Restructuring your problem by making it more abstract helps eliminate barriers that result from preconceived notions of what an idea or solution should be. It forces you to test assumptions and explore possibilities. Suppose you want to improve the design of the umbrella. If you work with the more abstract definition “protection from the rain,” you are more likely to explore more possibilities including raincoats or even a new type of town design where there are arcades everywhere and umbrellas are no longer required. Or, consider the bookstore owner, for example, who viewed himself as a seller of books, a specific idea. The trend toward the electronic media put him out of business. On the other hand, if he had viewed himself as a provider of information and entertainment, a more abstract characterization, a switch in the medium would not have been threatening and would have opened up new opportunities.

The mind makes ruts very quickly and even more so when it stalls and spins its wheels. Making your problem more abstract may suddenly create a space between thoughts sunken into each other because you got mired in the details of some perception. Instead of getting mired down, classifying the mite or fungus, Darwin, instead, asked the grand question “What is life?” The guidelines for using the principle of abstraction are:

1. Describe an abstract definition of your problem. What is the principle of the problem? What is its essence?
EXAMPLE: Our problem is how to protect rural designer mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The principle is protection.
2. Brainstorm for ideas on protection generally. Think of ways to protect things.
 Place in a bank.
 Rustproof it.
 Provide good maintenance.
 Get an insurance policy.
 Hide it.
3. After you have generated a number of different ideas, restate the problem so that it is slightly less abstract. Again, generate as many solutions as you can.
EXAMPLE: Think of ways to protect things that are outside and vulnerable.
 Hire a guard.
 Watch it constantly.
 Drape it with camouflage.
 Put a fence around it.
 Keep it well lighted.
4. Finally, consider the real problem. Review the ideas and solutions to the two previous abstractions and use these as stimuli to generate solutions.
EXAMPLE: The real problem is how to protect rural mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The idea triggered from “get an insurance policy” is to offer an insurance policy to owners of rural mailboxes: $5 a year or $10 for three years to cover the mailbox from theft or destruction.

Alexander Graham Bell was inspired to start development of the telephone when he read an account, written in German, describing an invention which he thought had the function of a telephone. After demonstrating his working telephone, Bell learned that, because of the language barrier, he had misunderstood the report, and the German invention had an entirely different function. The German account was the stimuli that broke his preconceived notion of a telephone and inspired him to think in a different direction. In the same way, ideas and solutions to abstract definitions will provide you the stimuli to break your preconceptions.

GROUPS. Arthur Erickson, architect, and designer uses an abstraction thinking strategy with his students to help them avoid visual and functional preconceptions and unlock creativity. For example, if he is looking for a new chair design, he will first ask his students to draw a figure in motion. Then he will ask them to build a model (wood, plastic, metal, paper) of a structure that supports that figure in motion. Finally, he will have them use the model as a stimulus for a new chair design.

Venturing into strange areas seemingly totally unrelated to your challenge will focus your attention away from the challenge and increase your chances of seeing it in an unhabitual new context. You do this by using analogies.

The stranger the analogy, the greater the distance between the challenge and the example, then the greater are the chances of achieving a unique idea. For instance, if your challenge is to improve the stamina of roses, you are more likely to see the challenge from a unique viewpoint if you look at the stamina characteristics of rattlesnakes rather than something closer to roses, such as other flowers or plants.

Following are guidelines for using this thinking strategy in a group situation to reduce their preconceptions about any problem:

Describe an abstract definition of the problem. Ask the group to generate and list solutions and ideas. A nightclub was having its debut and the owners wanted to send invitations that were clever and amusing. They worked with the following analogy: “An invitation is like an aspirin.” They made the familiar strange. How can an invitation be like an aspirin?

This forced them to search for connections and similarities between the two subjects. Some of
their characterizations were:
*Makes you feel good.
*Small pill.
*Can be combined with water.
*Nice to know you it’s available to you.
*Hard to recognize by itself.
*Comes with instructions.

The search resulted in one of the more unique invitations of the year. The idea: Make the invitation pill-like. The club sent out a blue pill nestled in a cushion in a black ring box. “Drop into warm water, stir, and let dissolve,” read the instructions on the side of the box. When the pill is immersed, the capsule dissolves and bubbles, and a piece of cellophane with time, date and place floats to the top. The invitation costs $1.10 each and the debut was a smash.

What we do when we use analogies is to dismiss momentarily all the other thoughts as we would part the grass to the right and left to find one path that leads to a new idea.

The owner of a jewelry store needed to sell more high-end items. Customers waffled at the price and had doubts about how the items would look with their wardrobes. He made an analogical connection between high-end jewelry and Barbie dolls. With Barbie dolls, children try on various paper cut-out wardrobes and jewelry. This stimulated his idea.

The idea: Paper cutouts of jewelry. He created punch-out paper cutouts of expensive jewelry, and sent the paper copies to prospective customers so they could try out the paper jewelry, at home, with their wardrobe. Once people modeled the paper cutouts, their doubts disappeared, and they came in and purchased his jewelry.

If you are hungry, to satisfy your hunger you must take some kind of action. You have to make something to eat or go to a restaurant. You cannot just sit there and expect your hunger to disappear. In order to have a chair, you have to go to the furniture store and buy one or go down to your workshop and make one. You cannot simply wish to have a chair. You have to take some kind of action. Similarly, you cannot wish to have an idea. You have to act. One action you can take is to make the familiar strange with analogies.

Michael Michalko

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