Ever come up with a great idea for someone else, but find yourself stymied by your own problem?

Recent research by Evan Polman of NYU and Kyle J. Emich of Cornell may shed some light on why. In three sets of experiments, they found that when people solved problems on behalf of others, they produced faster and more creative solutions than they did when they solved the same problems for themselves.

In the first experiment, Polman and Emich asked participants either to draw an alien for a story they were going to write themselves or for someone else’s story. The aliens people sketched for others were more creative than the ones they drew for themselves.

In the second study, participants were asked to come up with gift ideas for themselves, for someone close to them, or for someone far away. The result: The more distant the recipient, the more creative the gift.

And in the third study, participants had to solve the following problem:

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?

Subjects were more likely to come up with the answer on behalf of another person than for themselves; the farther away the other person was imagined to be, the more likely the participants were to come up with the correct answer.

Polman and Emich say the principle at work is something called “construal-level theory,” which in simple terms means that we think in more abstract terms about distant problems (or problems belonging to distant people) — and thinking at a more abstract level produces more creative solutions.

So given that we’re often more creative solving someone else’s problems, what can we do to more effectively solve our own? Here are three ideas:

1. Trade problems with someone. When you get stuck, stop hammering away at the problem and find a colleague to swap with.

2. Solve problems on behalf of someone else. Create some psychological distance from your project by pretending that you’re doing it on behalf of someone else. Use your imagination here: the “other person” could be the woman across the hall, a relative, or a stranger halfway across the world. The farther away, the better.

3. Put some distance between yourself and your project. Writers know something magical happens when you put your manuscript away in a drawer. When you come back to it a week or a month or six months later, you have a fresher, more creative perspective on the work. When you can, build some slack into your deadlines and try putting your work out of sight for as long as you can manage.

Have you tried this approach? Has anyone set up a website to allow people to swap problems? (Seems like a promising business.) And how the heck did the prisoner escape? If you’ve got answers, respond in the Comments section.

40 Responses to “3 tricks for solving problems faster and better”

  1. Andrew Munro says:

    Presumably he split the rope length-ways, by unravelling the strands, to produce two lengths each half as thick as the original rope. :)

    The research is fascinating. It aligns a bit with the old saying, “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

    Andrew

  2. Nate says:

    This simplest solution is most often the best. Unfortunately, we are often too entwined in our own issues to see the big picture.

    What an awesome post!

    I love the idea of trading problems with someone else.

    “I’ll solve your scheduling problem if you can tackle world peace. Thanks!”

  3. Aga Artka says:

    I’m imagining that an emotional involvement in a situation prevents us from being totally objective and free-minded about a solution, as well.

    Love the Pink Blog. Great content.

  4. Jason Soll says:

    Yes, I agree that it was most likely split length wise. In my opinion, this is a much easier creative riddle than the Candle Problem.

    Very interesting post. I think a more feasible application for some software would be for internal use at an organization.

    I also have noticed that when people become so bogged down by their own stress, often not all related to the specific problem at hand, that they defend the problem and seem to lack a true desire to solve it quickly. Sincerely admitting that you do in fact want to solve it is the most important step, though it is often overlooked.

  5. Anders Hektor says:

    Great take on an interesting finding.
    Would you say your hints are the equivalent of asking
    “what would N.N (insert prefered role model) do to solve a problem like this?”

  6. Rod Johnson says:

    Dan, great post. I think this is one of those “I kinda knew that” but now “I know that” actually works scenarios. I think this confirms.

    a. Why consultants can play an integral role in problem solving.
    b. How executive roundtables can provide such broad insight to a problem quickly and efficiently.
    c. Why coaches and mentors can help frame a problem in a way where an emotional detachment is able to take place.

    Last point – the rope scenario problem seems appropriate. Too often ropes are used to hand ourselves rather than being used creatively for escape or rescue.

  7. Elwood says:

    Similarly, I’ve always found explaining the problem to someone else helps. Not because they come up with a solution (though they may), but because the very act of laying something out so that someone else understands it renders it amenable to a more objective analysis. I’ve often solved the ‘impossible’ problem half way through explaining it to a third party.

