Analogy: Problem Solving
The way that we asked the man our memory, the right question is to is to start by asking the question, what do we want to get out of our memory? And so here I want you to think about a situation. I want you to think about a problem that you tried to solve that resisted solution. Okay, you have this problem. It might be at work. It might be in your personal life. It might be, um it might be in some other segment. It might be a social problem. But you have a problem. It's resisted solution. When you are stuck solving a problem excuse me. There are only three logical possibilities at that point for solving that problem. One possibility is that nobody in the history of the world has ever solved this problem or anything remotely like it before. That is a bad situation to be in. Because if nobody's ever solved the problem, you are in the land of research and development. Research and development is slow, expensive, laborious, prone to failure. Okay, so that's, one possibility and we're gonna...
hope were not there when we're solving a problem. The second possibility is that somebody somewhere on the planet has solved the problem, but it isn't you. And you don't know anything that's going to help you to solve it now this is a better situation because it means the problem is solvable but it means you're either gonna have to learn a lot to solve the problem or you're gonna have to hire someone which can be expensive so for example, you know when my car breaks down and I hear that wine um I know that I don't know how to solve the problem but I also know somebody else knows how to solve the problem and that's a blessing and a curse a blessing because I know where to go to get the problem solved in a curse because I know what it's going to cost me to get the problems okay? So there's a third option that third option is I don't know how to say that that actually I do know something that's going to help me to solve the problem I just haven't realized I know it yet that's the situation you'd better hope you're in now if you're in a situation where you're solving a problem and you haven't realized that you know the solution yet it probably means that that information has come from a different area of your expertise that it isn't really in the domain in which the problem was framed it comes from somewhere else which means we now move out of the realm of similarity and into the realm of analogy and analogy is an incredibly powerful tool for solving problems and one that most of us don't use often enough. And so another one of the habits that I want you to generate is the ability to use analogies mohr effectively, and to draw on a wider range of your knowledge when you're trying to solve new problems. Now, in order to do this, we need to define what we mean by analogies, and in order to do that, I want to delve a little bit into the history of science. Science is, of course, a great place where, uh, where a lot of analogies have been used over the years. And so to delve into the history of science, I want to start with studies that looked at the structure of matter the structure of this stuff the world is made of. So back at the turn of the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century physicists were really interested in what is the structure of matter. And they actually operated with analogy, a metaphor that they had that made the which they called the plum pudding model of matter. And the idea behind the plum pudding model of matter was that that's the stuff in the world consisted of some kind of matrix, like a pudding and strewn through that matrix were these chunks of positive charge? Okay sort of like the plums are strewn through putting now when they see use this plum pudding model they didn't really mean that matter was tasty or served after dessert it wasn't any of the specific characteristics any of the specific attributes the features it was the relationships a matrix with things strewn through it in a more or less random fashion that's what they meant when they used this analogy now in order to test this model this plum pudding model of matter what they did was they took very thin sheets of metal and they shot alfa particles which are positively charged protons they shot alfa particles at the medal and the idea behind the experiment was very clever they were going to look at how those particles were deflected as they passed through this sheet of metal and that was going to provide information about how these particles this these these positive charges were strewn through the pudding okay and that's what? I was their plan in fact the experiment came out in a very surprising way basically most of the time the alva particles shot through the metal completely unharmed and every once in a while they ricocheted straight back at the emitter okay and this was a complete surprise as one scientist at the time said it was as if you shot a cannon at a sheet of tissue paper and it bounced back at you right which is surprising and on the basis of these experiments they came up with an alternative view of the structure of matter what we now think of is the atom the rutherford model of the atom which is the idea that there's a dense central point and then there are particles electrons that revolve around it and at the time they said look this model is saying that the atom the central unit of matter the atom is like the solar system now when they say the atom is like the solar system, what they mean is that there's a dense central point something revolving around something else