Synectics – Ideation Through Flamboyant Scribbling

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Synectics is a brainstorming method to generate out-of-the-box connections and ideas. Developing innovative ideas is all about connecting two or more things in new ways to solve your problem and create value. Most ideas have been thought of already, but they may not have been applied to the challenge at hand. This is where you come in! Synectics is also a great ice-breaker for team building activities.

Synectics combines physical movement and abstract thought to build connections between many seemingly unrelated things to develop unique solutions. These solutions may be completely ridiculous, and this is part of the fun – one person’s ridiculous idea may spark more realistic solutions for someone else to be built upon by the rest of the team for a truly innovative concept.

Synectics works best in a team up to 8 people. This write up will guide you through the steps to facilitate a future synectics brainstorming session by introducing techniques and an example challenge solved using this method.

NOTE: Method may not be suitable for all global cultures/ behavioral styles. Utilizes abstract and seemingly illogical thought processes. Very successful in USA and UK, but not in other countries. Be cognizant of cultural preferences when selecting methodologies.

The high level steps and supplies for synectics are,

High Level Steps

  1. Generate Problem Statement/ Challenge
  2. Communicate Challenge & Background
  3. Flamboyant Scribble Formulation
  4. Generate Connections & Develop Ideas
  5. Build on Ideas
  6. Down Selection

Supplies

  • Two medium sized whiteboards or flip charts (or one large whiteboard)
  • Dry erase markers (Assorted colors)

Generate Problem Statement/ Challenge

The most critical step in launching any new brainstorming workshop or initiative – define the problem. Create a succinct challenge statement that solves the problem your customers are experiencing.

This can be a multi-step or iterative process, and I recommend you check out “How Might We…“. This powerful method forces problem statements to facilitate better idea generation.

Example,

For this exercise, the challenge we’re solving is,

How might we provide unintrusive cooling to my wife while in her wedding dress?


Communicate Challenge & Background

Provide a quick 5 – 10 minute overview of the challenge. This will include introducing the challenge statement, a brief history on the product or opportunity space. This might include existing solution(s) or attempts at past solutions. Also important to include are any hard customer constraints like cost, size, weight, and any other customer key performance indicators (KPI)

Example,

For this challenge, I experienced the bride at my best friend’s wedding sitting in a corner at their wedding crying because of how hot she was in her wedding dress. The entire night, her bridesmaids we fanning her and seemed like an awful situation. Speaking with other women about their wedding experience, this evidently is a common problem!

Constraints for this challenge are: must be portable(can’t be plugged into a wall), comfortable if the solution is worn, aesthetically pleasing or out of sight, unintrusive to the wearer’s movements.


Flamboyant Scribble Formulation

Now for the fun part, or at least fun for the facilitator. The objective for this step is to generate a lot of scribbles on the whiteboard. These scribbles to be ~18 inches long and in any shape or orientation. A side objective is to break the team out of their comfort zone, and psychologically place everyone on the same level. On teams, there is often a brilliant engineer, senior leader, or general intimidating/overbearing person. Through this process, walls and barriers may drop building team camaraderie. Throughout the whole method, the facilitator will poke at people and ideas to build a fun and nonthreatening atmosphere.

Give each person a white board marker and ask them to hold up their hands to demonstrate what 18 inches looks like. (This is particularly fun with metric system countries) Instruct everyone to one-by-one draw a random scribble, but do so flamboyantly. As people begin to lazily draw scribbles, begin to pick on some folks(especially the senior leaders or influential members), and ask them to try again but “really be flamboyant”. Some improv skills could be used to continue to pressure the team – I personally like to seem annoyed or disappointing that the method is failing.

Facilitate opening up the team through scribbling by stating the below, and continue to pester the senior stakeholders while doing this. (Its a good idea to possibly give them a heads up before hand)

  • Try skipping to the board
  • Show me your best dance move as you scribble
  • Can you do it backwards?
  • Can two of you do it while linking arms?
  • You can touch other people’s scribbles…

By the end, the board should look something like below,


Generate Connections & Develop Ideas

Ask the team to, “Look into the scribbles, and tell me what you see”. Maybe sees an escalator, write the vision down and probe/ facilitate a discussion to determine what about an escalator can we use to solve our challenge? As people develop solutions, try to build on them and write all the solutions on the second whiteboard(no matter how ridiculous). When the first vision is exhausted, ask to identify another thing in the scribbles and repeat this process. I like to have a list of 30-50 ideas written down before I call it quits. Quite often you will find the first 10-25 concepts come pretty easy, the next 15 are a little more difficult, but the last 5-7 are usually the most innovative. Always push a bit more, when you feel you’ve exhausted all hope, tell the team, “we need 3 more ideas and we can call this one done.”

The team will likely slow down and find difficulty in identifying additional visions in the scribbles, try flipping the whiteboard or flip-chart upside down(if possible). Maybe turn it on its side to provide a new perspective.


Example,

Back to helping my soon to be sweaty wife! Diving down into concept generation, I created a long list of ideas, most of which were fairly wacky, and I moved forward the concepts shown in the photo as having potential. An example concept that was too far out was using superhero powers to cool my wife – not likely going to work.

You may also notice a chart to the right – we’ll get to that in Down Selection.


Build on Ideas

Of the ideas generated, is there any way we can build on these ideas? Try using the SCAMPER method outlined below. Ask “How might we modify this idea to do XYZ?” Are there any concepts we can combine? Is there a known commercial off the shelf (COTS) product that could be adapted to meet our needs?


Down Selection

Now that you have your final idea list, time to down select. There are many methods to down select; two of my favorite simple methods is to use a Heat Map or NRF.

  • Heat Mapping,
  • NRF
    • NRF stands for Novel, Reasonable, Feasible. It is three questions you ask the team to determine if a concept meets the customer’s KPIs. The progressed concepts are the ideas that are novel, reasonable, and feasible.
      • Novel: Does this solution currently exist?
      • Reasonable: Assuming the ideas works, would it actually solve the customer’s problem within the constraints?
      • Feasible: With all your worldly knowledge, could this actually work?

Example,

For the example project, we employed the NRF method. We can see some of the concepts do not meet all three criteria. The last solution, “Leg mounted laptop fan in a phone armband” could actually work!


Next Steps

Now that you have a list of down selected concepts, begin socializing the idea with stakeholders through a pretotype or prototype to gain feedback on the concept. Incorporate feedback and iterate on the design.

For some great examples and methods, check out “The Power of Pretotyping” tool previously published. Included are methods to build and test a pretotype – following along another example.

Example,

Yes, I designed and built multiple versions of the leg mounted fan and finally ended on a very feasible result. My wife was semi-delighted to wear the fan, and stayed cool during our wedding (in August…)! See what it looked like and how to build your own at our partner site on SufficientlyRidiculous.com.

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