  8. I coach a lot of coaches … and find a very helpful question can be, “What would you tell a client if they were in your situation?”

    Can see the challenge when the research indicates that the best solutions tend to come from abstract thinking – and when we go to problem solve in our own business and life, we often switch on our linear thinking mode.

    Fascinating and practical read. Thanks.

  9. Nate,
    I agree it’s easy to get caught up in the problem and not see the big picture. It’s as if your in a maze, and you can only see what is immediately around you. However, someone else with a better view from above the maze can see the whole thing. It is much easier for them to solve the maze or the problem.

    Aga,
    I like your thoughts too. It’s hard to make a decision when emotions are involved.

    Interesting post!

  10. Jeff says:

    As a designer, I often follow Rule 3. I have what I call my “24 hour rule.” Often I’ll have what I think is a fantastic idea but if it still seems fantastic after a day then I pursue it. (I’m always shocked at how often I’ve changed my mind after those 24 hours. “How could I have thought that one up?!”)

    I don’t have problems buying gifts for those close to me. A few years back I even wrote a post on how to become a good gift-giver: http://ow.ly/4sHXI. I think it’s easier to buy a gift for someone close to you as there’s greater access to their likes and dislikes. Oh, and I know *exactly* what gift I want! -g

  11. Ryan says:

    Another way to look at this solution is with an idiom. By dividing the rope he created two halves. We all know that “two halves make a ‘hole’” so once he divided the rope he was able to walk right out of his cell scott free.

  12. Ken says:

    The idea of solving problems on behalf of someone else, even if it’s re-framing the problem you have as belonging to someone else, is a fascinating idea, and really struck a chord with me.

    As an improv-comedian \ actor, I’m never at a loss for what to do – there are plenty of “offers” from my fellow players on stage (their posture, what they said, how they said it, etc). We often use the phrase “mistakes are gifts” because they give you something to build on.

    Conversely, writing at times seems much more difficult. When writing on a deadline for someone else, I almost never get writers block, and I don’t get distracted easily. But if I’m writing something on my own, it’s a whole different story.

    I’m going to experiment with defining the completion of personal writing projects as solving a problem for someone else, and see what results I get. But even thinking about it, I have a different feeling about completing them.
    -Ken-

  13. Diane says:

    This is very interesting. I have a colleague I call my “thinking partner”. When I am stuck, I call him, when he is stuck he calls me. We find it so much easier to solve each other’s problems. I guess we’re not alone in this. Perhaps more organizations should talk about and encourage employees to find their “thinking partner”. Sometimes just the way we talk about problems makes them seem more manageable. For example, I’ll say, “I’ve been carrying this situation around in my mind and it’s getting heavy…will you hold it for a while?” We laugh, but knowing someone else is “carrying” it for me, clears my mind and allows me to be more creative about it.

  14. A great message on sharing the burden and sharing the rewards.

    As for the puzzle, the two halves of the rope made a “hole.” The prisoner put a hole in the floor (or door) and crawled out to freedom.

  15. I think Rod raises some good points in that these data seem to support the work of consultants. I would extend the usefulness to most (if not all?) collaboration. The adage goes that two heads are better than one. While that may be true, I prefer those two heads to be from different fields to allow different ways of thinking to enter the conversation.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

  16. matt says:

    This is 100% the case and I see this consistently. my blog stillmansays.com documents my adventures sitting out in Union Square in New York City with two folding chairs and a table with a sign that reads “Creative Approaches To What You Have Been Thinking About” and a smaller sign that reads “Pay What You Like or Take What You Need”.

    Yes I am creative and capable but that distance allows the space to go in some remarkable directions.

  17. So, how do you solve a problem like Maria? Trade her with Mother Superior for a problem named Marta?

  18. Shawn Urban says:

    Great post, Daniel.