in each so you know, the atom nucleus in the middle electrons around the outside in the solar system you've got the sun and planets revolving around the outside okay, you don't mean that the nucleus of the atom is hot and gashes you don't mean that the third electron out supports life right it's just the structure of it that you're holding onto that's really what analogy is all about his two situations that have a similar structure to them even though some of the surface details may not match up okay, it turns out that people are extraordinarily good at dealing with analogies we love analogies when they're right in front of us so I'll give you some examples um analogies air all over the history of invention, the history of innovation, the history of creativity uh for example there's a guy named george domestic ral george semester was an engineer in switzerland he used to take his dog out for long walks and um he would come back at the end of the walk and his dog would be covered with cockle pers which of these little little seeds and he would pull the congo burns off the dog and everyone saw the dog would lie back down in the cock lemurs they get stuck to the dog and you'd have to pull it off it was kind of a paid but unlike most people who've had this problem he didn't stop there he decided to understand why why is that is that why question again why do the cockle burr stick to the dogs first so persistently turns out that cock goobers when you look at him under a microscope have little tiny hooks on him ah and those hooks stick to the tangled for of the dog and that's why they they stick so effectively and so domestic all had an idea and he went out to some clothing manufacturers and he found one cloth manufacturing had to build him a fabric that was made of lots of little tiny cockle burr hooks and then he had another manufacturer make a fabric that was basically a synthetic dog hair and then he put them together and took him apart and put it together and took him apart. He had velcro right it was a great idea and it's worked extraordinarily well so and if you look at the history of invention there are all kinds of examples of this use of information that comes from one area to solve a problem in another area writes a cockle birds aren't designed to create re close herbal connections but you can use that principle to build something that creates an easy re close herbal connection um if you if you try you can actually help people t generate interesting designs bye bye using these kinds of analogy so we've done some studies with mechanical engineering design students in one study we told people about a wide variety of different products that they might encounter including the air mattress um how many of you camp anybody camp I hate camping um ideo I like nature and I like hiking I don't like sleeping outdoors and I don't like bugs so why don't I so I started draw the line at bedtime I'm up I'm good with camping up to bed time that I've a problem now one of the problems with camping of course is that it's it's uncomfortable to sleep outside and so there is a way of fixing that and that's with an air mattress and because the problem is right you could ask yourself why don't we sw why don't we just carry the mattress with us when we're hiking in the problem of carrying most mattresses with you I've ever done it is that they're big, bulky and heavy and so it kind of limits your range as your hiking right to be carrying the mattress so what the air mattress does is it takes all the comfort out of the mattress and allows you to put it into your backpack and then and then replaces some of that comfort at the point of use with something that's easily available at that point of views, right? So so now you're taking all the stuffing out of it but now you stuff it back up with air, which is generally speaking plentifully available with the places that we camp so now you have this thing that's not quite as comfortable as a real mattress, but you know, it could be worse, right? So that's the air mattress so um what? We gave people that a number of products like the air mattress to study and then later we gave them a design problem into solving the design problem was to design waits that you could travel with. So I I travel frequently I'm usually away thirty to forty five days a year and I do like to try and keep a little bit in shape, but if you've noticed the fitness centre at most hotels is basically three broken treadmills and a tv set and so it would be nice tohave an exercise facility you could bring with you it is difficult to travel with weights if you like to do any weightlifting because of the baggage restrictions on the airlines I should point out that one of my kids went on an overseas uh trip for a year and he brought some of his weights with him we got to actually cut to the airport I hope you're not listening way we got to the airport and and his bag weighed like one hundred pounds and I was like what did you dude he's like I don't know I must have brought a lot of clothes like okay I paid like some absurd amount of money to ship his bag overseas and then we were skyping about a month after he got there and he's like lifting weights like man let's look a lot like your weights from home he's like oh these are my weights like you could have bought like six sets of those with what I paid to get that back anyhow um so you don't normally want to do that that the point is that's that's not the right way to travel the right way to travel would be to be ableto have the weights there but not to be