Genius is often marked by the ability to imagine comparisons and similarities and even similar differences between parallel facts and events in different fields or other worlds. Why is X like Y? If X works in a certain way, why can”t Y work in a similar way? Alexander Graham Bell observed the comparison between the inner workings of the ear and the movement of a stout piece of membrane to move steel and conceived the telephone. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, in one day, after developing an analogy between a toy funnel and the motions of a paper man and sound vibrations. Moreover, the way buzzards kept their balance in flight served as an analogy for the Wright brothers when maneuvering and stabilizing an airplane.

Like a spark that jumps across a gap, an idea from one world is used to create a new idea or  creative solution to a problem in another world. The idea that the solar system is continually restored came to Pierre-Simon Laplace, the brilliant French astronomer, when he considered the body’s self-healing system. Many years after Laplace’s insight, Bell engineers developed a technology designed to be a self-healing communication system based on a similar analogy with the human being’s circulation system. When important telephone arteries are damaged or cut, the system will pump phone service through new channels, keeping communications alive. The self-healing network links each central office with optical fiber cable in a loop. Next, the central offices are equipped with a special switch, a special device that duplicates signals and sends them in opposite directions on the ring, ensuring that at least one arrives even if there is a problem. If there is a problem, like the human being’s circulatory system, the system is designed to go around it.

Your mind is lying in wait for some cue or suggestion that will initiate thinking about your problem in a different way. When you use analogies between your subject and a subject in another world you produce cues and hints that will make novel combinations and connections more likely. Philo Farnsworth’s interest in farming gave him the cue that led to television. One day, while sitting on a hillside in Idaho, he observed the neat rows in a nearby farm. The neat rows inspired the idea of creating a picture on a cathode ray tube out of rows of light and dark dots. He was 14 at the time, and the next year he presented the concept at a high-school science fair, and he also demonstrated the first working model of a television set when he was 21.

When you imagine comparisons and similarities between dissimilar subjects and events in different worlds, your mind will struggle to look for cues and suggestions to make the  comparisons meaningful. For example, suppose I want to improve the common flashlight and decide to look in another world for ideas. I look in the world of automobiles  and choose the specific act of replacing a flat tire. Next I draw an analogy between improving a flashlight and replacing an automobile tire What cues can we find in the world of replacing a tire to help us improve the flashlight?

First,  describe what’s involved in replacing a damaged tire. For example:

1. Read the automobile manual on how to replace the tire.

3. There is no external power source, so you have to manually crank the jack.

4. The jack is collapsible.

5. The tire tread indicates usage and damage.

6. Most tires are guaranteed for so many miles.

6. Spare tire is a temporary donut tire.  

The descriptions no external power source – must manually crank and collapsible are all cues that inspired the invention of the eternal flashlight ( a flashlight that doesn’t require an external power source). The light has a collapsible crank which you unfold and rotate. The cranking creates an electrical charge, which is sent to a mini-generator. Cranking the flashlight for 30 seconds will create 15 minutes of light.

Other ideas inspired by the analogy between flashlights and replacing tires  are:

1. Place first aid pamphlets in flashlights. (from automobile manual)

2. Design a flashlight with a storage area for spare batteries (from spare tire).

3. Incorporate a color strip in the flashlight that changes color as the batteries discharge over time to indicate when to replace them (from tire tread indicates usage).


This is a structured technique that helps you imagine comparisons and similarities and even similar differences between subjects in other worlds. The guidelines are:

(1) State your challenge.

Example: A lumberyard owner stated: “In what ways might I sell more lumber?”

(2) Choose  key words or phrase in the challenge.

Example: “sell.”

(3) Choose a parallel world or distant field. The greater the distance the parallel world is from your challenge, the greater the chances of producing new thoughts and ideas. A business analogy to a business challenge is too close. Analogies from television or cooking might be more likely to stimulate creative thought.

Example: The field selected for the challenge of selling more lumber was “computers.”

(4) List the images and thoughts that you associate with your chosen parallel world, then choose one or more of the particularly rich ones. Listing images will allow you to describe the analogy in as much detail as possible.

Example. Among the images evoked by the computer field are: science, multi-uses, user-friendly, hardware, software, add-ons, computer-aided design, computer schools, business uses, and recreational uses.

(5) Draw analogies between the images and your subject. Look for similarities and connections. Generate as many associations as you can.

Example. The lumberyard owner looked at a number of connections between the images and his challenge of selling more lumber, ultimately discarding most of them. The final images he focused on were: Computer-aided design (CAD), computer add-ons and recreational uses.

He combined and connected these three concepts with his challenge of selling lumber, stirring an idea. The idea: Use CAD to design backyard decks. Provide a computerized system in the lumberyard where salespeople can design decks to customer’s specifications. You would have a user-friendly kiosk with a large video screen and easy-to-use controls that the salesperson would manipulate. The customer explains the deck’s size and the number of stairways needed, and selects railings and spindles. The system could then design it from the ground up and calculate the cost. If the cost is too high, the customer can change the dimensions. Once the price is right, the computer could print out the diagrams and full instructions. This free service would encourage more building of decks and the lumberyard will sell more lumber.

The parallel world should be something you know about, and you should use a specific object, situation, event, or example from that world. For instance: “The NFL football team, the San Francisco Forty-niners,” will make a much more fruitful analogy than “football.” A specific dance movement is much more fruitful than ballet. The more details you can record, the better. If you choose “restaurants,” choose a specific, familiar restaurant.

This technique is one of hundreds of creative thinking techniques in my book CRACKING CREATIVITY that inspire creativity.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: