Thinking Managers

Edward de Bono of looks at how the concepts of similarity, difference and contrast can be used to aid creative thinking.

Creativity: similarity, difference and contrast

It is worthwhile to look at similarity, difference and contrast in business ideas because all three can be used for boosting creativity. You can nurture the creative thinking process with the mental ability to use them all because all three are needed, in varied situations, to move from one idea to another.

You can apply similarity to concepts. If two things share an operating concept, they might be considered similar. If the two things are both expressions of the same concept, they could be said to be similar. For instance, traffic lights might be considered similar to traffic policemen because of the way they function and the value they provide.

In some instances, you can arrive at a new idea by looking at the ‘difference’ aspect. Traffic lights work to their own schedule while traffic policemen work on the basis of their own estimations. Observing this difference might give you the idea of designing traffic lights that count the vehicles waiting to cross the junction and then react directly to this count.
So it becomes clear that two things can be similar on one level, while different on another.

If we discover an idea that works, we can search for an idea that is similar in value but different in nature. ‘Similarity’ has a big advantage in that if we know one idea works, a similar idea will also be likely to work. But that’s not always the case – there might be similarity on one level, but there could be difference on another.

Then we have contrast. At its extreme, contrast would be an opposite. One random word exercise on supermarket shopping produced the word ‘hedgehog’ – this suggested spikes. This then moved on to the idea that perhaps spikes could be placed around the supermarket shelves, so that when an item is picked up, the spike would prick the customer.

Via a contrast jump, an idea was arrived at where particular items would carry a lottery reward. This reward would then be received when the item is paid for at the checkout. The simple contrast jump provided the movement from pain to reward.
Contrasts are an effective way of seeing things from a different perspective. You can deliberately find the contrast and then see where it leads.

Sometimes it’s very important to mark the difference between two ideas that are similar on the face of it. This difference could indicate differing values in the ideas and then a completely new idea could be used to deliver these different values.
Searching for difference can be a good motivator for creativity. The movement from one idea to another is the essence of creative thinking. The habits of similarity, difference and contrast can be used to facilitate this movement.

About the author
Edward de Bono is the world’s leading authority in the field of creative thinking and the teaching of thinking as a skill.