Tuesday 06 January 1998
Examine your wall
It is important to get a problem into perspective. There are those who insist on treating each as the worst thing that has ever happened. But the treatment that works for molehills rarely displaces a mountain. Time spent examining the problem objectively is never wasted and it is a determining characteristic of those enviable folk who have both a sense of proportion and real control over their lives.
Is it really immovable? On first sight the problem may seem too much to cope with. But if you take time to examine it, you often find it is less serious than you thought. Clever deployment of the resources at your disposal and focused teamworking can make all the difference.
Who put it there? Who or what has caused the problem? Get them on your side. After all, who better to solve it than the person who created it?
Why is it there? The answer may not be to you're liking, especially if you are worse off as a result, but understanding this can help you to come up with an alternative which meets the constructor's needs without thwarting your ambitions. Occasionally, you might even be convinced of the wall's value and learn to live with it (see below).
Is it really intractable? Frequently the solution to a problem involves rising above it and thinking at a higher level. It may not be as tough as you originally thought.
Is there really no way around? People are sometimes numbed by the dimensions of the difficulty. A glance to the left or the right would reveal that what they are looking at is not a wall at all, but a tower! And bingo!, the solution is to hand.
Does the problem really exist? Are you being overwhelmed by something which exists solely in your head. Often it is a question of personal history. In this kind of situation, you have always given up, so why bother to check what lies round the corner? Or perhaps you are reacting to gossip. Whatever it is, you fail to make the necessary check. More on this later.
Develop your approach
Think of occasions when you have dealt well with a difficult issue. Scan this list and assess which of the techniques you have used:
Ensure that you have the right skills and can apply them effectively in order to help you overcome the problem.
Put company politics to work, persuade others of your argument and carefully manipulate the situation so that others may not even realise that it is happening.
Confront the issue, head on, perhaps in an explosive manner, to clear the air and remove the problem.
Understand the complexity of the matter, work out how to unravel it and implement the solution methodically.
Change direction so that you are not prevented from from achieving your goals. It may be just a question of changing tack.
Learn to love it: you have worked hard to understand the situation and are learning to make the best of it.
It may be that your successful strategy was a combination of these tactics. The trick is to choose the right one and exercise it at the appropriate time. And in order to do that, it is important to understand the nature of the brick wall, where it has come from and why it has come about.
These may be caused by the world around you - a change in company policy or an organisational culture at odds with your values; or individuals whose view of you does not tally with your own. This does not imply that your own contribution has been negligible, but external forces are involved. Asking for advice and learning from your experiences can help you to break through barriers and work towards an effective solution. But beware, past experience can also be an obstacle to creative thinking and to tackling the problem at all. One of the most commonly heard reasons for not trying something is we have tried that before and it didn't work. Just because a solution was not right for one situation, it doesn't mean that it will not be right for this one.
In order to improve your problem-solving skills, you have to maximise your ability to think creatively. But there are many barriers. Examine the list below. How many of these do you suffer from?
You become trapped in a fixed way of thinking about things.
You restrict the free growth of ideas within rigid boundaries.
You are unaware of the assumptions you are making, which restrict new ideas.
You think in terms of either/or when there may be other ways of looking at things.
You think sequentially, rather than laterally, looking for the best idea, rather than a range of options.
You suffer from premature evaluation, ie not giving your imagination enough time to look at things differently.
You tend to want to conform and give the answer expected.
You are fairly conservative.
You fear looking foolish
If you recognise some these barrier then you are probably not exploiting your full creative potential. It may be that you are good at solving problems. But there could be a number of tricks that you are missing. You need to identify the boundaries you are operating within and challenge them. Understand the traps you are likely to fall into and be alert to them.
Creative thinking techniques:
Incubation: relying more on the intuitive and imaginative part of the brain, instead of the logical, rational bit. Many of us have our best ideas when relaxing, drinking or lying in the bath. This is why it s important to take time off, so that your mind has had a chance to work on the issue.
Image-based techniques: using pictures, analogies, humour and generally putting the sensible approach to one side for a while. Getting people to draw the situation, or enact it, can isolate issues which could no have been identified by conventional means. Such"silly" techniques often generate the best, most practical, solutions.
Lateral thinking: addressing a problem laterally as opposed to vertically or logically. This includes deliberate and provocative challenging, sideways leaps and rejection of yes/no thinking.
Influence and persuasion
The way in which people influence others tends to fall into two categories: push techniques and pull techniques. The first is a more active. It may be that you have marshalled all the facts and figures, and you can back your argument up to the hilt. Another type of push is that of carrot and stick - people know what you want them to do, what they will get if they do it, and also what they'll get if they don't!
The pull techniques are more subtle. They tend to be associated with creating a desire for the individual to be part of "the club" - getting people to buy into their company's vision would be an example. Pull techniques are characterised more by listening than talking, and by building on other people's good ideas.
When you use these techniques depends on the subject matter, and the subject. Are you dealing with someone who loves targets and responds to the threat of a kick up the backside? Or is it an individual who would prefer a softer touch? By selecting the right approach, you will be able to influence events far more effectively.
Perhaps you lack confidence Or maybe you are working on a hunch - if so beware because could find yourself working on all sorts of false assumptions. In extreme situations, your behaviour could even strike others as paranoid, or at least highly unreasonable. Another self-imposed brick wall is the feeling of having come to a standstill. Perhaps hou have run out of steam, after a really gruelling project. Or maybe your creative juices have temporarily dried up. Even more common is "analysis paralysis", when people are so burdened by the data they have collected that they are unable to do anything constructive with it. There is nothing like cultivating a positive mental attitude. Are you the sort of person who is always telling yourself you're a failure, that you're not going to be able to cope, that you hate your job and your life, for that matter? If so, this is sapping your energy. Tests have consistently demonstrated that, if an individual thinks negative, demeaning thoughts about themselves, they can physically be pushed around. Alternatively, if they talk themselves up, they actually become stronger. And the physical side is only one aspect. Thinking positive thoughts can make you more self-confident and more able to take control of your life.
People with a negative mindset are often characterised by "loserspeak" - looking on the downside of everything and taking things personally. When confronted by a problem, do you recognise any of these responses? The bold type represents loserspeak. The italics an equivalent phrase in winnerspeak.
Oh no, not again!
Ah, this is the same thing that happened last time I know what to do.
Why is this always happening to me?
Sorting out problems like this is part of my job. And others get their fair share of problems too.
We'll never get this done in time.
What do we need to do to get this done in time? If only I could be more like so-and-so So-and-so's good at this, I can go and ask him/her.
Re-framing the things you say and the way you think can have a profound impact on the way you approach problems. Solving them successfully boosts self confidence, so the positive response gradually becomes your normal response. Suddenly you can see ways of scaling even the most daunting of those brick walls.
The authors are directors of the business psychology consultancy Nicholson- McBride
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