March 2017

11 Ways To Restate Problems to Get Better Solutions

2017-03-04T16:43:22-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: , , , |

When faced with a challenge or problem, one of the best first steps in solving – even before you start thinking up possible solutions – is to examine and restate the problem.

The Thinker's ToolkitAs Morgan D. Jones writes in his book, The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving – “The aim of problem restatement is to broaden our perspective of a problem, helping us to identify the central issue and alternative solutions and increase the chance that the outcome our analysis produces will fully, not partially, resolve the problem.”

“Restate or redefine the problem in as many different ways we can think of. This allows us to shift our mental gears without evaluating them.”

Below I’ve provided eleven different methods to help restate a problem. The first five are found in Jones’ Thinker’s Toolkit.

Suggestions Jones suggests include…

1. Paraphrase:

Restate the problem using different words without losing the original meaning.

Initial statement: How can we limit congestion on the roads?
Paraphrase: How can we keep road congestion from growing?
Initial statement: How can we limit congestion on the roads?
Paraphrase: How can we keep road congestion from growing?

2. 180-Degrees:

Turn the problem on its head.

Initial statement: How can we get employees to come to the company picnic?
180-Degrees: How can we discourage employees from attending the picnic?

Jones points out that taking the opposite view of a problem is a surprisingly effective technique.

3. Broaden the focus:

Restate the problem in a larger context.

Initial statement: Should I change jobs?
Broaden focus: How can I achieve job security?

4. Redirect the focus:

Boldly, consciously change the focus.

Initial statement: How can we boost sales?
Redirect focus: How can we cut costs?

5. Ask “Why”:

Ask “why” of the initial problem statement. Then formulate a new problem statement base on the answer. Then ask “why” again, and again. Repeat this process a number of times until the essence of the “real” problem emerges.

Initial statement: How can we market our in-house multimedia products?
Why?: Because many of our internal customers are out sourcing their multimedia projects.
Restatement: How can we keep internal customers from outsourcing their multimedia projects?
Why?: Because it should be our mandate to do all of the organization’s multimedia?
Restatement: How can we establish a mandate to do all of the organizations multimedia?
Why?: Because we need to broaden our customer base?
Restatement: How can we broaden our customer base?
Why?: Because we need a larger base in order to be cost effective?
Restatement: How can we become more cost effective?
Why?: Because our profit margin is diminishing?
Restatement: How can we increase our profit margin?
Principle problem
has emerged:
How to obtain a mandate to do all of the organization’s multimedia projects.

In their book Strategies For Creative Problem Solving, the following are what authors H. Scott Fogler and Steven E. LeBlanc call “problem statement triggers” These are how they restate problems. They use a breakfast cereal for each of their examples.

Original Problem Statement:

The Toasty O’s cereal is clearly not getting to market fast enough to maintain freshness.

6. Vary the stress pattern:

Try placing emphasis on different words and phrases.

  • Cereal is not getting to market fast enough to maintain freshness.
    (Do other products we have get there faster?)
  • Cereal is not getting to market fast enough to maintain freshness.
    (Can we make the distance/time shorter?)
  • Cereal is not getting to market fast enough to maintain freshness.
    (Can we distribute it from a centralized location?)
  • Cereal is not getting to market fast enough to maintain freshness.
    (How can we keep cereal fresher, longer?)

7. Substitute:

Choose a term that has an explicit definition and substitute the explicit definition in each place that the term appears.

  • Breakfast food that comes in a box is not getting to the place where it is sold fast enough to keep it from getting stale.
    (This restatement makes us think about the box and staleness. How might we change the box to prevent staleness?)

8. Opposite:

Make an opposite statement, changing positives to negatives, and vice versa.

  • How can we find a way to get the cereal to market so slowly that it will never be fresh?
    (This restatement makes us think about how long we have to maintain freshness and what controls it.)

9. Change Adverbs Of Frequency:

Change “every” to “some,” “always” to “sometimes,” “sometimes to “never,” and vice versa.

  • Cereal is not getting to market fast enough to always maintain freshness.
    (This change opens up new avenues of thought. Why isn’t are cereal always fresh?)

10. Replace Persuasive Words:

Replace “persuasive words” in the problem statement such as “obviously,” “clearly,” and “certainly” with the argument it is supposed to be replacing.

  • The word clearly in the problem statement implies that if we could speed up delivery, freshness would be maintained. Maybe not! Maybe the store holds the cereal too long. Maybe the cereal is stale before it reaches the store.
    (This trigger helps us change the implicit assumptions made in the problem statement.)