    I am both a writer and a teacher. I regularly collaborate with other teachers on class projects and assignments. One such example is my collaboration with another teacher on English assignments. She gives them, I correct them and she follows up. The collaboration works well.

    As for the rope problem, why has no one suggested a Mobius Strip cut repeatly into thirds? The tower can be as tall as the jailer wants and the prisoner can still escape (ignoring that new pesky prisoner weight to rope tensile strength problem ;-) ).

    • Narottam says:

      yes i also thought that the tensile strength might not be sufficient enough. But that is already been said in the question itself. It says you divide rope in half and escape that means the prisoner did escaped. But by what? divinding the rope in half.How? not lateraly but verticallyy!!

  19. As a golf instructor and business person… seems I’m always entrenched with problems… actually solving them is kind of what I do for a living. Solving a slice, solving a hook, solving why a person’s golf game goes south after the 14th hole.

    As a businessman… I also have to solve the problem of marketing, sales, budgeting, etc… I think the golf professional part in me has assisted me in solving some of the business aspects of my profession. Simply because no two golf swings are alike… so creativity is essential. YET… at the same time… looking for common keys to one’s success… in golf or business.

    Thanks for another great article!

    Ted

  20. Andy Hunt says:

    The photo of the guy in the jar is quite appropriate. One of the ways I have heard this process described is that when you are in the problem you are inside the jar and it’s difficult to comprehend what’s going on and what to do about it, but anyone on the outside of the problem can easily read the label on the jar and suggest ways to handle the situation that wouldn’t easily occur to you.

  21. Michele says:

    I do something similar pretty often–when I have a problem, I pretend I’m someone else (someone who’s courage/intelligence/creativity/boldness I admire) and think of how that person would handle it. I usually come up with a better solution than if “I” handled it.

  22. Jameson says:

    I wonder if many of us tend to be more self-conscious and unconsciously self-editing when the outcome directly reflects on us. The abstract distance of working on someone problem may act as the equivalent of a psychological disguise, liberating us from this self-consciousness and self-editing.

  23. Rachel says:

    Being too close to the problem can hinder problem solving, absolutely. It is so easy to raise objections to possible solutions when you are intimately acquainted with the problem. “That won’t work because of [name complexity here].”

    This is true when working with a client to solve a problem. They can be very quick to point out why a proposed creative solution will fail, and can hinder real progress. Remove that party, and solutions can be proposed, tested, and implemented in very short time spans.

    Thank you for the post. The study findings are very interesting and enlightening.

  24. Adriana B. says:

    I have noticed that for more complex problems (and for finding good gifts), distancing yourself from the problem, or asking someone else to solve it, is indeed helpful. However, in this “prisoner attempting to escape from a tower” problem, I decided to try to find an answer putting myself in the place of the prisoner, just to see what would happen. It took me just a few seconds to come to the solution already mentioned by various people, cut the rope in half lengthwise.

  25. Steve Curtin says:

    Dan, I think the prisoner split the rope in two, tied a large knot just below one of the severed ends, and pulled the strands apart (so that, when laid on his pillow, it would resemble human hair).

    Later, after the prisoner was unresponsive to the prison guard’s bed check, the guard entered the cell, walked over to the bedside and asked, “Are you feeling okay?”

    Just then, the crafty prisoner emerged from a darkened corner of the cell, slipped through the open door, and as he pulled the cell door closed behind him answered, “I’m afraid not.”

    Just a theory…
    Steve Curtin

  26. Teague says:

    Not strictly for the purpose of swapping problems, but Lissn.com pairs you up with a random stranger for chatting. It strikes me that the problem swapping idea would just be an extension of a system like that. Find me someone I don’t know, who is willing to swap problems. If you need creative solutions, you may not even care about filtering who you are paired with, since creatives solutions may come from expertise you did not expect. The only challenge is overcoming Metcalfe’s law to build a network large enough that you can easily find a counterpart.

  27. Brendan says:

    This raises one (of many :-) problems with education. The insular nature of the teaching profession prevents exactly this kind of interaction.

