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Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 34: Synectics


Around the same time in the 1940s that Alex Osborn was developing brainstorming, W. J. J. Gordon was investigating the psychology of problem-solving. He was later joined by George Prince at consultants Arthur D. Little where they developed the basic principles of what was called ‘Synectics’. In the manner of warring gurus, they later disagreed and both left to set up rival versions of the process (although for this article, the differences are too subtle to trouble with).

‘Synectics’ was derived from the Greek word ‘synektiktein’ meaning the joining together of different items and reflects the early discovery of the synergistic effects of ‘banging things together’ where the creative equation of A + B = C illustrates how new ideas can be created from two old ideas. Synectics these days is very much alive and the methods are taught and used around the world.


So what is in Synectics?

Synectics is a big bag of tricks, developed over many years. Not surprisingly, as it is dealing with the same subject, many of the rules and techniques are similar to many other approaches. Where Synectics scores, however, is in the additional methods and principles that it adds to get around the problems of such traditional techniques as brainstorming. Thus, although Synectics sessions are often very much like brainstorming, they are supercharged with additional techniques to assist in even greater success. Some of these methods are described here.


Headlining and in-out listening

When you are giving an idea, how do you do it? In many situations, we tend to start with a preamble about the need for the idea, then give the idea itself, then add further justification. The problem comes when you look at what the listener is doing at this time. They hear your initial preamble, and, once they have got the idea, start thinking about ideas of their own. This means that just as you are giving your idea, they have ‘gone inside their heads’ and are not paying attention!!

This leads to two complementary principles. ‘Headlining’ is simply for the person giving the idea to state the idea up-front, adding clarification only if it is called for.This, of course, requires an environment of trust, which must be built before the session begins. The other method of ‘In-out listening’ is for the listener, who, when they have an idea, write it down quickly so they can return to paying full attention to what is being said, rather than rehearsing their thoughts and trying to find a space in which to interrupt with their suggestion.


The problem-owner

When brainstorming with a group of people, all of  whom have some ownership of a problem, the trouble that often occurs is that they can all fall into judgement and evaluation at various times through the process. This is simplified and sorted out in Synectics by having a single problem owner, with all other people being there to help that person solve their problem. Where those other people also have some ownership of the problem, they can ‘take turns’ at being the problem owner.

This also overcomes the problem of being blinkered by the situation and the helpers should not know as much about the problem as the problem owner, as this might lead to them becoming blinkered also. This encourages ‘wild ideas’ which, although on the face of it may appear ridiculous, may in fact not be so silly after all or may trigger other very valid thoughts.



Have you ever been in a creative session where people do not seem to be paying much attention to other people’s ideas? Springboarding is a simple method of helping to trigger other ideas through the wording of your idea. This is simply done by prefixing the statement with ‘I wish…’ or ‘How to…’. You can use other words like ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if…’ although these are longer. ‘I wish’ and ‘How to’ can also be abbreviated when written down as ‘IW’ and ‘H2’. Wishing tends to be used for more speculative ideas and ‘How to’ for more specific problems, although people also tend to have their own preferences.

Notice the difference that these suggestions have on your inclination to add to them versus adding one of your own ideas: ‘Make everyone understand’ or ‘I wish everyone understood’. The ‘I wish’ probably leads you to think more about how that may be done.

Wording ideas as springboards also acts as a psychological legitimisation as it is easier to say things like ‘I wish the parcels delivered themselves’ rather than ‘The parcels should deliver themselves.’



Have you ever been in a creative session where the ideas have dried up, yet you are sure that there are more ideas that could be found, if only you could unblock yourself somehow? Excursions are simply exercises that drive up side-roads using different techniques to find ideas off the beaten track that can be brought back and used like any other ideas.

Synectics makes particular use of analogies and metaphors, as these give you access to whole new worlds which tend to be very rich in the subject-matter areas which leads to many new ideas.

For example, when looking for ideas on how to insert components into a circuit board, you may take the principle of ‘insertion’ and take a journey into other realms, such as swords, which get inserted into scabbards and other people! Shocking subjects can be quite useful as they also jolt you out of the current rut you are in. Swords often have a groove in to allow the blood to run along and act as a lubricant. This principle could be applied to component leads, using solder flux as the lubricant, leading to full soldering through a plated-through hold.

Next month, we will look at a number of other excursions that can be used.


To discover more about Synectics, try the book ‘Innovation and Creativity’ by Synectics consultants Jonne Cesarani and Peter Greatwood, and published in the UK by Kogan Page in 1995. Another excellent book that is sadly now out of print is Vincent Nolan’s ‘Innovator’s Handbook’ (though your local library may be able find you a copy). If you want to get back to the roots of it all, the original book is call ‘Synectics’ and was written by W. J. J. Gordon in 1961.


Next time: Alarums and excursions


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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