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We've all got problems. Some of them are easy to fix, especially if we're motivated to solve them. However, some of the problems become huge obstacles that successfully prevent us from moving forward, unless we can apply our creativity to tackle them. Want to gain some serious headway on solving them? Read on.

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The right stuff of problem solving

"A problem well-defined is half solved" — John Dewey, educational pioneer

John Dewey got it exactly right in the quote above. When we focus on the proper problem, solving it becomes easier — sometimes even self-evident — and better yet, your efforts are rewarded by creating an effective solution to the proper problem!

So how do you find the proper problem? By using your creativity to generate lots of statements of the problem. Set a target of 30 different statements of the problem and use these guidelines:

  1. defer judgment — write down any idea that comes to mind,
  2. strive for quantity — don't stop until you get 30 ideas,
  3. seek wild and unusual ideas — let the crazy ideas flow, and
  4. combine and build on other statements.

Look at the problem from as many different ways as possible. To help you do that, ask yourself questions such as, "why do you want/need to solve the problem?" or "what's stopping you from moving forward?" Your answers to these questions will give you insights into other ways of looking at the issue. Your focus here is to generate lots of different statements of the problem and then select the one that seems to properly sum up the real problem, not just a symptom.

Wish you could ship your problems elsewhere?

For example, in the mid 1950's, ocean going freighters were a dying industry. Because the shipping companies were losing money, they focused on speed and efficiency, working on building faster ships that required smaller crews. But they couldn't get back into the black no matter how fast were the ships. But then one consultant explored the problem from many different angles and shifted the focus of the problem from, "how to make ships faster and more efficient," to "in what ways might the shipping industry reduce cost?" This insight allowed the industry to consider all aspects of shipping, including storage of cargo and loading time. The outcome of this shift in focus resulted in the container ship and the roll-on/roll-off freighter. These innovations have resulted in a fivefold increase in freighter traffic in the last thirty years, and costs have been reduced by 60%. Additionally, port time has been reduced by 75%, and with it, congestion and theft has declined.

How to phrase a problem?

"Please phrase your answer in the form of a question" — Alex Trebek, Jeopardy gameshow pioneer

Then there's the Jeopardy approach to problems. One of the easiest ways of gaining access to solutions and removing the psychological obstacle that blocks your thinking is to phrase the problem in the form of a question. So instead of, "We're losing money," try "how to reduce costs?" or "how to generated additional revenue?" It's really just that simple, but it works! Try phrasing the problems starting with: "How to…" or "How might…" or "In what ways might…" You'll be amazed at the effect this has on the problem as it subtly shifts from being a complaint and turns into an active question that invites solutions.

Change the way you look at problems

In some Asian cultures, the word "problem" is represented by the characters that mean "danger" and "opportunity." An interesting way to look at it, eh? One way to make huge progress on creatively solving those problems is to simply look at them differently. If you do perhaps you'll have results like one participant in a training session who, the day after the training, solved a problem that had been plaguing the company for 77 years just by looking at the problem from another angle and stating it as a question. Alex Trebek would have been proud. •

Next: Seeking Creative Answers with the SCAMPER Method

©2004 Jonathan Vehar. All rights reserved.