort to triggers.
10 synectics triggers to boost creativity
Sometimes, when the problem is very complex, when we’re emotionally involved or the solution doesn’t convince us at all, it helps resorting to a series of triggers that aim to transform a small part of the problem to completely free the creative mind.
- Subtract. Eliminate or simplify some part of the solution or problem.
- Repeat. Duplicate parts of the solution to take it to the next level.
- Combine. Mixes different perspectives, however dissimilar, to give rise to a new one.
- Add. Add elements, so that your solution is more solid or original.
- Transfer. Move your perspective to a completely different situation and analyze how that change can help you improve the solution.
- Replace. Take an element of the problem or the solution and replace it with another one that is more interesting to you, although apparently it doesn’t have any relationship.
- Change the scale. Imagine what would happen if you suddenly changed the size of the problem, if it became huge or very small.
- Fragment. Take parts of the problem and look for a solution. How could that solution help you solve the rest of the problem?
- Fantasize. Let your fantasy fly and imagine that you have solved the problem as if there were no obstacles. What would be the perfect solution?
- Animate. Imagine that the problem is a real person. How would he behave? What solutions could he propose?
Schild, K. et. Al. (2004) How to use analogies for breakthrough innovations.International Journal of Innovation and Technology Management; 02(03): 331-347.
López Pérez, R. (1999) Prontuario de la creatividad. Santiago: Bravo y Allende.