life in general, strategy

Inspirations favour the prepared mind (part 1)

Few weeks ago, I received an email inviting me to give a short talk on “the process of creating ideas, campaigns, or innovations”. I’m a bit baffled because I don’t see myself as an “idea creator”. I see myself more as a problem solver. 

I decided to talk about habits that help us get better at solving problems. I will elaborate the content of my talk in this blog, in three consecutive posts. The first one is about the habit of staying longer with the problem.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

I want to correct the thinking that creative problem solvers and innovators have the magical ability getting profound insights and magical inspirations all the time. Nobody who works in any creative commercial enterprises can can afford to hold on to this myth. Every project has schedules and deadlines, and nobody is allowed to take their own sweet time to wait for inspirations to strike.

Someone wise once said, “Chances favour the prepared mind” (it was actually Louis Pasteur, who discovered bacterial fermentation and vaccination). I want to steal from him. I posit that inspirations favour the prepared mind.

I’m not saying that insights and inspirations are not necessary in creative thinking. Obviously we need inspirations, from big eureka moments or little revelations that widen our views. But we can hike up our chance to catch inspirations by preparing our mind. We have to turn those preparations into habits. This is how we can be creative at any given time.

I want to share with you my habits when I work to solve problems. I hope you want to try adopting them. Those habits are not so difficult because I will show you the techniques an methods. What’s going to be harder is you must stop your old habits that have been deeply ingrained inside you.

First habit: stay longer with the problem

I have written before why this habit is important (here). To start this habit, we have to kick off those reflexes to immediately seek for solutions. Believe me, jumping into solutions is a hard habit to break. I still have to remind my colleagues to not do it.

Some people are reluctant to stay longer with the problem because they think it will paralyse them. They expect they will be overwhelmed by too many questions. Worry not: there are techniques that are easy to learn. These techniques or methods make staying longer with the problem a painless and fruitful effort.

The methods I use come from this short but very useful book, Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe. I have written before on why I highly recommend it here. In a very accessible way, the book explains the steps and the methods via simple stories and clear examples.

For example, Ken outlines the steps we take when solving a problem. Please notice that it’s only on step three that we start thinking of solutions, in the form of action plans. See below: 

Steps in solving problems.
From Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

 

Watanabe proposes many useful and practical tools that help us along the process. For example, here’s a yes-no diagram that helps us identify the root cause of the problem. In this example, the one who has a the problem is a school band who has held free rock concerts in their school on Saturdays. They want to have more people coming to their free concerts. See below.

A yes-no diagram to help us identify why there are not many people coming to see free rock concerts.   From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.


A yes-no diagram to help us identify the root cause of a problem.
From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

 

Another tool is logic tree. This is useful to help us understand the situation, or to broaden our view to see possible solutions. Here’s an example of a logic tree used by a company that produces bottled spice, like bottled ground pepper.

A logic-tree to help us think about ways to increase the number of pepper that comes out of the bottle in one shake. From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

A logic-tree to help us think about solutions.
From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

 

I’ve mentioned before that some people fear they will be paralysed by so many questions. Watanabe gives us another tool that helps us to manage those questions and take us closer to the root cause. The tool is a simple table with columns of

  • “Issues /questions”
  • “Hypothesis : our guessed answer to each question
  • “Rationale”: we come up with that hypothesis
  • “Analysis/actions: what we will do to test our hypothesis
  • “Source of information”: where we will get that data or info to test our hypothesis.

See below for the example related to the low attendance in free rock concert problem.

Problem-solving design plan. From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

Problem-solving design plan.
From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

There are many more tools and techniques you can read in this invaluable book (go get this book, it’s truly worth the money and effort). But I hope you get the gist. With the right tools and techniques, staying longer with the problem is not going to be painful. So start the habit and use the tools and techniques.

***

That’s the first habit that prepares our mind to catch inspirations, and not just wait for them to strike. On the next post, I will talk about preparing our mind to solve problems related to changing the way people feel and behave. Watch this space. Yes, I really push myself to write in this blog more often.

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