11. Diagram:

Express words in the form of an equation or picture, and visa-versa.

  • Freshness is inversely proportional to the time since the cereal was baked:
    (Freshness) = k/(Time since cereal baked)

Try out one or more of these techniques. Problem restatement helps you focus on the core of the problem. Identifying the core saves immense time, effort, and money. As a bonus, sometimes restating a problem points you directly to a solution. However, it shows there is more than one problem and helps identify them.

Sources: Restatements 1-5, and examples from:
The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving by Morgan D. Jones.
Problem Statement Triggers 6-11, and cereal examples from:
“Strategies For Creative Problem Solving by H. Scott Fogler and Steven E. LeBlanc

August 2016

Arrive With A Solution

2016-08-16T14:54:02-04:00 Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , |

While you may feel like a smarty-pants worker to be the first to discover and inform your boss of a problem, don’t alert them without also being able to offer a potential solution.

Anyone can point out problems. Finding something broken without a suggested fix can position you as part of the problem. It is when you arrive with helpful recommendations that makes you part of the solution.

October 2015

What Is A Problem?

2015-10-07T12:39:14-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: , |

A simple way to define the word ‘problem’ is: a situation that needs attention. Wikipedia authors describe one as “…any situation that invites resolution.”

That’s a nice way to put it – ‘invites resolution.’

A lot of folks are afraid of the word “problem.” To simply use the word – in relation to you or your business – is considered declaration of some sort of failure.

So, we sugar-coat the situation, re-phrasing it as a ‘challenge’ or ‘opportunity.’

Spilled Milk

While I support optimism, over-sweetening a situation can prevent people from realizing how bitter the problem may be.

No, don’t cry over spilled milk, instead figure out what knocked it over, and how to avoid spills in the future. Addressing a problem’s root cause – not ignoring it – will allow you to find the solution.

Image Source: Little People Blog

August 2015

“How to Solve Problems” 1947-style

2015-08-05T14:47:12-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: , , |

I recently discovered this 8th grade arithmetic book from 1947 on the bookshelves at my parents’ house. It’s got a great collection of images that match the mid-century art style of Idea Sandbox. In addition to the images, I found this piece on page 304 providing suggestions for students on problem solving.
Hot to Solve Problems

[click for larger view]


Before you try to work any problem, read it carefully to be sure you understand it; then follow this plan:

  1. Find what the problem tells.
  2. Find what the problem asks for.
  3. Decide what process or processes should be used and in what order.
  4. Estimate about what the answer should be.
  5. Solve the problem.
  6. Check your work to be sure you made no mistakes.
  7. Check your answer with your estimate and see if it is reasonable.

You can stop reading at this point if you’d like. But I want to go on a bit further and dig a little deeper. How may these math rules apply to everyday problem solving.

1. Find what the problem tells.

In investigating your problem, what do you know about it? What facts do you have? What can you be sure of? What are you perhaps taking as a given or an assumption that may not actually hold true. Gather the facts.

2. Find what the problem asks for.

What is missing? What are you solving for? In math you have an ‘eventual’ solution, for example you know you’re looking for the value of x. Business problems aren’t necessarily that straight forward. So, instead of an ‘eventual’ solution, what are your ‘potential’ solutions? What customers our groups do you need to consider?

3. Decide what process or processes should be used and in what order.

What marketing tools do you already have in place that may help solve your problem? What additional tools should you consider. In business, as in math… If you try to solve a problem using the wrong method you won’t end up with the intended (or correct) result.

4. Estimate about what the answer should be.

I like this step. Before you do any work, think about your intended outcome. An estimate will do two things for you (a) it helps you play out the situation as a dress rehearsal in your mind. (b) It allows you to estimate the outcome. To predict – based on what you know, and where you want to go – what your result will be.

5. Solve the problem.

Ah, working it out. I see this step as crafting your plan. Create the approach. Not launching something at this stage. First build the plan that answers what the problem asks, from step 2, using information, including what you know from step 1.

6. Check your work to be sure you made no mistakes.

Now make that plan bullet proof… weave it out of Kevlar. Did you account for all the things the problem is asking for? Have conditions or assumptions changed since you started building the solution?

7. Check your answer with your estimate and see if it is reasonable.

That makes perfect sense in math, but we don’t necessarily do that every time in business, do we? I like this step. Take the picture of the outcome you painted in step 4 and see if what you have come up with matches that expectation. Nice.

In the end, I see this list as a project management flow. These are key steps that help you ensure you’re not forgetting something important, and proceed with clear expectations in mind. I like it.

