Forced Association: Solve R&D problems using other Industries Innovations

Eight years ago NASA supplied enormous solar panels into space using the art of origami. In 2018, 3M’s breakthrough in preventing infection from surgery came from a theatrical-makeup artist who knew how to prevent skin infection. Recently, some ingredients developed by NASA were used in baby milk. The forced association technique in innovation adoption has come a long way.

These examples show how a problem in your industry might exist in an entirely unrelated domain. Such examples are all over history.

Companies solve the challenges in their industry by scouring an unrelated industry. All they had to do was force their brains to think outside of the current paradigm. Let’s see how.

What is Forced Association?

Forced association is a problem solving method that helps you find solutions from places or industries that may be unrelated, but when analyzed closely, are solving similar challenges.

When looking for ideas to solve a problem, we often confine our creativity within the terms and conditions of our industry. 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 above examples clearly demonstrate how companies solve even high stake problems like launching large satellites, or preventing surgical infections, using solutions from other unrelated and less significant areas. So the next question is, how do you know how far out of the box will you find the solution to your problems?

How to use Forced Association to find a 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 a challenging task if NASA had focused specifically on packing large solar panels in small space. They’d have focussed on the packaging or the small space because reducing the size of the panel was out of the question.

Instead, their focus was on finding ways they can fold a plain object, the solar panel. So that it takes as much less space as possible and unfolds efficiently as well. The answer was combining origami with mathematical algorithms.

Similarly, to use forced association in your industry you must follow a planned approach. This can be divided into the following four 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 needs 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”.

Stepping back and looking at the core problem your industry is trying to solve can give you an insight of which industries are already working on solving such problems. Let’s see how.

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, focus on which industry focuses on making things contamination proof? Healthcare? Chemical?

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, we can find one solution 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. Chip manufacturing companies can adopt the same methods to prevent their labs from getting contaminated by dust or unwanted particles. The same goes for the chemical or pharmaceutical industry. It’s highly important for these industries to keep their labs contamination proof. There must be several ways these industries have already tried and tested different contamination proofing ways before it became a problem for the semiconductor industry.

But how do we know what worked or didn’t work for them will be the same for the Semiconductor industry?

3. Investigate solution from those industries

After searching on different databases, you may have several industries on your notes which are facing and working on similar problems. This step requires you to note down the specific solutions that these industries have proposed. Why it worked for them?

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. Can it work for the Semiconductor industry too?

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 meets the requirement from 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 solutions in industries that go far and beyond your core domain. 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 the slightest attention to.

In a recent project we did for a tobacco company, we gave them solutions to optimize their e-cigarette battery life from a power storage domain. Want to read how we did it? Click here.

Edited By: Nidhi, Marketing.

Leave a Comment

Become a part of GreyB’s insider list

Get our distilled learning delivered to you.

Get the Sample Report

Fill out the form and get the report.