We’re taught to think of problem solving as a complex and serious task — full of heavy terms like “making concessions” and “compromise.” Meanwhile we imagine creativity blissfully humming away down the hall painting on its easel, head in the clouds. It doesn’t have to be. With a little ingenuity, you can turn solving everyday problems into creative exercises.Here are 4 ways creative thinking can make you a better problem solver today.
1. Redescribe the problem
Sometimes the best place to start is at the problem itself. If you’ve been stuck with no progress, it might be time to take a step back and closely examine the problem. In his book Smart Thinking, Art Markman, cognitive psychologist explains “The whole idea behind creative problem solving is the assumption that you know something that will help solve this problem, but you’re not thinking of it right now. The more different ways you describe the problem you’re trying to solve, the more different things you know about that you will call to mind.”
Often during this process of redescribing the problem, I realize that I had ignored some aspect or small detail that shifts my thinking. If you’re in disagreements with someone, this can be a good way to soothe tempers and get everyone on the same page.
2. Change your perspective on the problem
If you can find a way to re-contextualize the problem (whether medium, perspective, or assumptions), it often gives you that fresh perspective to see things that were hidden before.
A few years ago, I went to a conference that discussed copywriting for the web. Instead of having us sit quietly and read through example text, the moderator passed out pages printed from various websites and selected one person to act as the website and another the user. Then they would read and interact with each other as if it were a two-person play. It made for an amusing presentation, but more importantly, it clearly illustrated the voice of the various websites. It showed why users come away from some websites feeling great and turning into repeat users and come away from other websites feeling hostile and frustrated. Introducing a new medium to the equation changed our perspective just enough to be able to see what might have been much harder to notice in written form.
3. Brainstorm other paths to achieve your end goal
When you’re knee-deep in a problem, it’s easy to get so caught up in the details that you lose the big picture. You find yourself arguing over details without examining them in a broader context. When this starts to happen, it can be helpful to do a quick brainstorm of other paths you could take to get to the same end goal — whether they’re feasible or not is a question for later, just write it all down down in the brainstorming session.
Maybe some of the paths look radically different from what you’re doing now, or maybe it’s just a minor shift. I often find just seeing these alternatives helps get me unstuck and distinguish between what’s worth arguing over and what’s not.
4. Don’t think about it
Take a break. Go for a walk. Best of all, sleep on it. Often the best way to solve a problem is not solve it at all. Instead let your unconscious mind do the work. “Contrary to popular belief, decisions about simple issues can be better tackled by conscious thought, whereas decisions about complex matters can be better approached with unconscious thought.” according to Ap Dijksterhuis and Loran F. Nordgren in their paper A Theory of Unconscious Thought. Consciously, we can only think about a certain number of things at any time — and our conscious mind is easily influenced by irrelevant factors. Meanwhile, the unconscious mind is good at analyzing vast amounts of information, and weighing important factors more heavily than trivial ones.
Later you get an a-ha moment where the solution suddenly pops up as if from nowhere. It almost feels like cheating. It’s hard to say “Let me sleep on it” in professional settings so I often tell clients “I’ll get back to you tomorrow” to give myself that extra time.
Taking a creative approach to problem solving generally leads me to a wider range of options, less conflict, and better results. I hope you find them helpful as well!