Today we begin with a story.

Once upon a time, a power company in the north-west of America had a problem. Severe winter weather would cause ice to build up on power lines, and potentially bring them down. The power company would have to send linesmen through the snow, to climb up the poles and physically shake the ice off the lines. It was arduous, expensive, and dangerous work. So they put a group together, including some of the linesmen, to come up with a new solution. The group spent a whole morning wrestling with the problem, to no avail. They decided to take a break.

Over coffee, one of the linesmen had everyone laughing, recounting a tale of how he was recently chased by a bear, who started to climb up the pole behind him. Suddenly, someone joked, “What if we put honeypots at the top of the poles to attract the bears? If they start to climb up, they’ll shake the poles and shake the ice off the lines!” Then someone asked, “But how would we get the honeypots on top of the poles?” To which someone else replied, “We could have helicopters fly in to put the pots in place!” “That wouldn’t work”, retorted an assistant in the group, who’d been a nurse in Vietnam. “The sound of the helicopters would frighten the bears away. I remember when I was in Vietnam, the vibration from the helicopters shook everything around them, and the noise was terrible!”

Vibration!! That was their a-ha moment – which came as they were taking a break from the problem and kidding around. Today the power company uses helicopters, and the vibration from their rotating blades, to remove ice from the power lines.


creative problem solving

The art of incubation

Have you ever wrestled with a problem, failed to solve it, and then later, seemingly out of nowhere, a solution springs to mind? Do you find ideas sometimes come to you in the bath or shower, when you are driving your car or drifting off to sleep? Or do you sometimes have a creative thought about one thing while you are laughing about some other thing, entirely unrelated?

This is the power of creative incubation. Back in 1926, in The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas outlined the stages of the creative process as preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. If you ever find yourself stuck on a problem, deliberately tapping into the power of incubation can lead to ideas beyond the obvious. Here are some ways to do so, courtesy of our friend Brian, co-author of Creative Approaches to Problem Solving. The trick is to move yourself away from the problem space, even if just for a moment or two, and then connect back to it to stimulate new thinking.

FIVE Tips for thinking beyond the obvious

Remind yourself of the problem you are trying to solve, and then….

  • Pick up a random object. A child’s toy, for example. Move it around. Think about the color, shape, texture, and purpose. Now relate these to the problem and force a connection. What ideas come to mind? Or listen to a piece of music. How might that connect? Remember, there isn’t an actual connection until you make it up. Let yourself be playful.
  • Shift your perspective. Take a few moments and imagine yourself 100 years ago; 50 years in the future; on the other side of the world…. If you were there, how could you solve the problem?
  • Tap into your super-powers. How might a super-hero solve this? Or a child; a grandparent; a historical figure; an alien?
  • Draw the future. Draw a picture showing what life is like when you have solved the problem. Crayons and stick figures are just fine! Now look for details in the drawing that might spark an idea for solving the problem.
  • Put the problem down. Go for a walk. Be open to something that stands out to you along the way. Notice how it looks, feels, smells. Come back to the problem and ask how those qualities relate. What new thinking does this trigger?

Happy creative problem solving! If you have other suggestions for ways to think differently about a problem, please do share them in the comments below.

Until next time,

Sam and Claire

P.S. We have some other book recommendations on our Reading List page

2 thoughts on “Tips for creative problem solving

  1. Fascinating stuff! Very useful, too. Though I’m a bit worried that those helicopters still scare the poor bears…

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