Mental Images

Using metaphors can get a river of creative juices flowing.
This story appears in the 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What does white-water rafting have to do with designing computer-based training? Maybe nothing on the surface, but for one of my clients, it was an association that solved a long-standing problem.

When you're having trouble coming up with a fresh approach or need some new ideas, using metaphors comparing your situation to something else is one of the easiest techniques to get ideas flowing.

The client I mentioned designs training programs for corporations, nonprofits and government agencies. He had been frustrated with the slow pace and uneven results of the standard instructional-design process and wanted to come up with a new approach.

When my client shared his frustration at a seminar he was attending, the facilitator asked him what he liked to do for recreation. He replied he was an avid white-water rafter. When he was asked how instructional design was like white-water rafting, he immediately started to see connections between the two seemingly unrelated activities.

Although a river is constantly changing, he knows the best way to respond to those changes is with variations on a few basic paddle strokes. This led to the realization that one of the most time-consuming parts of the design process for him was reprogramming similar computer screens over and over.

As a result of this new insight, my client was able to develop a design process that incorporates reusable screen templates, reducing design time by as much as 25 percent.

Here's how you can use this technique in your business. If you have a question or problem you're trying to solve, choose an object or an action. (Metaphors depicting an action are usually more evocative.)

Going further, choose an activity you have some emotional reaction to, whether it's good or bad. If you have a hard time coming up with an idea, try one of the following examples: going on a diet, doing stand-up comedy, running for political office, riding a bike, running a day-care center, cooking a fancy meal or disciplining a child.

Think of as many characteristics of the action or object as possible. Then see what this sparks about your current situation. Use several metaphors to generate even more ideas.

The constant generation of new ideas is a crucial element in business. Often, the simplest techniques can spark the most prolific flow of ideas.

Juanita Weaver is a creativity coach and consultant. She can be contacted at