“All life is problem solving” wrote Karl Popper. In workplaces the world over, teams come together to solve problems of all sizes.


Staying open minded

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Jumping into solution mode is a common challenge for teams seeking to be innovative in problem solving.  The tendency to immediately see how to solve a problem  can stem from existing knowledge, and assumptions – which more than likely won’t help us to develop new thinking.

Embedding an innovation process that starts with exploration of the problem before solutioning is a critical foundation.

Here are three “mindset” approaches we’ve used in innovation process design and facilitation practice at Creativer, to help teams excel in problem discovery.

1.          Ask questions for which we don’t know the answer

We crave answers more than we do questions. To overcome that, we place a higher value on questions – we make it a “thing” to celebrate our ignorance.

Thinking like a beginner is easier said than done. Letting go of what we know, perceive and expect – to see the situation with fresh eyes. Some starting points that we use for opening up:

  • What don’t we know but would like to know?
  • What have we assumed?
  • What might be difficult to find out?
  • What is baffling, or just doesn’t make sense?
  • What do we want to know more about – in the big picture, and the little details?

Embracing a muse can help with this. What would a child want to know? An investigator, anthropologist, or even an alien?

Taking this approach kick-starts curiosity, and a mindset of “being comfortable with the unknown” that goes along with creative thinking.

2.         Know at which level we are engaging with a problem

In his book Quiet Leadership, David Rock [i] shares five levels of focus. Rock points out the importance of choosing your focus in any process. The principle can be applied to problem solving, with each of these levels being a valid entry point for problem articulation. The five levels of focus are:

  • Drama. The emotional response we have to a problem. Understanding our response to it may be helpful, or may consume energy better directed to another level.
  • Detail. Focusing on the specifics of a situation. The micro-moments or detailed aspects that led to a situation, which may be useful, or pull us into drama.
  • Problem. At this level we focus on the problem – we move beyond the drama to understand what the core issue is.
  • Planning. Higher and more strategic than the problem, we are solving and looking at how we are going to get there.
  • Vision. The big picture, a space that answers why. In this purpose-focused space, problems are less personal.

We may individually have a default level. One person might be drawn to the emotion of a problem, or more to the big picture. It’s not that any level is the right level.  Rather, we should be conscious of our choice of focus.

Different levels were apparent among team members working on a marketing challenge in a recent workshop. The team had been surprised by a new offering launched by a competitor. As we developed challenge statements, the level of focus varied from drama “How might we fight back with a stronger proposition in response to ABC’s recent launch?” to planning “How might we engage our best customers with unprecedented, customised benefits?”

Creating awareness of the different levels of focus and agreeing the focus with the team was an important enabler for inclusive and effective creative problem solving.

3.      Hold two concepts at the same time

These days it’s increasingly common to see known concepts turned on their head. In the last few weeks I’ve attended an unconference, read an article that referred to unbuilding and co-created an idea titled “the unlibrary.”

Janusian thinking is the capacity to hold two or more contradictory ideas or concepts at the same time. The term comes from the Roman god Janus, who had multiple faces, each looking in different directions.  In Janusian thinking, we embrace both the library and the un-library.

The idea of looking in two directions at once helps us rationally suspend judgment on a solution we’ve already conceived, especially if we are fixated on that solution. We “freeze” that solution or known concept (we can always come back to it) and simultaneously explore the problem in an opposing, unknown direction.


We’ve found these three approaches help teams embrace problems, especially when “known” solutions are a roadblock to new thinking.  Following a deliberate innovation process also means that we don’t dwell endlessly in the problem space. We emerge with a clear view of the challenge.  Then it’s time to step into idea generation.  For more on the creative problem solving process, click here.

[i] HRock, D. (2006). Quiet leadership: Help people think better — don’t tell them what to do : six steps to transforming performance at work. New York: Collins.