How can you be creative even when you’re working to make incremental rather than radical improvements in a process or technology? One way is to try phrasing ideas in statements that begin with “What if” or “I wish”—such as “What if we could combine a PDA with a mobile phone so we’d need one less gadget?” (a line of thought that led to hybrid PDA phones). “Synectics,” developed in the 1960s, engages the input not just of those involved on the project but also of a representative from the client, who asks the group to address a specific problem. (Synectics is a Greek word meaning the fitting together of seemingly diverse elements.) Using this approach, each person writes down a dozen or more “I wish” statements, and then each reads aloud the ideas, which others can build on. No one is allowed to criticize ideas as they come out. The goal of synectics is to transform a wild brainstorming session into a more focused discussion with specific results. Engineering consultant and author Carl Selinger urges that the next time you’re presented with an idea that sounds outlandish or impractical, try one of these responses: “What made you think of that?” or “What are you trying to accomplish by doing that?” Selinger predicts: “You’ll get the person to explain how he or she arrived at the idea, and determine if the thinking process was sound. The person, in turn, will feel encouraged, and the discussion that ensues may even lead to other ideas.”

IEEE Spectrum 4 Aug 2004