1. What's the problem?
OK. I know it's "obvious" but humour me. State your problem clearly and simply.

2. How do you know it's a problem?
Again it sounds obvious but spell out what indicates this is a problem. A problem being the gap between how we would like things to be and how they are.

Move from general statements to specifics. Who is involved in this? What happens as a result? Why does this situation arise? When does it occur?

3. What are the facts?
Check your description of your problem. Are there any sweeping generalisations that could do with reigning in? Are there assumptions that need checking? For example instead of "they always do this and it's annoying" you might put "once or twice a day I receive an email from them and I get annoyed" Aim for a description that can be measured.

Notice how we haven't looked at fixing anything yet? Good. Coming up with solutions before understanding the situation is a waste of resources. Be sure of what you're dealing with before committing to resolving anything.

4. Have some fun with it
That sounds nice. Yep. Let your creative hair down and play with this so-called problem. That means thinking differently. Outrageously. Hilariously. Rudely (you don't need to tell anyone).

In other words we need to look at it from a different angle. More than one is better.

There's a famous puzzle with 9 dots. The rules are simple. Give it a try on a piece of paper before revealing the answer.

 Join the 9 dots using 4 straight lines without lifting your pen off the paper.  

Apparently this was the original box we are supposed to think outside of 1.

It's a neat way of illustrating how assumptions and automatic thinking can create obstacles to resolving problems. Who said anything about staying inside the box of dots?

So how exactly do we get creative with the problem? Here's one way. It sounds WEIRD but honestly it produces interesting results.

Look around the place you are currently occupying. Look at the objects in this place. Pick one at random. For example at the moment I can see a watering can, a cuckoo clock, a cute dog and a postcard of the Statue of Liberty.

Pick one then find as many similarities between the problem you are dealing with and the object you chose. There will be at least one. How many can you get? Set a time limit - maybe sixty seconds.

Impossible? You might discover that your problem is a problem to you but nurtures someone else.  Maybe you realise the situation happens like clockwork (and is predictable). Or maybe you are feeding this problem and only making it worse. You might even realise the problem just looks dramatic but is in fact a shell - with nothing inside at all.

Or you can try a different approach altogether. Describe the problem from the problem's perspective. If the problem could speak - how would it describe the situation (and you)?

Let me know what you come up with.

5. Now its time to pull things together. 
Gather your thoughts. Refine your ideas. Review them. Tighten your words - lasso them into shape

6. Finally you can solutionise
Formulate a your approach taking into account your new perspective. Test it. See if you get closer to the results you are seeking. Go back to your problem statement. Review and repeat as necessary until your problem is resolved to your satisfaction.

By challenging how you think about a problem, you can avoid being boxed in by assumptions and artificial constraints.

I believe it was Einstein that said: “The thinking that got us to where we are is not the thinking that will get us to where we want to be.”

Tap into your intuitive problem-solving abilities and try our free online course The Wood for the trees.


1 - Wikipedia:Thinking outside the box