Similes is a powerful and effective group brainstorming method. You state the challenge and then get everyone to write down on their own sheet of paper – ‘Our problem is like…’ Each person then completes the sentence. They must do this in silence so that they are not influenced by each other’s ideas. You are looking to find a broadly similar challenge in a completely different field. So if for example your problem is in business then you would ask who has had a problem like this in warfare, sport, entertainment, transport, history, politics, education, health, research, music etc. etc.
The likenesses do not have to be accurate – they are feelings rather than exact analogies but each can act as a trigger. You then write out everyone’s simile and the group chooses the one that they think is the best analogy for the initial challenge. You brainstorm the chosen simile to find solutions for that problem. You then analyze the ideas to see if any will translate to the original problem and give a working solution there.
Let me give you an example of this in action. I ran a workshop for a group of newspaper advertising managers and one of the challenges we had was ‘How can we reduce absenteeism?’ Many of the telephone sales people would take days off in this high pressure job. We asked everyone to find a simile for this problem of absenteeism. Here are some of the suggestions we were given as to what the problem is like:
‘….getting a child to brush his teeth.’
‘….persuading undergraduates to go to lectures.’
‘….sticking to a diet.’
‘….getting the third football team to all show up for the match on Saturday.’
‘….getting teenagers to clean their rooms.’
‘….making motorists observe speed limits’
The group chose the football team simile and we brainstormed that situation. How can you get the football team to all show up for a match? Several of the ideas we came up with involved peer pressure. We then translated each idea to see if it had any applications in the original context, a newspaper advertising sales office. We ended up with a group bonus for attendance with published tables of who had been absent so far each month. The resulting peer pressure cut absenteeism significantly.
Getting a good working simile is the key to this exercise. The good news is that you only need one good simile from all those contributed by the group. Having said that, if you have time you can try more than one of the similes to brainstorm and translate. Each analogy draws on different personal experiences and each will give a different perspective and set of ideas when used in a brainstorm.
Paul Sloane leads workshops on strategy and innovation. He is the author of How to Generate Ideas.