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. Bell’s engineers modeled their telephone network after the human being’s self-healing circulation system. If there is a problem with the human being’s circulatory system, the circulation will go around it. Similarly, 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.

When you find something that works in one domain, look for ways to apply the idea in other domains. John Davis, a chemist in Bloomington, Ill., knows that if you keep concrete vibrating it won’t set up before you can use it. It will still pour like a liquid. Researching the internet, he discovered that oil freezes in Alaskan storage tanks, a seemingly unrelated problem. He figured out that devices that keep concrete vibrating can be adapted to keep oil in Alaskan storage tanks from freezing. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, Alaska, paid him $20,000 for his idea.

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.

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.

Underwater construction was made possible by observing how shipworms tunnel into timber by first constructing tubes. Suppose you wanted to find a new way to handle home trash.

What objects, events or patterns in nature can you use to develop your idea?

– What happens to leaves in the woods?

– How do animals handle their waste?

– How do insects handle waste? Birds? Reptiles?

– How does nature handle volcanic ash?


(1) Select one and make an analogy between it and your problem. Describe the analogy in as much detail as possible. List all the similarities and connections that you can. List similar differences.

EXAMPLE. RCA/Whirlpool engineers wanted to find a new way to handle home trash. They asked what animal handles its own waste most efficiently? Cows were inefficient, but goats were very efficient. Their waste comes out in a dry, well-contained solid form, much like an encapsulated pellet.

(2) Try to force a connection between all the items on your list and the problem. Allow yourself to free associate from the items to other ideas as well.

EXAMPLE. The idea of “encapsulating waste” led to the development of the Trash Masher, the first of a line of trash compactors.

A chemist had the task of improving seed corn. Corn had to planted during pleasant weather for it to prosper. This chemist thought of how humans keep their bodies comfortable in all kinds of weather because they wear clothing. Heavy clothing  in the winter and shorts in the summer. The image of clothing inspired him to think of synthetics, including polymers. This led to his idea of intelligent polymer seed coatings, which shift properties as conditions change. The seeds can be planted in any weather or season. They lie protected and dormant when it’s cold outside and sprout as soon as the soil reaches the right growing temperature.


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 closeC 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 combination of all three with his challenge stirred  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 encouraged more building of decks and the lumberyard became highly profitable.

Geniuses have a remarkable eye for resemblances and cues between two subjects in different worlds. The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, who shook the world with his theory that genes control culture, based his seminal theory of sociobiology on his observations of ant behavior in the insect world. When Gregor Mendel humbly presented the results of his experiments with plants to the Brun Society for the study of natural diseases, there was no interest at all in the matter. The genius of this simple work and the fact that the tremendously important science of genetics had been born meant nothing to the audience who thought they were listening to yet another careful gardener with his pet gardening theories. It was many years before the report was rediscovered and given its full importance. Some of the insights into genius come, paradoxically, from studies of mentally retarded people. It seems that mental retardates are unable to recognize similarities and cues and make appropriate connections from one world to another.

In Arizona a man has been known to walk around handing out large tickets that say, “DO YOU WANT TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?” Generally, this gets people’s attention. So does the idea behind it: a lottery system that he hopes will someday increase voter turnout by offering a financial incentive to show up at the polls.

Here’s how it would work: Each person’s vote would count as a lottery ticket. At the end of each election, one ticket would win $1 million. If two million vote in the next election as they did in the past presidential election, the odds of winning (1 in 2 million) would be far better than current Powerball odds (1 in 146 million). The voting jackpot would come from the state’s unclaimed lottery fund. It’s surprising but a lot of people forget to pick up their lottery winnings. Enough for $2.7 million every two years.

With the $1.7 million remaining after the jackpot, he proposes 1,700 prizes of $1,000 each. “That would increase the odds of winning something to about 1 in 2,500,” he says, “which is pretty good.” And since socioeconomics plays a big part in voter turnout, he says, good odds like those will get new voters to the polls. “Today, it’s the poor and minorities who vote in the lowest numbers,” he says. “The nonvoters are usually people working two or three jobs and struggling to pay the bills.” It’s fraudulent to buy someone’s vote for a specific candidate, but there’s no law against offering financial incentives to vote for whoever you want, as long as the state is the one making the offer.  

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