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4 New Ways To Look At a Difficult Problem

Don’t get stuck in a rut. Keep asking (these) questions.

(This article originally appeared in my column at Inc.)

If you do complex work, you’ll inevitably get stuck. In these situations, it’s be tempting to revert to the same wells of inspiration or problem-solving methods that have worked for you in the past. However, what worked yesterday will not always work today, and you are unlikely to solve a problem by remaining inside of well-worn ruts. Instead, you need to step outside of the problem and look at it from multiple angles, to see if it sparks a fresh perspective.

There are four “frames” through which you can look at a problem to help you think laterally and jog new insights or avenues of exploration. They are not “magic bullets”, but they can force you to think in new ways about your problem. (I explore them further in my book Die Empty.)

Challenge Your Assumptions

When doing complex work, it’s easy to get into “thought ruts”, or to revert to mental short-cuts that prevent you from seeing things as they really are. Some fossilized assumptions may be valid, but some may be preventing you from connecting dots that are right in front of you. When you are considering a challenging problem ask:

What am I assuming to be true?

What am I assuming to be false?

What would I do if that wasn’t the case?

Look For Affinities

Another valuable method for sparking creative insight is to look to similar problems that have been solved in other industries, or to consider parallel problems you’ve solved before. By drawing connections between these seemingly disconnected circumstances, you can often uncover a path forward that was previously obscured. You can ask:

What is this problem like?

Where have I seen something like this before?

Who could solve this problem with ease, and how would they do it?

What is a good metaphor for this problem?

Examine The Attributes

It can be easy to lose sight of the fundamental sticking points that are causing you to feel stuck. By breaking a problem down into its constituent parts, you can more easily wrap your mind around it. To do this, you have to consider the critical path that will help you arrive at a solution. You can ask:

What’s at the core of this problem? What’s the clear, critical issue?

How can I simplify this problem?

How can I build a model of the problem, to help me see it more clearly?

Re-connect With Your Aspirations

A final frame you can use to jog new insights is to look at is to re-ground your efforts in ultimate objective you’re trying to achieve. When you’re bogged down in solving a problem, it can be easy to drift off course and lose sight of what ultimate success would look like. To re-center on your target, you can ask:

How will I know I’ve succeeded?

What has to be true in order for me to get there?

Why is this problem important, and how do my actions contribute to the greater good?

Again, there is no “magic bullet” for creative problem solving, but by surrounding the problem and examining it through diverse frames, you are placing yourself in the best possible situation to spot a solution that others will likely overlook.

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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