Tag Archives: Synectics

William Gordon and George Prince: Synectics

Creativity is all about having brilliant new ideas.

Go on… Have one now.

Creative ideas don’t just come to us when we want them. The whole process is mysterious, and cannot be called up on demand. Or can it?

Yes, it can. Or so said William Gordon and George Prince. If you know how to, you can find creative solutions when you need them. And their research into the creative process led them to a methodology still used today: Synectics.

George Prince & William Gordon: Synectics

George Prince & William Gordon

William Gordon

William (Bill) Gordon was born in 1919.He attended the University of Pennsylvania, but it is not clear whether he graduated. Between 1950 and 1960, Gordon led the Invention Design Group at consulting firm Arthur D Little & Co. He was, himself, a prolific inventor, with numerous patents to his name.

Synectics had its origins just after the Second World War. Gordon started studying how individuals and groups act creatively. This became more intensive and systematic, leading to him forming the Invention Design Group within Arthur D Little. There, he helped set up synectics groups within several client companies.

It was while leading this team, that Gordon met future Synectics co-founder, George Prince. With two further colleagues, they left Arthur D Little in 1960 to found Synectics Inc. There they pursued further research, developing and selling their model for how to run a creative process.

Also in that year, Gordon wrote ‘Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity‘.

However, Gordon did not remain at Synectics Inc for long. He left to found Synectics Education Systems, to promote problem‑solving and education based on the use of metaphor.

Gordon died in 2003.

George Prince

George Prince was born in 1918 and grew up in New York State. He attended college at Phillips Exeter Academy and Williams College, graduating in Geology. The second World War saw him serving as a junior officer in the US Navy, in the North Atlantic.

Upon his return, Prince joined an advertising company in Rochester, where he rose to VP. He then learned of the work of Arthur D Little’s Invention Design Group, led by William Gordon. He joined the Arthur D Little company in the 1950s to be a part of that group.

In 1960, he, Gordon and two other colleagues left Arthur D Little to found Synectics Inc (now Synecticsworld). This company researched, developed and promoted their creative problem-solving methodology, Synectics.

Prince remained with the company for most of his, life, as Chairman. In 1970, he wrote ‘The Practice of Creativity‘, which remains in print. He died in 2009.

Synectics

Synectics is a rich methodology for solving problems creatively. However, the principles are easy to grasp:

  • look for alien concepts and things that seem irrelevant, and join them together.
  • Embrace emotions over intellect, and the irrational over the rational.

In applying these principles, Gordon and Prince assumed that the creative process can be described and then taught to others. They also believed that their process, Synectics, will apply widely to different domains of endeavour and can be used by groups and individuals.

They start with a cycling between the ‘operational world’ of routines and procedures, and the ‘innovation world’ of speculation and experimentation. New solutions become more available as we move out of the reality of the operational world, and increasingly embrace fantasy, metaphor, and absurdity.

The process they articulate is at its simplest:

  1. Articulate the task.
  2. Explore options, generating radical ideas that they called ‘Springboards’.
  3. Select the best idea.  Synectics presumes a preference for newness over feasibility at this stage.
  4. Develop that idea, and how it might work in practice.
  5. Put forward your possible solution.

There is a fuller description of the Synectics Problem Solving Process in an earlier article.

Two ideas stick with me from my learning about Synectics many years ago

The first one is the use of ‘How to…’

I love the way Synectics reframes every problem as ‘how to…’ I like it because it presupposes a solution exists and therefor the problem becomes finding it.

And once a selected idea emerges, the emphasis becomes intensely practical. We work on ‘how to make it work’. We constantly articulate the challenges and problems of implementation as ‘how to…’ Each time we solve this, we can modify the trial solution until, with no further issues, we have a possible solution, worthy of putting to the test in the real world.

The second is ‘In and Out Thinking’

Often, when we are in a meeting  particularly a long one that is trying to solve a problem, our minds wander. We have ideas and thoughts that come from ‘inside’, as well as from the meeting: ‘outside’.

We can make best use of these by dividing our notebook page in two – I like to draw a vertical line. On one side, make notes about what you hear or see in the meeting – the Outside thinking. On the other, note down ideas that come from your own thoughts – the Inside thinking. Often these will be connections or distinctions, but sometimes they are seemingly random thoughts. Seemingly, because they are almost certainly triggered by something, but to you, they seem irrelevant, because you are not aware of the link.

Often, these are your Eureka moments.

The Synectics Problem Solving Process

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


As a manager, one of your responsibilities will be to solve problems. Set aside the small day-to-day problems you are constantly tackling: when you have a bigger,more challenging problem, how do you handle it? Do you have a process?

One process for structured problem solving – ideal for teams to use – is called Synectics. The methodology was developed observing many problem solving sessions by two Arthur D Little consultants,  George Prince, Bill Gordon and their team in the 1950s. The story of its development is on the Synecticsworld website.