paying that fee so we said people with the task of doing that and those people who read about the air mattress before getting this design problem we're much more likely to come up with a solution like water weights right where essentially you take the weight out while you're traveling with it and then put it back with something that's plentifully available at the point of used in this case water not air right and so people were much more likely to generate that idea if they had some other piece of knowledge that they could use that was similar at least in its structure to the problem that you're trying to solve. No, not everyone was able to do it this having this uh this idea in mind simply made you more likely to be able to do it now analogies air not on ly really powerful for helping you to discover new things there also extraordinarily good for helping you to communicate about things so whenever you're trying to teach something new to somebody um you know, remember that that were the size of the things that people are going to be able to remember depends on the prior knowledge that they can use to help them understand something. So one of the really values of using analogies is that if you can find something that people already understand reasonably well you can use that to help them now understand a much larger chunk of something new that they're trying to understand so they're very effective means of teaching and communication and companies use these all the time we did a study many years ago involving teaching people about digital cameras back in the day before there were digital cameras everywhere right most people didn't have them they had film based cameras and and in that era if you wanted to teach people about what a digital camera did it was useful to use some kind of an analogy so if you told people that a digital caramel was basically like a film based camera they went oh yeah I get it meaning they understood how to use it right they understood how you would take pictures with it what they didn't understand was how you would get the pictures after that so if you told him it was like a film based camera they would go oh so that means I have to bring my images somewhere in order to get them uh you know processed in some way now you could have told people you know actually a digital camera is like a scanner ah and then lots of people that scatters in that era and at that point people go oh okay I get it so somehow I'm going to be able to get my images onto the computer and process in that way but if you told people that digital cameras were like scanners then they thought they took lousy pictures because particularly back in that era scanners were like three hundred dots per inch and so you know you just assume that you got the same lousy image quality out of a digital camera uh that you did out of a scanner which actually at that in that time period wasn't that far from the truth. Um so people people with the interesting thing was people didn't really put in any effort tto learn this as soon as you tell people oh, the digital cameras like a film based carmen they go oh, okay, I get it soon as you tell people no no it's like a scanner there oh, I get it. Okay. It's not hard for people to understand this as soon as you give them a base of knowledge to operate from so this ability to use analogies when they're there in front of you is something that we find quite natural easy to do it's something we really don't need any toe apply any effort um in order to do properly so that's the that's the positive news about analogies okay, so there must be a downside or I wouldn't be talking about this. I mean, why is it that most of us are actually not using analogies all the time if in fact we're so darn good? Adam and the answer is because as good as we are at using analogies when they're sitting right there in front of us, we are really bad at retrieving them when we need him so what happens is we live in a world of literal similarity which kind of makes sense right you walked into this room and you used your knowledge of for the first time when you came in here on monday for section one you walked into this room and you thought oh there's ah chair I should sit in one of these chairs and this is probably you know it's basically like a classroom so I'm going to sit in one of the chairs on the floor here and not you know necessarily get up onto the stage you know you you made use of what you know about a lot of different specific situations in your world that involved chairs and stages and backs of rooms in front of rooms in order to figure out what to do if I go to my doctor because I'm not feeling well I want my doctor to use his knowledge of medicine to help fix me I don't want my dollars my doctor thinking oh you know what you're a broken things sort of the way that a mechanic fixes a broken car and don't do that don't don't I'm not like a car I'm like another person use your knowledge of people right I really want you thinking about the knowledge that seems most directly applicant all in fact I would venture to say that if you have if you knew someone in your life who was constantly on ly using analogies constantly on lee drawing similarities between the current situation and the cosmos or something like that there's something unstable about that person, right? We we really do want to live in that world of literal similarity. Okay, it's, just so really analogies air valuable in that situation in which we're stuck, in which we need a new solution to a problem. The problem is for us, uh, memory