The big idea
Free association is perhaps most commonly known as the therapeutic technique developed by Sigmund Freud but it is also used as a creative problem-solving method. It won’t give you a specific answer to your problem but it will help you explore different approaches to it. Association can help spark ideas to lead you to a solution.
Your mind will make connections between words by using one of three principles:
- Contiguity: this is based on an object or idea being near to the one mentioned, so for example zoo might lead to lion
- Similarity: which is based on an association that is very like the word stated, for example leek leads to onion
- Contrast: where the first word stated prompts a response that is distant or opposite from it, for example hard leads to soft
Campbell’s Soups used word association as part of their product development process. They started with the word handle, which generated utensil and then fork. Someone then joked about eating soup with a fork. They then reflected on the fact that you could only eat soup with a fork if it had large lumps of meat or vegetable in it. And so emerged Campbell’s Chunky Soups.
In allowing your mind to associate freely with the words, you can generate new ideas; the technique helps create the spark rather than the solution. You are aiming to create a list of words, which might help you to look at the problem or issue differently.
The tool takes you through a number of simple steps to use free association. It can be done on your own or with a group and, depending on the problem you are solving, can be a very quick technique.