Synectics: a creative problem solving technique.

Wilson, S. H., Greer, J. F., & Johnson, R. M. (1973). Synectics, a Creative Problem-Solving Technique for the Gifted. Gifted Child Quarterly, 17(4), 260-267.

Only a few years ago, it was commonly thought that creative thinking, the production of new ideas, inventions, and the like had to be left to chance. Indeed, many people still think so. Yet, I do not see how any well-informed person can still hold this view. The amazing record of inventions, achievements amassed through creative problem solving methods (Osborn, 1957), synectics (Gordon, 1961), and bionics (Small, 1962) should convince even the most stubborn skeptics. Experiments involving these deliberate methods of improving creativity have also been rather convincing (Maltzman, 1960; Parnes, 1960; Torrance, 1961). 

In my own classes and seminars, I have consistently found that these deliberate methods can be taught from the primary grades through the graduate school with the effect that students improve their ability to develop original and useful solutions to problems. In my opinion, the evidence is strong that creativity does not have to be left to chance (Torrance, 1962 ).

The intent of the writers is to explore the synectics problem-solving method as a procedure which teachers might use with gifted children, thereby deliberately stimulating latent creativity. While other creative problem-solving methods may also be effective, (brainstorming, morphological analysis, value engineering, value analysis, bionics, hypothetical situations, attribute listing, scenario and alternative futures, fundamental design method) the synectics method appears to be one which can be modified as a powerful tool for use with gifted children.


The word “synectics” is a derivative of the Greek word, synecticos, and refers to the joining together of unrelated elements. The concept of synecticos becomes a creative problem-solving technique through the efforts of W. J. J. Gordon. Though Gordon stresses problem-solving in industry and management, there is the possibility of developing educational experiences related to synectic techniques. A synectics session referred to by Gordon as an “excursion” is a group problem-solving activity wherein persons are stimulated to think creatively under a loosely structured system. The process, in brief, begins with a problem introduced by a leader who conducts an “excursion” of the group through a series of steps which attempt to determine a solution to the problem. This procedure deliberately stimulates creative thinking rather than leaving it to chance (Gordon, 1961).

Specifically related to educational methodology, synectics provides a minimal structure wherein “structured freedom” can be realized in the planning and execution of a creative learning experience. Such a procedure is of benefit in a technological society where complex problems arise requiring efficient and economical solutions. Obviously, our society is one in which invention and problem-solving will play an increasingly extensive role. Gardner Murphy (1958) stated:

‘And it is not only human to invent oneself out of one world into another; it is also human to keep moving toward a destination which is not set within man’s present nature but keeps changing as the nature of his environment changes.’

Synectics provides ample opportunity for students to exercise the skills needed to invent the new world of the future. The coming years will require people in industry, government, medicine, education, and related fields, who are capable of generating new ideas. To produce the necessary personnel for a technological and changing society, our educational methods must change to meet new demands. Certainly as Torrance points out, areas involving creative thinking can no longer be left to chance. The world simply cannot afford such a luxury. Teachers of the future will find compelling reasons to investigate methods such as synectics to maximize the output of creative potential. Industry will demand it. Survival will demand it. Keeping pace with the requirements of a rapidly changing world where traditional methods fall glaringly short will of necessity bring about the adoption of many such new teaching techniques.
Warren G. Bennis (1969) in his fascinating article, “The Temporary Society”, in which he speculates concerning future changes has this to say:

‘Fantasy, imagination and creativity will be legitimate in ways that today seem strange…People will be more intellectually committed to their jobs and will probably require more involvement, participation and autonomy… Professional specialists can hardly be called organization men…They are not good company men; they are uncommitted except to the challenging environments where they can ’play with problems’ … The key word will be ’temporary.’

There will be adaptive, readily changing temporary systems. These will be task forces organized around problems to be solved by groups of relative strangers with diverse professional skills. With the evidence mounting that the future will be one of increasing, not decreasing technology, it seems both reasonable and necessary to give as many educational opportunities as possible to prepare bright students for their roles as leaders. Bennis points out that problems will be solved, not singly by individuals, but by task forces of specialized persons who gather for the purpose of solving problems, then disperse, and move to other problems and other task forces. Synectics provides actual “in class” experience on a simulated task force. In the synectic excursion, the gifted student comes into direct and explicit contact with a type of activity he may find himself performing not too many years from now. Therefore, problem-solving practice through synectics can be meaningful.
Aside from the fact that the synectics technique is relevant to the future, it provides the innovative teacher with a profitable, productive, and exciting method for immediate use. The classroom becomes alive with creative thought. Imaginations soar. Children reach into their experiences and delight themselves with the relevance of their own knowledge. They learn to listen, to challenge, to think, and to lead. They learn that problems can be solved through cooperative efforts. They learn social skills in an intellectual setting. They learn respect for ideas. They learn language skills. They learn to complete tasks and to make suggestions concerning future endeavors. In addition to being relevant, profitable, and exciting, the synectics method is in accordance with research findings on creativity. Speaking of the components of creative thinking, Guilford (1957) emphasized the importance of divergent thinking processes:
‘Divergent thinking … [is] characterized … as being less goal bound. There is freedom to go off in different directions …rejecting the old solution and striking out in some new direction is necessary, and the resourceful organism will more probably succeed.’

