Think of Others If You Want Bigger, Better Ideas

04/06/2013 12:43 pm 12:43:33 | Updated Jun 06, 2013

Struggling with a tricky problem? Pass it on to someone else. Sounds tempting? Here are a number of reasons why it might be your best course of action.

It turns out creativity flows more freely when you imagine someone else dealing with an issue. Professors Evan Polman and Kyle Emich asked 137 undergraduates to imagine the following scenario: a prisoner, being held in a tower, had a length of rope which was half the length he needed to escape safely. He cut it in half, then tied it together and got away. How did he do this?

Half the undergraduates were asked to imagine they were the prisoner, the other half to imagine it was somebody else. Less than half (48 percent) of those who had to imagine their own escape were successful while two-thirds of those (66 percent) who imagined it was somebody else managed to get the answer (the prisoner split the rope lengthwise).

There could be several reasons why we can generate more ideas when thinking like this -- for example, when you are not blinded by the detail you are less likely to say, "well, that might work if it weren't for X,Y and Z." Seeing a problem as your own can hold you too close to it, unable to see the bigger picture.

When there is less at stake for you personally, you'll probably find it easier to take bigger risks. When the problem is not yours, you are not involved emotionally. If the solution means carrying out a personally difficult task, such as sacking an employee, you may feel the emotional pull of knowing that person. An outsider, even one with empathy, will not feel the same ties.

Businesses can sometimes be reluctant to turn their employees' focus to other companies, but Lisa Bodell, the CEO of the global consulting firm futurethink, uses it to her benefit by asking staff to imagine a company like theirs and then "Kill the Company." By imagining another company with similar strengths and weaknesses, it becomes easier to think big and recognise what needs doing in their own role.

When a problem is yours to solve, it can be difficult to create distance. Here are some suggestions for taking a step back:

  • Ask advice the opinion of someone who has no connection to the subject
  • Write it down in the third person: "A woman in her thirties had to decide how to..." By seeing it in a different medium such as pen and paper and by narrating it as if it was a story, different angles and fixes have the space to emerge.
  • Ask, "What would X do?" Whether it's a person or a business, a friend or a celebrity, imagining yourself in their shoes can be freeing even though this is simply your interpretation of how another person would think about it. Even better, imagine what a completely unrelated person would do: How would your favourite sports star handle the management of your less productive employees? How would your Grandma have got the best out of them?

Collaboration can have a similar effect. Working with others will leave you open to their influences. An idea is born in your own mind, but by sharing, moulding and developing it with others, it can be questioned, rigorously tested and strengthened. By revealing your latest findings and sharing your most difficult setbacks, you can draw on collective wisdom to solve problems and move forward together.

To that end, I'm collaborating with Roland Harwood from 100%Open, to see if we can make this work in practice. Together, we're holding Interplay, a one day event where businesses are asked to bring along their most pressing and beguiling problems for others to solve.

Many of history's greatest creative insights occurred through collaboration. We hope to add a few during the course of the event!