Got a problem to solve? Get creative with how you think about it

It is scientifically proven that we become accustomed to certain thinking patterns.  When we think we form neural pathways.  The more we think in a certain way the more defined these pathways become and the more likely we are to continue thinking in that way.  This isn’t surprising.  We all develop habits and preferences and often know what kind of a thinker we are.  The challenge is that we all get stuck sometimes.

Leaders at all levels are paid to think and to help others to think through problems for themselves.  

This doesn’t mean you have all the answers, but it helps if you have different ways of exploring a problem that’s proving difficult to solve.  Relying on habitual ways of thinking often won’t help you to get unstuck.

This is when having a professional coach can really help you to open up your thinking and to identify techniques that will help you to stretch your own personal boundaries.  If you don’t have a coach, try some of the techniques I use with my clients. You can use them effectively working on your own, with a peer or in a team.

Get creative

Many of us don’t practice being creative as we get older. It’s a skill we all have as children, drawing on our imagination, sense of freedom from rules and our ability to find fun in everything.  If your work and life isn’t filled with creativity adding this dimension is a great way of unblocking your thinking.

You could illustrate the problem in a mind map using different colours and shapes and look at the patterns that emerge.  Try creating an image of the issue or how you’re feeling, or

create an avatar of the problem.  What does it look like and think like?  What feeds it?

Be as creative as you want to be using different materials and ways of looking at the problem.  What new insights has this given you about the problem?  How will you use those insights?

Take yourself out of the equation

We often get stuck because we start to think about the ‘how’ of solutions that emerge which really restricts our thinking.   As our mind thinks about the possibilities we start to self-regulate our thoughts and consider how realistic they are.  We’re thinking “Could I/we do that?”  This means that we discount lots of options and stop the free-flowing thinking process before we really get started.

Taking yourself out of the equation really frees up your thinking to look at all the options.

You can depersonalise the problem by thinking of someone who really inspires you and asking “what would x do in this situation?” If you’re working with a team think about what your best competitors would do about the problem.  Then let the ideas flow.

Back to the future

Fast forward to what the future will be like when the problem is solved and everything is working as well as it can.  Really absorb yourself in that future vision.  2-3 years is often a good timescale as it’s not too far ahead to be unimaginable.  Describe that future: what’s happening; who is involved; what does it feel and look like?

Once you’ve got this really clear try working back to redefine priorities and consider the steps that will take you closer to that vision. Can you identify one or two actions that would move you forward?

Play with a different mindset

We know that mindsets can make a huge difference to how you perform. I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck who first developed this concept.  Mindsets are “beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities.”  They are a type of lens through which we view the world and they too become habits.

You may have a risk averse mindset or be a risk-taker.  You may be someone who needs to plan things in detail or be someone who jumps in without any planning.  Identifying your mindsets brings self-awareness.  This surfaces the chance to adopt a different mindset which can be very freeing and fun to play with.

For example, I’m a planner.  I love having a plan and knowing roughly what will happen and when. I’d like to think I love suprises, but when things are sprung on me I sometimes don’t enjoy them.  This mindset will influence my thinking about a problem I am trying to solve.  If I adopt the opposite mindset of spontaneity and experimentation  I will come up with different options.

Consciously adopting a different mindset can be really helpful when problem solving.

You might even experiment with a different physical appearance or go to a different place when you are in your opposite mindset character.  Having fun is a great way to free up your thinking too.

Ask someone to listen 

Sounds simple doesn’t it?  But this is a different type of listening.  It is listening with full attention on the person thinking.  When was the last time someone really listened to you with their full attention without interrupting?  It doesn’t happen very often.

Being listened to without pressure of time or interruption and in an environment where you feel valued and important is freeing.

Nancy Kline developed a technique called thinking pairs.  We think through things when we speak about them in an environment where we know we will not be interrupted or judged.

Listening in thinking pairs means supressing your desires to interrupt, clarify, offer solutions or identify with your experiences of the issue being talked about.  It is focussing on giving open and curious attention to the person thinking.  It’s a skill most people have to work on as listening has become a forgotten skills in today’s multi-tasking world.

If you can recruit a listening partner then give this a go, or try working in listening pairs as a team.

Let it be

Sometimes problems need to sit with you for a while.  If you’re stuck try occupying yourself with something completely different.  A new piece of work, a social activity or get out into nature.   The brain is a wonderful thing.  It will keep working on the problem even though you are not explicitly focussing on it.

We can get too wrapped up in problems at times and this technique can help you to step back which helps your mind to find solutions.  When you return to the problem you’ll often have new ideas about how to move forward.

Thinking is an essential part of life and leadership.  As David Rock says, thinking about how we think and being curious about expanding our thinking in new and creative ways benefits us and those we lead.

Leaders are paid to think.  How good are you at it?

I’d love to hear about what helps you to think when you’re problem solving.  Please share your ideas.