Synectics provides ample opportunity for divergent thinking and creates a situation wherein a person may have to reject his ideas regardless of however fond he is of them and strike off in a new direction. To be able to put aside strong convictions requires flexibility. Flexibility in creative thinking entails the rearrangement of previous knowledge in such a manner that a more useful construct emerges. Along this line, Getzels and Jackson (1959) defined creative thought as ‘goal directed, easily flexible, manipulation of knowledge in a wide variety of novel or original ways.’ Through the experience of knowledge manipulation, the synectics excursion takes the participant ito areas of unfamiliarity. In relation to creativity, Mooney (1954) emphasized the importance of the “extension of experiencing” whereby the participants press beyond what seemed to be insurmountable limits. Consequently, the exploration of unfamiliar regions of thought produces a setting in which creative combinations may emerge. At its very basis, synectics makes “the strange familiar” and “the familiar strange” (Gordon, 1961). Furthermore, synectics is a process encompassing other major aspects of creativity. Creativity involve incubation (Wallas, 1926), accumulation (Murphy, 1947), searching and moments of creative insight (DeHaan and Havighurst, 1957). A successful synectics experience is based on the foregoing aspects of creativity; and, of greatest significance for an “in class” – procedure, the entire process is under the guidance of a leader and is not left to chance. There is the direct stimulation of the creative processes in a controlled situation by a deliberate method (Torrance, 1962). According to Leuba (1958), stimulation is directly related to creative functions. It is Leuba’s theory that the creative individuals are those with a maximum of curiosity, those who seek stimulation and develop a maximum of autonomous interests and activity because of the stimulation they find in the process. Synectics is a means for structurally producing stimulation necessary for creative output in a problem-solving situation.
Although synectics is basically a group process, the success of the group rests entirely upon the ability of the individuals to independently reach self-discovery and self-realization along the lines of Maslow (1968) and Rogers (1961), for it is through the stimulation of the group that each participant reaches into the store of his experiences to come forth with a new and creative idea.
There can be no greater proof of the value of a teaching procedure than actual in-class direct experience. Fortunately, the synectics method is not difficult to learn or to use in class. W. J. J. Gordon’s Synectics (1961)provides an introduction and framework for interested teachers who may find making innovation adaptations an exciting challenge.

A successful experience with synectics depends a great deal on the planning that precedes the session. Only through proper planning, can maximum benefit be gained from the experience. Initially, the teacher must consider time limitations. Time spent on excursions is naturally dependent upon the skill of the group and the nature of the problem and is therefore rarely predictable. It would not be wise to undertake a synectics experience when there is limited time or other demands would require a halt at an inopportune moment. A flexible approach to the use of time is inherent in synectics. The resourceful teacher will realize that while an entire excursion may not be the most beneficial approach, the synectics process may be divided into parts for individual lessons, thus providing a more appropriate use of time. It is not necessary to complete the entire process for synectics to be of benefit to students. The various stages of the process lend themselves quite well to creative thinking exercises. These exercises can be devised on the basis of the concepts inherent in the synectics process. These concepts are related to problem analysis, listening, spontaneous reaction, re-statement, ordering, ranking, role-playing, and metaphorical thinking.
Although no special room or equipment other than ordinary writing materials is required for the solution of most problems, the arrangement of the working area must be considered. Space arrangements are determined by the nature of the activity. An intimate but uncrowded atmosphere is desirable. Should the use of audio-visual equipment be necessary, it should be set up in advance and the operation of the equipment fully understood to insure efficient use of working time. Improper use of equipment and space can result in an ineffective session. The teacher should be thoroughly familiar with the synectics technique.
There are many excellent sources available, but the original Synectics by W. J. J. Gordon (1961 ~ is an appropriate starting point. The creative teacher will be able to devise many adaptations of the concepts of synectics to the classroom. A complete understanding of the role of the leader in relation to the “Synectics Flow Chart” is absolutely necessary in instances where a complete “excursion” is the goal. The order of the flow chart relates to thinking procedures closely approximating those of creative persons (Gordon, 1961 ). An innovative teacher may consider revising the following synectics flow chart to suit a particular class or age-group.

