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How to Solve Problems More Creatively

Solving problems more creatively doesn't mean working harder. It starts with thinking differently. One way to do this is to ask the questions that we don't normally ask. These are questions that challenge not only the assumptions we may be making, but the problem itself. Let's look at an example.

Lose an Election to Change the World

Janet's problem was how to get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She wasn't wealthy, so she was thinking about the money needed. Then one day she decided to get more creative, by asking a lot of questions, and challenging the answers. She asked, "Is raising money really the first thing to do here?" Researching the issue online, she discovered that winners typically have more money because they're liked as candidates, and that brings in contributions, not the other way around as is commonly assumed.

This lead Janet to reorient her campaign from fund raising to making the message clearer, targeting those who shared her beliefs, and letting people know what she stood for. Soon she was getting contributions from thousands who followed her campaign on the internet. (Consider how Ron Paul raised millions online.)

Then she asked, "Why do I need to get elected?" She wanted to make a real change in how things were done in Washington, but challenging the hidden premise in that idea, she wondered if winning a seat in congress was the best way to change things. After all, it seemed that the corrupt way things were done had so much to do with how one got there in the first place.

She studied history a bit, and noticed that those who lose elections often cause more change than those who win. Consider politically active fighters for civil rights in the 1940s. They could not win an election in those more racist times, but they did affect the views of many people. The new political climate thus created required the "electable" candidates to alter their views and promises.

In other words, if a man wants to win he must compromise what he sees as right, and is eventually bound by his political obligations to continue that corruption of his original mission. When he ignore the unspoken rules of politics he won't get elected, but he is entirely free to speak the truth, and so actually causes more change. The message is clear, and by changing public opinion he drags the "electable" compromisers in his direction. They are the ones who have to abide by the will of the people after all.

This gave Janet an idea. She still did her best to get her message out and gather support. But knowing she would likely lose the election, she created a document detailing what she and her supporters believed in and wanted to accomplish. It was sent to other candidates, who were invited to make their case for how they could meet those goals. When it was clear she was losing the race, she would drop out and endorse the candidate most willing to align himself with her values and goals.

She would push her supporters to vote for the one endorsed, but withdraw support from any who lied or broke promises to her supporters. By the next election she worked this into a system for generating votes, which were then be "delivered" to whoever would promise the most and keep their promises. This changed things in the direction she and others wanted, and without compromising their values or goals.

Notice that it was only when she challenged her stated problem of "how to get elected " that Janet found a more creative and effective way to accomplish what she really wanted.

Solving Problems by Asking Deeper Questions

To identify the key elements of the problem, ask "why do I care?," or "why is this problem important?" These questions not only clarify the problem itself, but can help to determine which problems you need to be working on first. Identify and challenge any and all assumptions.

Work up and down the hierarchy of values to clarify what the problem is. Suppose you start with "where to go on vacation." Ask why you need to solve this. The answer might be the more important value of "I want to have a good vacation." Approaching the problem at this level may yield other solutions that resolve the "where" or make it less important. ("How to vacation" is perhaps a better question for the many stressed and rushed vacationers out there.)

Challenging the need for a good vacation can lead to the more important value of "enjoying life." Working from that level, some people may find that their vacations are an escape from an unsatisfactory job. Finding a better career may be the more important task. In the end, a person might just get back to choosing a vacation destination, but this process can help clarify why the problem needs to be solved, and suggest new ways to do that.

Consider the child's game of "why?" It starts something like this: An adult tells a boy he needs to go to school, and the child asks "Why?"

"To get educated."

"Why?"

"So you can go on to the university."

"Why?"

"To get a degree."

"Why?"

"Because good employers require them."

The game goes on, usually ending when the adult says impatiently, "Because I said so!" But this simple process gets deep into the heart of these things. A smart kid might even notice, "If I am the employer, I can hire myself without a degree." More creative problem solving can start with this child-like willingness to ask again and again, "Why?"


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