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You use an analogy when you say that something is like something else (in some respects but not in others). For example: a jumbo jet is like an albatross in that they both fly, they both have wings, they can both travel for a long way without landing, and both can sense where they are going; but they are unlike in that they have different means of propulsion, are made of different materials, etc.

Analogies are a key feature of many approaches to creativity. For instance, they were central to the earlier forms of Synectics and they are an important element in various types of Excursion. The term bionics has been used to describe the systematic use of biological and botanical analogies to solve novel engineering problems.

Often analogies are used very informally: 'This problem makes me think of X (analogy) - that suggests to me that maybe we could try Y (idea drawn from analogy X)'. But the underlying logic will be along these lines:

  1. Identify what it is you want ideas for, and try to find a core verb phrase that captures the essential functional nature of what you are looking for - e.g.: 'How to make X'. 'How to prevent Y', 'How to speed up Z', 'How to become better at A'.
  2. For each verb phrase generate a list of items (people, situations, objects, processes, actions, places, etc.) that is 'like' it in some way - e.g. analogies to 'making X' (having a baby, making a pudding, the Genesis creation story, a robot car factory, ...etc.).
  3. Pick one of these analogies that seems interesting - preferably where the verb phrase and analogy are from different domains - e.g. a biological analogy for a mechanical problem.
  4. Describe the analogue, including active aspects (such as how it works, what it does, what effects it has, how it is used) as well as passive aspects (size, position, etc.).
  5. Use this description to suggest ideas relevant to your problem. Does the analogue have features you can use directly? Do the differences suggest other ways of looking at your problem?

Analogies can be:

  • Close / direct: A straight functional parallel e.g. selling science is like selling baked beans or the human arm is like an anglepoise lamp.
  • Fantasy: What is the image that comes into your mind if you were to solve it in your wildest fantasy or within some other cartoon / fantasy world.
  • Remote and/or surprising: 'Selling widgets' is like 'Steering an elephant'. These analogies are more likely to challenge assumptions and lead to new insights and ideas - but the parallels they suggest are unlikely to have much 'rational' status. In the extreme, they merge into the use of Random stimuli.
  • Personal / component: Here you become a component in the system. eg. if you are looking at how to get shells to more accurately hit the target, think of yourself as the tip of the shell.

Techniques of Structured Problem Solving, Van Nostrand Reinhold;