Forced Connections In A Nutshell

  • Forced connections is a brainstorming technique where two or more unrelated objects or descriptors are combined in an attempt to devise a solution.
  • The premise of forced connections is simple: combine unrelated things to create new ideas. Koberg and Bagnall’s initial technique is widely considered to be the precursor of modern design thinking.
  • More modern interpretations call on the brainstorming team to select an object or picture at random, list a few attributes, and connect those attributes to the problem or project at hand.

Understanding forced connections

Forced connections is a brainstorming technique where two or more unrelated objects or descriptors are combined in an attempt to devise a solution.

Forced connections is a technique businesses can use to revitalize an internal brainstorming process that has become stale or tired.

The premise of forced connections is simple: combine unrelated things to create new ideas.

The technique can trace its origins back to authors Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall. In their 1972 book The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to: Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals, the pair outlined a technique that required teams to create a matrix and follow three steps:

  1. In horizontal columns, the team lists the attributes of an item or situation.
  2. Below each attribute, the team then lists as many alternatives as possible. For example, a product development team may brainstorm alternatives such as “wood” and “glass” for the “Product material” column.
  3. When completed, the team moves across the matrix and links alternatives from each of the various columns at random. They repeat this process several times to combine unrelated alternatives in different ways.

Koberg and Bagnall’s work is widely considered to be the precursor of modern design thinking, and numerous variations of their forced connections technique are still used today.

A modern interpretation of the forced connections technique

Below is a modern interpretation of the forced connections technique:

  1. Start by selecting a stimulus that is unrelated to the problem or project in question. This is typically an object, picture, or the like.
  2. List four stimulus attributes. What can the team see? What does it make them think about? Can they associate the stimulus with something else?
  3. For each attribute, connect it to the problem or project at least twice. Bonus points if the team can create three or more connections.
  4. Repeat as necessary. 

Forced connections example

Let’s take a look at a forced connections example to better understand how the process may be carried out. 

Consider a restaurant that has experienced a substantial reduction in patronage and wants to brainstorm ways to enhance its dining experience.

In the office of the restaurant, the team decides on a coiled spring as the stimulus item after a stapler is found dismantled on the desk.

With the stimulus identified, the team lists four attributes and links them to potential initiatives to enhance the dining experience:

  1. Small – intimate booths that seat five people and can be closed off from other diners.
  2. Bouncy – ultra-comfortable seating or positive, upbeat music.
  3. Spiral – a dining area set over multiple levels with floor tiles in an intricate pattern. The kitchen team also considers how they can present food items in the shape of a spiral to make meals more interesting or presentable.
  4. Flexible – a restaurant that also serves as a museum with random opening hours that suit the needs of patrons.

Read Next: Business AnalysisCompetitor Analysis, Continuous InnovationAgile MethodologyLean StartupBusiness Model InnovationProject Management.

Other Brainstorming Frameworks

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciate Inquiry (AI) is an organizational change methodology that focuses on strengths and not on weaknesses. Appreciate Inquiry was created by management professors David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the 1980s. The Appreciate Inquiry is also known as the 5-D Cycle, an iterative cycle describing five distinct phases, made of define, discover, dream, design, and destiny.

Round-robin Brainstorming

Round-robin brainstorming is a collective and iterative approach to brainstorming. Brainstorming is an effective way of generating fresh ideas for an organization. Round-robin brainstorming is a balanced approach, employing an iterative, circular process that builds on the previous contribution of each participant.

Constructive Controversy

Constructive controversy is a theory arguing that controversial discussions create a good starting point for understanding complex problems. A constructive controversy discussion is performed by following six steps: organize information and derive conclusions; presenting and advocating decisions; being challenged by opposing views; conceptual conflict and uncertainty; epistemic curiosity and perspective-taking; and reconceptualization, synthesis, and integration.

Affinity Grouping

Affinity grouping is a collaborative prioritization process where group participants brainstorm ideas and opportunities according to their similarities. Affinity grouping is a broad and versatile process based on simple but highly effective ideas. It helps teams generate and then organize teams according to their similarity or likeness.

The Fishbone Diagram

The Fishbone Diagram is a diagram-based technique used in brainstorming to identify potential causes for a problem, thus it is a visual representation of cause and effect. The problem or effect serves as the head of the fish. Possible causes of the problem are listed on the individual “bones” of the fish. This encourages problem-solving teams to consider a wide range of alternatives.


Rolestorming as a term was first mentioned by personal development guru Rick Griggs in the 1980s.  Rolestorming is a brainstorming technique where participants pretend they are other people when sharing their thoughts and ideas.

Reverse Brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming takes advantage of the natural human tendency to more easily see problems than solutions. What’s more, many individuals when placed in a traditional brainstorming environment will find it difficult to become creative on command. Reverse brainstorming is an approach where individuals brainstorm the various ways a plan could fail. 

Lotus Diagram

A lotus diagram is a creative tool for ideation and brainstorming. The diagram identifies the key concepts from a broad topic for simple analysis or prioritization.

Futures Wheel

The futures wheel was invented in 1971 by Jerome C. Glenn while he was studying at the Antioch Graduate School of Education.  The futures wheel is a brainstorming framework for visualizing the future consequences of a particular trend or event.
Scroll to Top