Attribute Analysis

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Intent or purpose: 
To determine the attributes of an object or idea and generate ideas based on them.
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Optimal amount of time needed: 
60 min.
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Level of Difficulty to Facilitate: 
Facilitation skills required
Pre-Work Required: 
The focus question needs to be clear.

Attribute analysis is the process of breaking down a problem, idea, or thing into attributes or component parts and then thinking about the attributes rather than the thing itself.

For example, let's say you work for a ball bearing manufacturer and you discover that a flaw in one of the machines has caused the production of 800 million slightly out-of-round ball bearings. You could ask, "What can I do with 800 million slightly out-of-round ball bearings?" and, of course, a few things come to mind, like sling shot ammo and kid's marbles. But you could also break the ball bearings down into attributes, such as roundish, heavy, metal, smooth, shiny, hard, magnetizable. Then you could ask, "What can I do with 800 million heavy things?" or "What can I do with 800 million shiny things?"

Further, you can focus on each identified attribute and ask questions about it, like this:

What can heavy things be used for? paperweights, ship ballast, podium anchors, tree stands, scale weights, and so on
What can be done with metal things? conduct electricity, magnetize them, melt them, make tools with them

To solve the problem of poverty, ask, what are the attributes of poverty
Some answers: people, crime, lack of food, lack of goods, large families, psychological lacks, low self esteem, welfare, lack of jobs, lack of job skills, lack of value-rich upbringing, lack of education, lack of motivation, poor economic judgment (poor buying skills), poor quality housing, poor quality transportation.

Then, each of these attributes can be addressed, either directly, or through further attribute analysis. For example, take "poor economic judgment." What are the attributes of that?
Some possibilities: buying low quality items, buying smaller packages at higher price per ounce, wasteful spending habits, tendency to "blow a wad" on payday, inefficient food buying (expensive rather than quantity or health considerations), lack of market competition (and hence higher prices), lack of ability to budget, tendency to use money for non food items like alcohol, inability to calculate price per ounce, etc. to determine greatest economy

Discovering attributes can be aided by the use of checklists. For example:
Physical: color, weight, material, speed, odor, size, structure, taste
Psychological: appearance, symbolism, emotive ("happy smell of detergent")
Functional: intended uses, applications, how it does what it does
People: who's involved
Miscellaneous: cost, reputation, origin, class it belongs to, definition

Attribute analysis is sometimes described as a smashing technique, because it smashes our fixed and frozen collection of thoughts about a problem or idea. Notice that this is accomplished by refocusing onto something belonging to the problem but more general or abstract or more specific and concrete. Often, attribute analysis is another way of recognizing that a given problem is really a collection of interrelated smaller problems. And often it is a way of perceiving the variables that make up a situation or thing in a way that allows us to change one or more and improve the whole thing.

Example problem: How can we read and remember better? First, what are the attributes of reading and remembering?
Possibilities: books, repetition, visualization, understanding (comprehension), quantity of material and number of details, length of time desired to remember (short or long or permanent)
What are the attributes of visualization? ... Solution: draw pictures of what you read.
What are the attributes of understanding? ... Simplify text by rewriting it or summaries of it into your own words

Another problem: What are the uses for a yellow pencil? What are the attributes?
Possibilities: yellow paint, hexagonal, pointed, rubber end, metal ring, wood, graphite rod, long and stick-like shape
What are the attributes of wood? burns, floats, electrical insulator, nailable, paintable, gluable, structural component, soaks up liquid slowly, can be sanded or carved

History of Development: 
Robert Harris (January 5, 2002). VirtualSalt, Creative Thinking Techniques
License Model: 
Free (or unattributable)