    Some proactive districts have hired coaches to help stimulate the kind of conversations that would build the kind of perspective you write about, but that’s a major culture shift and so has encountered a lot of resistance.

    Ideally, we would build more collaboration into the structure of a teacher’s (and any professional’s) work day. A short-term loss that should lead to long-term gains.

  28. jessica says:

    I wonder whether our need for purpose, quenched in this case by helping someone else solve a problem, is at work here.

  29. I say it this way: It’s always easier doing somebody else’s homework.

  30. Claudia Bear says:

    This approach clearly works. I recently visited with some regional folks at work who were meeting with various managers, looking for some ideas to solve a problem. I thought the solution I suggested was obvious, that five other people would have already mentioned it by that point in time. But when I mentioned my idea, their faces lit up – it had never, ever dawned on them to look for a solution in that particular direction! And yes, when I’m stuck on a painting, comic, etc, I do put the piece away for a while to think it over.

  31. ADE-NCHE says:

    Someone else can still be you in the mirror. I use to speak and teach someone in the mirror and this results have been splendid to my educational progress. wow

  32. It is amazing to know that there are articles like this on web.Thanks for helping me out…

  33. Diana Stirling says:

    See, I guess I didn’t understand the rope problem correctly. In my solution, the ends of the rope are tied together to make a loop, the loop is slung over the tower, and the guy escapes by shimmying down, like the telephone linemen of old.

    They obvious answer didn’t occur to me.

    From this tiny post, you learn so much about my mind and my life :-)

  34. Great post as always.

    In our work with positive deviants, they rarely encounter these limitations. In fact, as we wrote about in “Positive Deviants Rule!”, they are often the best source of innovation in an organization.

    Positive deviants appear to be less limited than others because they have an exceptionally strong sense of “purpose” (as used in DRIVE). This drive to achieving a purpose is so strong, and so proactive, that their starting point of all problem solving and work is “how do we do this the right way.” As such, they are rarely constrained by their own or organizational limitations.

    The implications for the rest of us to transcend our typical constraints is to go back to “purpose” and get refocused on the big picture of what you are trying to do and why you are trying to do it. The stronger you hold on to your purpose, the more likely you are to let go of constraints and come up with better “out-of-the-box” solutions.

  35. Ryan says:

    I like Andrew’s rope answer better, but maybe he looped the rope around the tower (like a belt) and climbed down that way.

  36. Duane says:

    I believe that a natural creative wisdom exists deep within every one of us and the blocks to that wisdom, particularly when it comes to ones self, are rooted in disempowering subconscious beliefs. As an example, subconscious beliefs of unworthiness or being undeserving (Which are more common in the workplace than you’d ever imagine) would result in that shut down for yourself while the problem would be more easily solved for someone else.

  37. Lisa says:

    I think he folded the rope in half, made a lasso and threw it over a nearby treetop. Then he pulled it closer, hopped onto the tree and climbed down that way…

  38. Karen says:

    I think this is quite interesting and taps into something I first witnessed when I started teaching music, and then was just thinking over again last night.

    I had been studying the flute for years, but then as a college undergrad took some work teaching 9-12 year olds. I heard myself saying the same things to these kids as my teacher said to me, even despite our huge skill gap. It was so much easier to find the energy to see it in others and problem solve about how to best address the problem each student might be facing. I realized I needed to harness that objectivity in my own practice, but sometimes easier said than done, especially when the thing you are trying to solve connects to hopes, dreams and fears – as our biggest problems do.

    Fast forward many years to last night, where I no longer play the flute, and I was thinking about the same thing again. When a problem swirls around in my head, as it was last night, it very rarely goes anywhere useful. If I articulate it to someone else, that can help, but there’s not always someone I know immediately who’s interested in hearing it or helping to solve it. It occurred to me that it always helps me to actually write down my problem, something like what Gretchen Rubin describes as ‘identifying the problem’. Some problems need many small ‘sub-problems’ articulated in this way, and it takes some investment of energy upfront, but I find doing this definitely helps to give me objectivity to solve my own problem.

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