retrieves things based on literal similarity. Right? We I show you a picture of a dog. You think about dogs. I show you a picture of a road. You think about rhodes, I show you a picture or birthday party. You think about birthday parties, right? We are designed to pull information out of memory based on its overall similarity too stuff that we've seen before. So the reason that we get stuck solving problems is because we are not designed to pull things out of memory just because they're good analogies. That's the fundamental problem that we need to overcome. So I want you to try something for me if I show you a proverb like this, right, the noise, the wheels doesn't measure the load in the wagon, right? If if all of you just for a second at home, think about this, are there proverbs that that reminds you of the noise the wheels doesn't measure the low in the wagon I love proverbs because they are these wonderful statements of cultural wisdom but when you first think about this, the first thing that often leaps to mind is something like the squeaky wheel gets the grease now the problem with the squeaky wheel gets the grease is it doesn't mean the same thing squeaky wheel gets the grease person who complains the most gets the most attention the noise of the wheels doesn't measure the load in the wagon write thie surface properties or something are not a good reflection of somethings inner essence now when we when we think of it at that level the surface properties of something are not a good reflection of its inner essence that's the point at which you realize there are other proverbs you may know that will help you to know that that that you could be reminded up so the surface properties of something or not a good reflection of its interesting also works for things like all that glitters isn't gold or you can't judge a book by its cover but notice that in order to be able to come up with that in order to be able to come up with that you need to be ableto ask your memory a question that will bring that to mind ok and so that's the sort of thing that we that we don't do very well um so what can we do? What can we do in order to be able to do ah, better job amore, effective job of retrieving these analogies when we need them. So the first thing there's a lot of different strategies we can use, but let me ask before, before I talk about these, let me just ask, I mean, what are the kinds of things that you've done in the past to try to help yourself to solve problems? And, uh and we'll also see if there's anything it's coming on. So what have you done? Yes, I feel like my first proper, like, first thing I was relied too is like a second problem I'm going to research then, like, get bogged down in the research where it's like overwhelming, you know? And then the regional problem kind of gets sort of lost because you're stuck in details, something research, right? And then you try to apply that, but you kind of think that when you go to research, I feel like your creativity shuts off in a sense because you're relying on other people's information and instead of, like, relying on yourself, you know, but obviously you went there because you can't rely on yourself, you get stuck, yeah, so I don't I always find that sort of a problem. Yeah, no that's that's really interesting I mean, so so right if you think about the modes of problem solving we get into and and every once in a while I will say to people okay imagine I gave you a really hard problem to solve what would you do to solve it? Almost everyone's first response is I would ask somebody else now there are several versions of the I would ask somebody else one version of the ask somebody else's I know somebody who knows something about this I'm going to call them sometimes it's I'm going to read a book on it which is asking somebody else who wrote a book sometimes it's ah google it which is a last some random person who happen to throw this up on the internet right now in each of those coming this a research is essentially I'm going to go find out what everybody else knows about solving this problem and what's and what's interest and there isn't one a frame it that way is because what's interesting about that solution is it says I'm I'm looking for a solution where I am starting with someone who has solved this exact problem and trying to solve this exact problem and one of the reasons why that can often feel like it isn't that creative is because you are really just looking for yet another solution to this exact problem as opposed to saying you know what? Maybe there is a, uh another way of approaching this problem altogether right that draws on a completely different area of my expertise and I could use that information to help me to solve the problem and really that's what analogies about so I agree with you one of the reasons you can feel like you get bogged down in the other research that that you're looking at is because you're slogging through yet mohr information that's really just in this domain and that doesn't feel like it's allowing you to go outside I've been taking and consider really significant alternatives to solving the problem and that's one of the one of the values that this can have you know, the other thing is that that when you, um when you think about analogies right, you tend to attend a draw pop up to ah ah more conceptual way of thinking about the problem it first and you know, obviously at some point even after you come up with a solution to a problem, you're gonna have to worry about the details but the question is at what point do you need to start worrying about those details and let me give you an example of what I mean? So um so uh actually so in the book in the book smart thinking I start the book with with a discussion about about vacuum cleaners and uh and I start by talking about the fact that when I was actually in high school my very first job was cleaning an office building and uh and a big part of my job involved vacuuming the office building and so I had to, um to solve the bag problem and on a week in and week out basis do you know the bag problem that's when when you when you when you vacuum the bag fills up with dirt and then it doesn't the vacuum doesn't work so well anymore. So what you do is you take the bag and you emptied the bag which in a big industrial vacuum cleaner involves taking this big clamp off and dumping the contents into a bin getting covered with a fine layer of dust in the process them putting the clamp back on and uh and then going back on your way and and and I must admit right for solving the bag problem in a week in and week out basis I got paid the princely sum of one hundred twenty five dollars a month and it was that was really awesome because I was in high school um it but it also turns out that at the same time that I was solving the bag problem that way often by using my knowledge within the domain of vacuum cleaners there was that there was another guy named james dyson who noticed the same problem that I did right? Dyson noticed that that when the vacuum cleaner bag fills up, the vacuum doesn't work so well any more and it turns out the reason for that is because the vacuum cleaner bag is a filter so what the vacuum really does is is it takes in a combination of dirt and air it has two separate the dirt from the air and the way that vacuum cleaners traditionally separated from air is that used they used the bags of filters there are pours in the bag that let the air come through and the dirt stays behind does it gets stuck by the by the holes and filled the pores in the filter and eventually the dirt clogs up those pores and then the vacuum can't generate suction anymore right and that's when you have to change the bag so um dyson decided you know what? Um there are if you think about that fundamental problem that core problem that essential problem that a vacuums tryingto solve the separating the dirt from the air filtering is only one solution to that and there are other solutions and because he was a guy who knew a lot about a lot, one of the things he knew about was the sawmill and I have you I don't know how many people have experience of sawmills most of my experience with sawmills actually in cartoons right? You know log blade body on the log right blade log moves towards the sawmill uh the thing that if you look at a real song it's very similar. Okay, still a log still a blade. Nobody generally the thing that's missing from the cartoon is the tremendous amounts of sawdust that get kicked up by the blade. So what would the way that the way that a sawmill deals with sawdust is that just sucks all that sawdust out with a gigantic vacuum, basically, but it doesn't have like jack guy a gigantic vacuum cleaner bag. What has instead is this device it's called industrial cyclone and so it it sucks this air in and then there's a cone and that creates a cyclone so the air spins around that it throws the sawdust off to the side and and then that's all just drops down into a hopper where it could be trucked away. And so dyson started with an analogy. Maybe maybe I could take a vacuum, but instead of using a bag I could try and create something like the industrial cyclone that's in a sawmill that was the analogy and that's at that high level now here's the interesting thing about it. Okay, um after having that insight, it took dice in five years to go from that insight to something that actually worked consistently okay, so there were a lot of details that you had to go through from the interesting conceptual insight that you could replace the vacuum cleaner bag with an industrial cyclone to something that was actually practically useful now, after that, five years when he had the prototype, that actually became the basis of a design that led to a company that brings in, like, four hundred million dollars a year, which is slightly more than one hundred twenty five dollars a month that I was making, um, but but notice that there are two interesting parts to that, right? One there's an analogy at the core of this, and then the other is, even after you get the analogy there's, often a lot of work that needs to be done right, and that's, where all those details come in. But one of the dangers with any kind of creative problem solving process is the prospect that you might actually try and get into those details too quickly. If you delve into those details the very beginning you might miss on interest in conceptual breakthrough that might actually allow you to think about the problem in a fundamentally different way. We have more questions on analogies coming in chat. If we have time, what we could sure, why not? And I'm gonna talk in this in a moment about some strategies for it for retrieving those analogies mohr effectively but let's bring it on sure well this first one comes from ivana ask and they say do comedic analogies help you remember better than serious ones or does it not matter oh that's in what they can s o so communiqu analogies could be useful if they're really memorable for you, right? So it sort of depends on whether you have a sense of humor or not right? But actually I use the punch lines of jokes to help people retrieve analogy so it's let me give an example is right we often uh you need to read describe the problem you're solving in order to retrieve the analogy right? Because one of the things you want to do it to find the essence of the problems and notice right what dyson did when he was fixing the when he was redesigning the vacuum was he stated that he didn't say how do I fix the vacuum cleaner bag? How do I solve the bag problem? He said essentially what is the essence of a vacuum? The essences of a vacuum is I'm bringing in a combination of dirt and air and separating the dirt from the air and once you turn it into a separation problem rather than a bag problem now you realize actually there are other solutions to the separation of some particulate matter from air then just filtration um now so what you need are strategies for describing the problem that find that essence and there are ways of doing this with things like jokes and comic elements so here's here's my example here's the joke first just fun so there's a mom on a beach I'm not I'm not like I don't know maybe I tell jokes so the mom on a beach and and she's with her kid and the kids doing what kids do on beaches playing with a shovel and pail and stuff and digging up the beach and uh and while he's standing there and the mom is watching this huge wave comes washes the kid into the ocean and the mom is just crazy with she's distraught and she looks up at the sky and she says, oh, please bring my baby back please, I'll do anything oh, please, and a moment later another wave comes and deposits the baby right on the beach completely unharmed and the mom looks down at the baby and then looks back up at the sky and says he had a hat now the first time that one of my graduate students comes into my office and complains about something for which I think they really ought to be grateful, I tell them this joke, right? And then every time after that you can see this happening right? They'll they'll start to come in and say I can't be uh, he had a hat, and they'll walk out right and and what's nice about that. I mean, it's, and I'm not sure that these comedic analogies are better than others, but they are memorable, and I think that that's part of the issue is that in order to be able to use an analogy, you wantto have certain things, certain descriptors that are memorable and easy for you to recognize, and and certainly the punch line of a good joke can be one of those, but it's not the only possibility, and we'll talk about some of those other possibilities in a second, what else you got? Two questions coming here from habit hunter. And first, they say, can analogies in drawings be useful? And our analogies in our memory culturally specific to these vary from culture to culture that's a that's, a great question. So, first of all, analogies and drawings, you know, analogies sometimes, uh, sometimes appear and drawings, and sometimes they don't. You have to be a little bit careful when you use drawings in the sense that whenever you draw something, you are responsible for a certain number of the details of what your drawing and, of course, part of what you're trying to do when you are drunk, making an analogy is to go beyond some of those details. So you have to be careful when using drawings of some kind not to get mired in those details, but but there's absolutely ways of drawing, drawing things out that can be the cannon body analogies that can be useful, but this actually raises another point, that's kind of important ah lot of people are in businesses where they're trying to be innovative or or in creative arts, where they're trying to be innovative, and what they will try to do is is to start a process by building a prototype so they'll have this idea, and they'll build a prototype and there's a lot of good evidence coming out now from from christiane and pittsburgh and some of his colleagues suggesting that if you build a prototype too early, it actually ends up dampening your innovativeness, dampening your creativity because it gets you mired down in the details of a specific design, rather than thinking conceptually about the different ways the problem could be solved. And so it's it's, you know, so I think the same thing applies to drawings as the physical models of things, which is you want to be careful when you introduce those into the process, so that you, you do find ways to keep yourself focused on the on the conceptual elements of the of the decision process of the problem solving process, rather than on the find details of it, and I think actually this is a particular problem with some of the emerging technologies that are coming out. So there are these three d printers, for example, that people are creating, which make it very easy to create prototypes very quickly, which, if you already know maur less. What the solution to the problem is that you're trying to create and you're at that stage that dyson was out of. I know I'm trying to create an industrial cyclone. I just I don't know exactly what that design looks like. You know, what should this house steep to the edges need to be? How deep does it need to be? How much power does it need when you're at that stage? Being able to prototype rapidly is a great thing. But if you're at the very front into that process, I actually think it could be dangerous from a creative standpoint to move to the stage of generating a prototype too early because you could get locked into particular elements of the design uh, too early.