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Creative Problem-solving

using all your intelligences

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As my alarm clock’s strident ringing penetrated the sleepy haze, I reached over to silence its clattering.  “Disconsolate,” I mumbled.  “Things can’t be that bad,” said my wife.  “No, that’s not what I mean,” I replied, still half asleep.  I explained how I’d been grappling with a crossword clue just before falling asleep - “forlorn record played at midnight” - but was still left wondering how the solution had clambered from the recesses of my half-awake brain.


Most of us will have had similar experiences.  You go to bed wondering, “What was the name of that Dustin Hoffman film?” only to wake with the title (and large chunks of the soundtrack) bustling in your brain.  It should not really surprise us once we recognise that our brains use our sleep time to sift and sort information, seeking to make sense of the various loose ends of the day.


If our subconscious brain seeks to make sense of the day, occasionally recalling long-lost answers or devising innovative solutions, then the converse is also true.  Sometimes our conscious attempts to order information are more of a hindrance than a help.  Often, we worry incessantly at a problem without coming any closer to a conclusion.  Our brains become trapped into thinking along the same predetermined lines and seem incapable of breaking free.  What we require on such occasions is the opportunity to put our conscious  brain “on hold” – to allow our subconscious to come up with the answers.


The crossword example cited above illustrates this – and no doubt you can think of similar instances.  Often, on such occasions, I have used distraction as a method of enabling recall.  In consequence, names and faces that myself and colleagues have been unable to recall despite laboured efforts suddenly spring to mind spontaneously as soon as we stopped trying so hard to remember them.  One explanation of the success of this distraction method is related to the way the brain operates.  When a problem is presented to us, we identify what kind of problem we think it is – then route it to that part of the brain that deals with that kind of reasoning.  Little do we realise that the solution may be stored in quite a different part of the brain – or at least be more accessible via a different route.  The trouble is, once we have identified the nature of the problem, we are reluctant to change our initial diagnosis.  Having decided that the problem is mathematical we insist on finding a mathematical solution; we cannot entertain the idea that a different part of the brain may have come up with an alternative answer.


Often, our subconscious brain has not only analysed the problem but has also devised a solution.  Our difficulty is that the solution is tucked away in a part of the brain that we may not frequently access – and our own conscious attempts to solve the problem almost inevitably seek to use access routes that are logical or perhaps linguistic (favoured thinking modes when dealing with information that we consider needs to be dealt with in an ordered fashion.)  One answer is to learn how to deliberately engage different parts of the brain in the problem-solving process.


Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University has proposed that there are at least eight different ways in which we process and manipulate information.  By using his Multiple Intelligences model it is possible to identify a range of creative strategies that may assist the problem-solving process.  Here you will find a number of suggestions.  Using these as a basis for experimentation, you should be able to devise a variety of techniques to suit your own preferred thinking style.






Most of the traditional problem-solving techniques that we usually employ (cause and effect analysis, herring-bone diagrams, flow-charts, etc.) fall within this category.  Whereas structured techniques such as these can be most useful in situations requiring an analytical approach, they can sometimes serve to stifle creativity.  However, it does not require too much effort to devise creative thinking strategies that will appeal to those with an enhanced logical-mathematical intelligence.


One “variation on a theme” is reversal.  Having defined the problem, you stand it on its head and explore possibilities.  For example, you might ask how you could provide a worse service to your customers – or how you could increase the number of machinery breakdowns.  This technique can produce surprising results.


A similar technique is entitled, “I couldn’t disagree more!” and works best where a group of people can meet together to jointly address an issue.  Having agreed to use the technique (unless you want the session to degenerate into a brawl), one person kicks off by making a statement about the problem or situation.  The next person’s response must entirely contradict this initial assumption (even if the first statement was clearly true), with the next contribution contradicting that one – and so on.  It is useful if the process can be recorded so that more levelled consideration can be applied later.






Attention all doodlers!  If you thought that your marginal cartoons and random scribbles were merely a distraction to while away the time during meetings, then take heart.  It has been suggested that doodling can enable some people to access different pathways within the brain, thus leading them to stumble across new ideas that the brain has generated.  Representing a problem in diagrammatic form can help some (if not most) people to get a clearer understanding of the situation.  You may find it useful to experiment with Mind-mapping, a technique developed by Tony Buzan, which encourages visual representation of ideas in order to understand relationships and perceive connections.