The process has nine steps:

Synectics Problem Solving Process

1. Task Headline

Define the problem in the form ‘How to…’

2. Task Analysis

Set out why the problem exists, and its background, the oportunity before you and what you have already tried or thought of. If you have one, set out your ‘dream solution’, so that later, you can see if there are ways to break down the barriers to achieving it.

3. Springboards

Invite provocative statements and random ideas to set off creative thinking, like:

  • ‘Why can’t we…’
  • ‘I want to…’
  • ‘If only we could…’
  • ‘One idea might be to…’
  • ‘With unlimited resources, we could…’

4. Selection

Select the most appealing ideas to emerge from the Springboard, to work on further. These may be practical, visionary or intriguing.

5. Ways and Means

Look for practical steps to develop selected ideas, and ways you may be able to implement them.

6. Emerging Idea

Allow one idea to emerge as the strongest potential solution.

7. Itemised Response

Evaluate the Emerging Idea, looking for ideas for how to make it work until you identify the best way forward, if the idea were finally chosen. Test out your level of satisfaction with the idea/implementation package: is this your possible solution?

If it is not, return to Step 6 and work with a new Emerging Idea.

8. Possible Solution

State and document the Possible Solution and the associated implementation approaches.

9. Next Step

Document the actions to be taken, by whom and to what deadlines?

Further Reading

  1. The Problem Solving Pocketbook
  2. There is a host of valuable resources about Synectics on the Synectics World website.

Seven more problem solving methods in The Management Pocketblog

  1. Going round in circles: Problem Solving Simplicity
    Fisher and Ury’s Circle Chart
  2. The Fertile Mind of Edward de Bono
    The Six Thinking Hats Methodology
  3. Six Tools from Six Sigma
    Includes 5 Whys, Fishbone Analsys and SIPOC Analysis
  4. The DMAIC Solution Process
    An alternative to Synectics
  5. Go to the Gemba
    Argues for being at the right place to solve a problem
  6. Truly Radical!
    Appreciative Inquiry as a radical approach to problem solving
  7. Adapting and Innovating
    Two opposite approaches to problem solving

Adapting and Innovating

Whether at work or at play, in a social setting or alone, we all have to solve problems.  As soon as we frame something as ‘a problem’ however, we create a barrier for ourselves.

How do you go about solving a problem?

To be successful, we need to remove the barrier.  We’ll look at a simple yet powerful way later.  But let’s start with the question of how you solve a problem.  Dr Michael Kirton identified a continuum of styles that people use, when tackling problems.

Kirton_A-I_Continuum

At one end of the spectrum is an Adaptive Style.  People whose preference is towards this end like a structure within which  to solve their problems.  They will favour a formal problem solving process like the Eight Disciplines, the Simplex Method or DMAIC.

Adaptive Problem Solvers

Discipline and incrementalism characterise these problem solvers.  They like to ‘do it by the book’ and avoid taking risks.  They are less likely to find the radical solution, but also less likely to crash and burn with a way out solution that fails disastrously.

Radical solutions are more likely to be found by people who favour the Innovative end of the spectrum of styles.

Innovative Problem Solvers

Innovative problem solvers like risk, experimentation and radical solutions.  A formal process will leave them feeling constrained and all they will want to do is subvert it.  They will question anything and often do things differently just for the sake of it.  Irreverence is their middle name!

Commonly, Adaptive problem solving goes along with careful attention to detail, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, an Innovative style shuns detail in favour of a wider view.

Creativity

Innovative problem solving often looks like ‘creativity’.  This is perhaps a false equation.  Styles across the whole spectrum can be creative; the continuum helps us understand the conditions that best foster that creativity for each of us.

The Best of Both Worlds

Is there a way of working on problems that can allow people who favour both Adaptive and Innovative styles to work together and thrive.  Jonne Cesarani is an expert on helping stimulate creativity and his Problem Solving Pocketbook, may well hold the answer.

ProblemSolving Throughout the book, Jonne makes good use of a very powerful approach to problem solving, called Synectics.

Developed from observation of what does and does not work in problem-solving groups, Synectics offers a clear nine-step process for solving problems that will certainly appeal to the Adaptive thinker in any of us.

But the way that it does so is to foster stages of controlled challenge and radicalism.  It offers flexibility and a variety of tools that stimulate thinking in metaphorical, absurd and imaginary ways that will also appeal to the Innovative thinker in you.

The Nine Step Model

It is well worth checking out the nine step process, which Jonne sets out and documents extremely clearly.  As a taster, there is Step 1.

Task Headline

This is an astonishingly simple way to overcome that barrier of ‘having a problem’. In Synectics, we start by re-writing our problem in the format:

‘How to …’

What this does is focus you, right from the start, on the solution, rather than the problem.  Brilliant!

So here’s the deal

Don’t force a problem solving process on people with an Innovative style, but do offer one to people who are more Adaptive.  For teams, favour an approach that allows members to combine a clear process with the freedom to subvert it.

Other Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy