How to use forced association to apply ideas from a different industry to solve your problems

 In Idea Generation

When confronted with the problem of supplying enormous solar panels into space, NASA engineers found the solution in ancient Japanese art of paper folding – origami.

Be it supplying large solar panels to power satellites, or deploying large sails to obstruct extra light from stars. Packing such large sized payloads into the smallest volume has always been the biggest problem of rocket launches.

Taking inspiration from the ancient paper folding techniques in packing of solar panels, NASA’s JPL scientist were able to propose new designs for spacecrafts that can be folded into small space and then reopened to full size in space.

This is a great example of how a solution for a problem in your industry might exist in an entirely unrelated domain. Another example could be – 3M’s problem to prevent infection from surgery, for which solution came from a theatrical-makeup artist who had the knowledge of preventing skin infection in his profession.

Sometimes solution to your problems is hidden inside the working of other completely unrelated industries. History is filled with such example where one industry used forced association method to solve their challenges by adopting solution from other unrelated domains.

All you have to do is force your brain to think outside of your current paradigm.

What is forced association?

Forced association is a problem solving method that helps you find solution from places or industries that may seem unrelated at first but, when analyzed closely, might be solving similar challenges.

When looking for ideas to solve a problem, our creativity is often confined within the rules and conditions of our own industries. To see past that creativity barrier, you have to force yourself to think beyond your own working field and start looking for solutions into other domains.

The examples that I provided above clearly demonstrates how even high stake problems like launching large satellites, or preventing surgical infections were solved using solutions from other unrelated and less significant areas.

How to use forced association to find solution for your problems?

The secret is to focus on and understand the core function that you are trying to achieve. For example, finding a solution would have been challenging task if NASA had focused specifically on packing large solar panels in small space.

Instead, they focused on finding the ways they can fold a plain object so that it takes as much less space as possible and can be efficiently unfolded as well. The answer was origami combined with mathematical algorithms.

Similarly, to use forced association in your industry you must follow a planned approach which can be divided into these 4 steps:

1. Reduce your problem to its core functionality

The first step requires you to reduce your problem to its core functionality. Finding a solution in other industry can become a lot easy if you can simplify the problem in a way that resonates with others as well.

For example, a semiconductor chips manufacturing company need to find a way they can prevent their chips from dust damage in labs. If we reduce this problem to its core, they are searching for ways to make their labs “contamination proof”.

2. Identify different industries facing similar problems

Now that you understand your core problem, you need to explore other industries that might be facing similar problems. In the above mentioned chip manufacturing company’s case, they can search for how other industries are making sealed rooms, or in other terms, contamination free rooms.

Searching on different databases after preparing relevant key strings can be a good start. You can explore, research papers, patents, function databases, etc. too.

For solving the problem of dust damage on semiconductor chips, one solution can be found in hospital and pharmaceutical labs. Despite the fact that these industries are unrelated to a great extent, they share a common problem – contamination.

Cleanrooms of hospitals use sophisticated methods to keep contamination out of the room and same methods can be adopted by chip manufacturing companies to prevent their labs from getting contaminated by dust or unwanted particles.

3. Investigate solution from those industries

After searching on different databases, you might be having several industries on your notes which are facing similar problems. This step requires you to note down the specific solutions that these industries have proposed.

In hospitals or pharmaceutical companies, cleanrooms uses different airflow patterns, air showers, specialized instruments and uniforms, and specially designed cleaning equipments, etc to keep the dust out of the rooms.

4. Explore the applicable solutions

This step requires you to list down all the solution that you have found from other industries. The goal is to filter out the solution that you can work on according in your industry.

In case of our chip manufacturer example, they might not need the air shower or specially designed cleaning equipments to solve their dust problem. They can however, use specialized airflows to prevent dust from flowing across the room. They can also incorporate airlocks and specialized filters in their HVAC systems, similar to what cleanrooms of hospitals do.

The goal of forced association is to encourage you to find relevant solution in irrelevant industries. The 3 examples that I shared in this article are a great proof of how your solution might exist in an industry that you haven’t paid even slight attention to.

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