Talk to someone.  Describe the problem to them as clearly as you can.  It does not matter that they are not a specialist in the problem area.  Indeed, they may know nothing at all about the topic.  The reason you are involving them is not because you expect them to generate answers – but because they will, hopefully, generate further questions.  Even if the questions are “stupid” ones, they will nevertheless enable you to clarify the problem in your own mind.  Often, as you are talking – even while you are still describing the problem – the solution springs to mind.






There is a school of thought that links our capacity to think with our level of language development.  If that is so, then we can think more creatively if we allow ourselves to be more creative with the words we use.  Having identified the nature of the task or problem and its component parts, each is associated with a keyword (or perhaps more than one).  Then you play with the words in a variety of ways – join them, make rhymes, devise anagrams, invent acronyms – until something “clicks”.  You must be prepared for most of the generated ideas to be whimsical or nonsensical; many of them will be impractical or unfeasible.  Nevertheless, if there is one nugget hidden amongst the dross then the exercise could prove invaluable.






The trick here is to represent the problem by means of a model.  The model need not be lifelike or made to scale – indeed, it is unlikely that most problems have a “shape” at all.  Nevertheless, you could use pens, paperclips and rolled-up bits of paper to represent the component parts of the situation.  Failing that, you could simply use your hands to identify each element of the problem, which you place metaphorically within the workspace in front and around you.  Now try moving the parts about.  This technique enables kinaesthetic thinkers to move and manipulate (albeit only in their imagination) the difficulties and barriers to achieving a successful outcome.  Changing the position of the component parts enables you to see the problem – and its potential solutions – from different perspectives.






If you have ever watched the television programme, “Whose line is it anyway?” you will probably have marvelled at the ability of the contestants to spontaneously make up songs on a given theme at a moment’s notice.  The truth is that most of us are capable of doing just the same.  The secret is not to worry about making sense.  Because we are concerned about how people perceive us (and, invariably, we want to be seen as “sensible”), we actually inhibit our creativity by sifting ideas before presenting them.  Unfortunately, as well as sifting out rubbish, we can also sift out the occasional brainwave – because we do not immediately realise its potential.  If we can create an environment in which it is OK to be “silly”, then making up a song or rap may help us to bypass the rational sifting process that rigorously weeds out the unfamiliar – despite the fact that it may hold the answer to our problem.






Take time out to daydream.  Find somewhere quiet.  Close your eyes.  Allow yourself time to think.  Instead of concentrating on the problem, focus on what a successful outcome might be like.  Use “what if …” as a starting point for your imagination and place yourself in a position of having already resolved the situation.  Approaching the problem from a completely different direction (not just in terms of space but also in terms of time) will free your mind to tackle it in a novel way – and could well generate a winning idea.  Of course, your idea is unlikely to arrive fully-fledged and will require considerable nurturing before it sees the light of day.  It is reputed that Einstein crystallised his theory of relativity while on a “journey of the imagination”.  Once he had “returned to earth” he still had to struggle with the mathematics that would substantiate his theory – but the breakthrough had already happened.






Have you ever thought what kind of animal you’d be if you had a choice?  Which creature’s characteristics most closely resemble your own?  What about your family, friends and colleagues?  How do you perceive them in naturalist terms and does this throw any light on your relationships?  Pursuing such an analogy may help you to gain a clearer insight into some of the problems that plague your home or workplace – and may even suggest a solution or two.  Although it may be a little more complicated, it may also be possible to envisage more abstract problems in terms of the animals, plants or natural features that they resemble.  This, in turn, may suggest how they can be destroyed, restrained, harnessed, adapted or trained.





Your first reaction to some of these techniques may be one of mild scepticism.  This is probably because you still perceive problem-solving as a logical process – and some of the suggested approaches are not very logical.  It is true: they are not.  Neither are they guaranteed.  They are simply suggestions that may help to unlock the potential problem-solving ability of your brain: potential that may never be realised by the use of traditional methods.  Next time you have a problem, and you have exhausted the usual channels, why not try one of these novel techniques to stimulate your creativity.  Who knows?  It may even work!


See also:

Problem-solving skills for kids