What is your reaction?

July 2015

Childlike Creativity

2017-03-01T11:55:13-04:00 Categories: Destination, grow, SandBlog|Tags: , |

At Idea Sandbox we talk a lot about being childlike and using your imagination… how solving problems is about creativity and how creativity is driven by your ability to imagine new ideas…

I found this interesting bit about being more like a child in Rob Eastaway’s book, “Out of the Box: 101 Ideas for Thinking Creatively

Adults are often overly concerned about thinking and saying what they’re expected to think rather than what they really think. Young children have a refreshing honesty about them, and divert their energy to new things that excite them.

He continues to say that there are three stages of life:

From 0 to 4 years old is the “Why not?” stage.
From 5 to 11 years old is the “Why?” stage.
From 12 onward is the “Because” stage.

This because stage is where we start to conform to adulthood and lose the “curiosity and wonder about the world that leads us to ask those crucial questions, “Why?” and “Why Not?”

To be more creative, you need to recapture some of the behavior of your childhood.

August 2012

Tips To Be More Creative And Better At Problem Solving

2012-08-27T14:18:11-04:00 Categories: create, grow, SandBlog, solve, think|Tags: , , , , , , |

I hope your week is off to a great start. I thought you might like to read two recent interviews featuring Idea Sandbox and our approach to creativity and problem solving. They were conducted just a few weeks ago. I hope you’ll be able to take a few tips from these articles to put them to use yourself.

Creative Practice Logo

The first was hosted by Kira Campo from The Creative Practice. Her calling is to help activate creating thinking skills in others.

Kira hosts a series where she highlights some of the ways creative practice can impact professional practices.

Since Idea Sandbox is all about being more creative, this was an easy interview!

Check it out here:
Practice Profile: Paul Williams

Among other things, I share tips on remembering ideas, and how farming methods helped an ad agency fix a problem.

While you’re visiting Creative Practice, poke around and explore Kira’s site. She’s got some great content. Kira’s handle on Twitter is @T_C_P

The second interview was conducted by Emily Wenstrom at Creative Juicer as part of her Creative Careerist series.

Creative Juicer Logo

Emily explores the creative process in art and career. She interviews successful creatives about what their work looks like, and their own creative process.

Here’s the article:
Creative Careerist: Paul Williams

Among other tips, I shared with Emily the “board of directors” I’ve assembled to help think-up ideas, as well as thoughts on how I get myself unstuck, creatively.

Emily’s site is full of great reads specializing in creativity and writing. Find her on Twitter: @EmilyWenstrom

Big thanks to Kira and Emily for being interested enough in Idea Sandbox to warrant conducting an interview. It is an honor.

Seth Godin Says: How To Run A Problem-Solving Meeting

2012-08-18T18:10:16-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a complete rip-off of today’s post from Seth Godin. Great to have Seth playing in my sandbox.

This is a special sort of get together, similar to the meeting where you organize people to figure out the best way to take advantage of an opportunity. In both cases, amateurs usually run the meetings, and the group often fails to do their best work.

Ignore these rules at your peril:

  1. Only the minimum number of people should participate. Don’t invite anyone for political reasons. Don’t invite anyone to socialize them on the solution because they were part of inventing it–people don’t need to be in the kitchen to enjoy the meal at the restaurant.
  2. No one participating by conference call… it changes the tone of the proceedings.
  3. A very structured agenda to prevent conversation creep. You are only here to do one thing.
  4. All the needed data provided to all attendees, in advance, in writing.
    At least one person, perhaps the host, should have a point of view about what the best course is, but anyone who comes should only be invited if they are willing to change their position.
  5. Agree on the structure of a deliverable solution before you start.
  6. Deliver on that structure when you finish.

I agree with Seth when running a problem-solving meeting, save for a few additions:
No. 5 – “Having a point-of-view about the best course” – The best course should be based on goals and constraints identified prior to the beginning of the meeting.

Goals such as: “In today’s meeting we want to conclude with five new potential names for the company.”
Constraints such as: “Names need to be real words. Need to align with our brand. Need to be easy to pronounce, etc…”

When it comes toward the end of the meeting, refer back to these goals and constraints as filters.

April 2012

Drive Innovation: Suggest Ideas, Don’t Propose Them

2012-04-15T12:30:35-04:00 Categories: create, SandBlog, think|Tags: , , , , , |

How something is presented has an effect on how it is received.

Rocket science!? No, it is common sense. Yet, we sometimes neglect the subtleties of presentation and persuasion… especially when we are excited about an idea or innovation.

