Metaphor and Problem Solving

Metaphor and Problem Solving

Metaphor is a device commonly used in legend, children's and fairy stories in which a seemingly innocuous tale full of colourful characters is used to carry a far deeper underlying principle into the reader's consciousness. As well as being a device for conveying such meanings, metaphor can also be useful for problem solving. The technique that follows demonstrates how to actively use metaphor as a tool for remodelling problems into forms which make them amenable to approach by tangential and original thinking in a form that can yield unique, and otherwise inaccessible solutions when such are restructured in terms of the given problem.

Step 1: Remodel the Problem

This is the first creative stage wherein the original problem is redefined into a similar but unrelated problem by means of metaphor.
The NOUNS in the problem definitions represent content, whereas the VERBS, represent process. To successfully model a metaphor of the original problem, the content must be redefined and accordingly all the nouns should be replaced by new ones. Likewise, to encourage lateral thinking in the subsequent stage, verbs should be replaced but - unless some really wild ideas are to be explored - some vague similarity should exist between the old verbs and the new ones since verbs represent process. [e.g. 'How to Climb a Mountain' could effectively cross-map to 'How to Raise the Titanic' since the verbs are similar, whereas 'How to Lay a Garden Path' would be a more awkward mapping - but might possibly throw up some good tangential ideas.] Here are some examples of problems and effective modelling metaphors:

-------Basic Problem---------------------------------Metaphor-------
How to Attract More Customers----------How to Catch a Fish
Making my Car Thief Proof----------------Protecting the King's Castle
Increasing Factory Production-------------Growing Bigger Tomatoes
How to Stay Healthy-------------------------Looking After My Car

As indicated above, it is perfectly feasible to make a metaphor of anything with anything else - for example 'How to Stay Healthy' could be cross-mapped to 'How to Keep Slugs off Dahlias' - but the correspondence is vague and strained, and consequently difficult to work with.

Step 2: Ignore Original Problem; Brainstorm to Solve Metaphor

As far as possible, all thoughts of the original problem should now be erased from the problem solver's mind - indeed, a very effective strategy here is to give the metaphor to a person, or group of people, who have no idea whatsoever as to the identity of the real problem.
Attention is now focused on solving the problem(s) set by the metaphor, with as many diverse and possible means of solving the meta-problem, enthusiastically AS IF IT WERE THE REAL ISSUE, being generated and noted down uncritically by the individual or group.
In a group environment, it is important that ideas are not criticised since this will inhibit their generation AND, since the group are attempting to solve what is a meta-problem, some of the more bizarre ideas may well bear unexpected fruit during the next stage of the process.
An example worksheet for the meta-problem 'How to Catch a Fish' is presented below:
>Example:HOW TO CATCH A FISH
Buy a book
Watch an expert
Use correct bait
Get a good rod
Use a net
Choose correct swim
Use groundbait
With a hand grenade
Go spear-fishing
Buy a trawler
Use a lure
Choose right time of day
Learn correct weather conditions
Learn fishes' habits
Think like a fish
Understand fish motivation
Observe feeding patterns
Use correct technique for each type of fish
Drain the pond
Get a good peg
Hamper other predators
Use correct line
Use the right hook
>

Stage 3: Back Map

This is often the most difficult part of the process yet at the same time it can be the most rewarding when a Eureka moment occurs. Each and every idea generated to solve the meta-problem is now back-mapped and adapted as necessary to be applicable to the original problem, noting that each idea may have none, one or more than one possible application. The example below for 'How to Catch a Fish' (original problem 'How to Attract More Customers') illustrates the process in action:
Example: HOW TO CATCH A FISH
[Back mapping to 'How to Attract More Customers']
Buy a book
[book on sales technique, shop design, product sales statistics]
Watch an expert
[see how the competition do it, hire an expert sales consultant]
Use correct bait
[advertising, make products appealing, check out window design, check out product range and prices, use loss leaders]
Get a good rod
[advertising, check out premises]
Use a net
[spread message further, make sure message appeals to widest potential audience]
Choose correct swim
[relocate, open new branch, think about mail order]
Use groundbait
[loss leaders, attractive advertising, generate interest]
With a hand grenade
[stun the customers?]
Go spear-fishing
[target individual customers, select carefully, look at repeat business, keep records]

Worksheet

This is conveniently set out during stage 2, where a largish sheet of paper is divided into two with a vertical line and the meta-problem is written down at the head of the left hand column. The ideas generated by brainstorming are written down on the left. When brainstorming is complete, and only then, the 'real' problem title is written down at the head of the right hand column & the back-mapping carried out.


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