Answers from Unlikely Places : A problem cannot be solved at the same level at which it was created

Posted on by Brandon Klein


We frequently look for the answer to our challenges within our own experiences. So do participants, who have real difficulty stepping far enough from their issues to gain sufficient perspective to solve them in a breakthrough manner.

Einstein: A problem cannot be solved at the same level at which it was created.



Expose participants to ways of thinking about their issues in order for ‘Aha!’ experiences to occur. For yourself: read weirdly widely.

Looking in unlikely places can serve as crop rotation for the mind with our clients. Their organization often has a hard time looking outside itself, let alone searching for ideas outside its field. The benchmarking they do may be limited to their own industry, ensuring any ideas are inbred. Ideas can come from science, nature, history, technology, current events, organizational dynamics, military tactics, and how to operate an aquarium. Inspiration can come from other sources, as well—music, theater, sports, raising children, whatever.

How many times might you be reading about an unrelated topic and discover something that sheds a new light on a topic or challenge you have? A trip to the museum can provoke fresh thoughts. A movie can convey a very powerful (and culturally common) metaphor—look how many Legends exercises are based on The Wizard of Oz.

Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern, in their book Corporate Creativity, note that creativity needs a serendipitous event and an environment where that event can be recognized for the value it potentially has. We can do this at the ASE through utilizing the collaborative nature of the space, exposure to different models, reading outside one’s field, interaction with associates outside ones immediate circle, and an expectation that important things will get found.


· Kellogg’s executives attempting to make a model of their organization could not immediately get any glue to paste down the cups that were to represent business units. That led to a decision to make them ‘mobile business units’ that became a key point of operational strategy.

· Digital executives looking for a metaphor describing how Digital business lines functioned in the economy hit upon the ‘Digital Lion King,’ which ultimately became a pen and ink sketch that most executive use to communicate strategy.

· At Abbey National, a team doing a Legends exercise presented a father telling bedtime stories to his son in the far future. His son kept asking him to define things. When asked what a bank was, he said that they were old organizations, no longer in existence as they had forgotten that “people want banking, not banks.” This was a defining moment in figuring out how to implement a retail banking strategy.

· One global retailer generated a key go-to-market idea for an under-performing category by applying the same strategy as the McDonald’s value meal (bundling several items together to make a new whole).

While we frequently get pushback on some of the things that we ask people to read, they find in the reading what they need to dialog about or progress on their issues.

From Corporate Creativity:

“The six elements of corporate creativity, which play a role in every creative act, are they key to increasing corporate creativity. They are:


1. Alignment - Strong alignment requires clarity about what the key goals of the organization are, commitment to initiatives that promote them, and accountability for actions that affect them.

2. Self-initiated activity - the majority of creative acts in companies are self-initiated, which explains why they are unanticipated by management. When a project is self-initiated, the individual involved self-selects for the job. Frequently his or her point of entry is into the activity is only a minor facet of its full potential, so minor, perhaps, as to seem insignificant to all but the initiator. To promote self-initiated activity, companies only have to unleash what is already present.

3. Unofficial activity - Every unexpected creative act begins with a period of unofficial activity, which might be a matter of minutes or years. Unofficial status brings some important benefits that are often lost with official status—a safe haven for the strange and repellent, avoids official boundaries, improved decision making, and getting more from a firm’s employees than it could reasonably ask for. There are limits to what a company can ask of its employees, but there are few limits to what people will ask of themselves.

4. Serendipity - Combining a fortunate accident with sagacity. Fortunate accidents can be promoted through strategies that provoke and exploit accidents. Sagacity can be promoted by expanding the company’s human potential beyond its immediate needs.

5. Diverse stimuli - A stimulus can either push someone in a completely new direction or give that person fresh insight into what he or she has already set out to do. To promote diverse stimuli, a company can identify stimuli and provide them to employees, rotate employees into every job they are capable of doing, arrange for employees to interact with those outside the company who are likely to be the source of stimuli, and create opportunities for employees to bring into the organization stimuli they get on their own.

6. Within-company communication - The larger the company, the more likely that the components of a creative act are already present, but the less likely that they will be brought together without some help. Provide opportunities for employees who do not normally interact with each other to meet.”

“Perhaps the most important method for expanding a problem sector is thinking by analogy.” --Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure

“The fact that there are no experts in Tinkertoys, and that there is no right or wrong way to build a perception of a problem with Tinkertoys, allows each group to project its type onto a common and neutral screen . . . Contrary to popular opinion, the most difficult translations occur between those who think theya re speaking the same language when they are not.” Ian Mitroff, Smart Thinking for Crazy Times