Originally, synectics was devised to solve problems that were invention or product oriented; these problems involved seemingly irreconcilable points. Therefore, not all questions are best answered by a synectics excursion. Synectics is not basically a “fact finding” technique, but rather involves the synthesis of facts and theories into a solution to a complicated problem. The Problem as Given must be a synectics problem. Gordon illustrates many examples of these problems in Synectics.

The expert plays a vital role in the process. This role may be filled in a variety of ways. The expert can be a group member or an invited guest. The function of the expert can be served through audio-visual aids, field trips, etc. The purpose of the “expert” is to provide as much information as possible to aid in the solution of the problem. The Analysis and Explanation by Expert is both informational and motivational if handled creatively. The participants are allowed to voice immediate apparent solutions to the problem following the analysis by the expert. Usually, these solutions are not workable, and it is the responsibility of the leader and the expert to point out why this is so. Occasionally, a participant may actually solve the entire problem during Purge. A purging of the obvious is in accordance with Osborn’s findings in Applied Imagination (1963) in that responses occurring later in a brain-storming session tend to be more creative than initial responses.
It is the leader’s responsibility to insure a complete understanding of the problem by all participants. Generally, each participant re-states or re-writes the problem as he understands it in his own words and may outline a desirable goal. The re-statement of the problem in Generation of Problems as Understood (PAU) makes the strange more familiar by breaking down the original problem into its components and transforming it into the language structure of the participant. The leader then guides the group to select one of the components of the PAU for intensive consideration. Consensus is reached on the Choice of Problem as Understood and the problem is temporarily “put out of mind.” The leader is then ready to launch the group on the creative-thinking aspect of the excursion by asking questions which evoke creative thinking through analogies.
Analogies have been referred to as &dquo;psychological mechanisms to maintain certain mental states that have been deemed necessary for an individual to be creative&dquo; (SRI, 1969). Analogies aid the participant in moving information that has been stored in the subconscious mind to a conscious level. Synectics employs four types of analogies: personal analogy, direct analogy, symbolic analogy, and fantasy analogy. The leader constructs Evocative Questions (EQ) which generate responses in the form of one or more of the four analogies. For example, the leader may ask the group to imagine how it would actually “feel” to be a polluted river. This would evoke a personal analogy which allows the person to get inside theproblem and view it from a new and strange perspective.

By phrasing a question designed to evoke a direct analogy a facilitator/leader may ask the group to view the problem from a biological standpoint. Direct analogies rely heavily on nature. For example, if the problem involved some aspect of tunneling, the participants may be directed to look to nature to determine how tunneling is carried out successfully by insects and animals. The key to a direct analogy is to find situations similar to the problem and view how the solution was obtained. The direct analogy provides a new perspective on the problem.

Another approach to obtaining a different perspective is the symbolic analogy. Symbols are used in a manipulative way to reduce the problem to a two or three word construct containing the essence of the problem.
Through symbolic reduction, a participant may move closer to the substance of the problem. Symbolic analogies are sometimes referred to as “book titles.” In constructing a two or three word book title, the participant is forced to make relationships between previously irreconciable concepts. For example, the essence of a problem involving a heating and freezing process may be described as “Burning Ice.”
A different approach is possible by the use of fantasy analogy. This analogy allows for the suspension of all natural laws, creating a “universe” where anything is possible. For example, if the problem required moving water to the top of a mountain, it may be interesting to suspend the laws of gravity and create a fantasy where water can naturally flow uphill. Such fantasies have led to the development of many inventions and processes. Consider the “divining rod” for finding water and the more elaborate “metal detectors” based on the fanciful idea of waving something “magic” over an area and finding whatever is needed.
The leader plays an extensive and exacting role in the metaphorical analogy phase of the process. He must be able to decide when to change or reinforce a pattern of thought and when to lead the group into an appropriate Choice of Example and Examination of Example as a possible contribution to a solution to the problem. He and the expert help the group to Force-fit the findings to the needs outlined in the problem. If the needs are not satisfied, the group again seeks an adequate solution by returning to analogies. Should the group successfully generate a useful line of thought, the leader may take the group into Viewpoint and focus the participants’ attention on the application of the information to the original problem. The group then determines (1 ) if the entire problem has been solved, or (2) if a new approach must be taken, or possibly (3) that the problem should be abandoned at this time. The expert helps in the decision-making process.
As a classroom procedure, synectics provides many opportunities for strengthening creative-thinking skills. The value of the process is increased by its concomitant aspects, for it is not only creative-thinking that is aided. The students may develop skills in language and listening and should become more adept at group processes and the ability to organize thinking for a specific purpose. Consequently, most students who have been involved in synectics-type procedures report that they find them enjoyable and beneficial in other areas where problem-solving techniques are needed.


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