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The requirement to problem-solve is one we all have in our job descriptions, whether explicitly stated or not. And it’s a vital skill to cultivate if you wish to be successful in life. As the great Austrian philosopher Karl Popper mused, 'all life is problem solving'.
Creative problem solving is at the core of what leaders do. The best leaders view problems through a panoramic window of opportunity, approaching challenges not linearly, but by using a circular vision that requires looking around, beneath and beyond the problems. Below are 3 approaches you could take to view your problems in a more creative, empowering way.
1. Reframe the problem
Before you begin brainstorming solutions to your problem, try reframing the question, i.e. look at the problem in a different way. For example, if you are brainstorming about the issue of how to plan a birthday party for a co-worker, you are assuming that it needs to be a party. If you reframe your question to “How can we make Joan feel special on her birthday?” or even “How can we make Joan’s day memorable?” you will generate a range of options. The options generated for memorable might involve a trip abroad, whereas those that result from brainstorming around ‘special’ could involve a combined gift from your department. The more questions you are able to pose, the greater the number of options you will generate for each problem.
The key to using this method is to find the essence of the problem, which frees you to think creatively (if you’re struggling to identify the essence of a problem, use the ‘Five Whys’ technique, explained in this article, to help you). In the co-worker example given above, the essence of the problem might find the most suitable way to thank Joan for her great contribution to the department, using the occasion of her birthday to do so (although you could also challenge the need to use her birthday to show the department’s appreciation). Making the birthday memorable or doing something special for her are but a couple of ways of expressing what a valued member of the department she is.
Another example of reframing questions by identifying its essence can be found in the manufacture of Dyson vacuum cleaner bags. As these bags were frequently getting clogged, manufacturers sought a way to create a filter that would prevent the problem of clogging. The essence of the problem was identified as separation. This enabled manufacturers to experiment with different methods of separation and, eventually, the Dual Cyclone vacuum was birthed.
A good approach when reframing problems is to question your assumptions and any perceived limitations you may retain of those problems. A number of well publicised business cases, from the distant past and the recent present, illustrate the dangers of not questioning assumptions:
In the late 1800s, William Orton, president of Western Union, declined the patent to the telephone because he assumed people would be turned off an “electrical toy”. Orton believed that the company would not see any commercial benefits from the telephone.
Microsoft, under Steven Ballmer, CEO, assumed customers would prefer their software in a neat and tidy box and wrongly believed that the iPhone would be seen as impractical for business. This assumption was wrong, and Microsoft saw a decline of 40 percent in the company’s value during Ballmer’s tenure as CEO of the company.
Challenging assumptions generates unique opportunities. Some airlines, for example, have challenged the assumption that passengers must be given a three course meal during their journey, or that there must be fixed seat arrangements on flights. This process of challenging assumptions has created a range of options for these airlines: a first-come-first serve approach to seating, for example, or providing customers with no more than drinks during a flight. Fujifilm challenged the assumption that they had to limit their products to the film and photographic industries. They sought other applications of their technologies and now have a market leading product in the dermatology industry (Asta Lift).
2. Think metaphorically
A metaphor is simply a direct comparison between two objects that have little if any logical connection. An example is “the world is a stage” (the metaphor format is A=B). Metaphors can be implicit too: “your proposal is half-baked” associates a proposal with food without actually mentioning food, but implies that the proposal is ‘underdone’ and therefore no good. As such, metaphors provide us with vivid images that can be used to boost communications and thinking.
Metaphorical thinking is also an excellent, creative way to approach problems: linking unrelated elements opens up the creative part of the brain, the side that is stimulated by images and conceptual thinking. Moreover, by linking complex problems with more familiar phenomena, you can spark a greater appreciation of complex problems so that people are no longer constrained by the images they retain of the current problem or by their fixed ideas about possible solutions. Metaphors are powerful tools because they evoke vivid images that help us to view things from unexpected, new angles. Here’s an example of metaphorical problem solving in action:
1. Identify a suitable metaphor for your problem
Problem: Lower manufacturing costs
Metaphor: Lose weight
2. Brainstorm a range of solutions
- Join the local gym
- Count calories
- Reduce intake on carbs and fats
- Don’t snack between meals
- Drink more water
- Walk everywhere
3. Identify ways in which the solutions to the metaphorical problem might apply to the actual problem
Application: Reduce expenditure on inputs
Reduce intake on carbs and fats
Application: Review existing suppliers; find alternative, cheaper/more efficient suppliers
Drink more water
Application: Flush out repetitive processes
Use the solutions generated as a lever to catalyst for workable solutions to your actual problem.
3. Generate bad ideas
Often during brainstorming, participants experience a pressure to come up with good, smart-sounding ideas. Invariably, most people in the group will come up with similar ideas, or slight variations of the same themes. A more creative approach would be to seek bad ideas and challenge the group to turn those bad ideas into good ones. Tina Seelig, the author of Insight Out: Get Your Ideas out of Your Head and Into the World (paid link), illustrates the approach with a story about a challenge given to a group in one of her classes.
The group was tasked with selling bikinis to people travelling to Antarctica (bad idea), and the result was a triumph of creative problem solving. The group’s solution was to present the challenge as an opportunity for people to get into shape – in a gruelling trip Antarctica. The team crafted an impressive slogan, “Bikini or Die” to suggest that participants on the trip would either fit into their bikinis after the implied exertion, or they would die. What initially sounded like a crazy idea generated a solution that could, at least, be described as plausible.
Do you use creative problem-solving techniques? If you know of any not covered in this post, please share them using the comments box below.