So many innovative ideas get quashed early – never making it off the whiteboard. Not because the ideas were bad, but due to the way they were presented.

Psychologists have found that the more assertively you express an idea, the more likely it is the person hearing it will resist it.

Wait… higher assertiveness = higher resistance?

Wow! That’s really important insight!

Experiments were conducted in which an idea was presented to someone in one of two ways: either as a proposal or as a suggestion.

  • As a proposal, the idea was given as a statement: “What you should do is…”
  • As a suggestion, the same idea was expressed as a question or reflection: “I wonder if…?”

When an idea was proposed, almost half of the recipients received it skeptically and challenged the idea. (Sound familiar?)

When the same idea was suggested, only 1 out of five recipients stated difficulties.

Telling people what to do can make them defensive, push back, and shut ideas down. Putting forward a suggestion makes it impersonal – allowing the idea to be adopted instead of forced in the mind.

[figure 1]
As indicated in [figure 1] if you suggest ideas, they are more likely to be adopted and developed than if you propose them.

When presenting new ideas – especially in situations where you expect others to be defensive – avoid phrases that begin with:

  • What you should do is…
  • I think you ought to…
  • The best idea would be to…
  • If I were you I would…

Instead, offer your ideas as suggestions. Take out references to “you.” Try these:

  • I wonder if it would be possible to…
  • Has anyone ever thought of…
  • I don’t suppose we could…
  • What if it were…

That same persuasion we use to woo customers should also be considered when we’re trying to develop innovative ideas within our organizations. Next time you have a “crazy idea that just might work,” don’t propose, suggest it.

I learned this technique from the the book Out Of The Box: 101 Ideas For Thinking Creatively by Rob Eastaway. The study was mentioned in the book Improve Your People Skills by Peter Honey.

This article was originally published on the MarketingProf’s DailyFix blog.

November 2011

Difference Between Artistic & Creative Ability

2011-11-20T19:16:24-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve, think|Tags: , , |

Sometimes we confuse artistic ability with creativity.

If I can’t paint or draw, I’m not creative.

Artistic ability includes skills and talent to create fine works of art: painting, drawing, sculpting, musical composition, etc.

Creativity ability is the skill and talent to use our imagination to create and solve.

A better artist is creative. But, you don’t have to be an artist to be creative.

Brainstorming Icon

We’re creative all the time and don’t realize it.

  • When mom or dad ad-libs lunch for the kids, pulling together something yummy when it seemed there were no ingredients in the fridge.
  • When the radio announces traffic is stopped on our route home and we figure out a route taking the back roads home.
  • When the company Christmas Party invitation had a typo and you added the missing punctuation with a Sharpie – and no one knew the difference.

Each of these examples required use of imagination and experience to apply a creative solution to a problem or challenge.

We’ve got to stop selling ourselves short. We artificially hold ourselves back by giving up on imaginative thinking because we’re not portrait artists.

What’s cool, when you let yourself be creative… the more you think and act creatively, the more creative you become. Like exercising muscles, the more you use them, the stronger they become.

Resolve to yourself… Flip that switch in your mind about the way you think of yourself… beginning right now, and when you finish reading this article – to simply “be” more creative.

If you want a bit more guidance, check out the following books…

Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas
by Jordan Ayan

101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques: The Handbook of New Ideas for Business
by James Higgins

December 2010

The Person With The Best Imagination Wins

2010-12-03T10:36:22-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: , , , , |

Einstein once said, “imagination is better than knowledge.” It is more important to see possibilities than to know the facts.

Dan Roam, in his book Unfolding the Napkin, wrote:

“Problems don’t get solved by the smartest or the fastest or the strongest; they get solved by the one who sees the possibilities.”

Dan also added…

“Yes, we need to have the intelligence to pick the best option; yes, we need the speed to get it done on time; yes, we need the strength to make it happen and stay on course. But the hardest part of all – finding the solution – depends only on our ability to see what’s in front of us and imagine as many ways as we can to deal with it.”

The above images, from Dan’s book, inspired this post.

The skinny, smart kid used to get sand kicked in his face by the big, strong hunk. But, the smart kid has the ability to imagine what the lunk-head can’t. As you can see – creative-pants found away around the wall instead of trying to crash it down.

Here are some ways you can be more of a creative pants…

9 Tips To Improve Your Imagination

  1. Believe it can be done. – Allow the impossible to be possible – just for a few minutes.
  2. Get in the habit of thinking-up ideas. – As with nearly everything in life, you get better at it with practice. We give up too soon sometimes hoping for an instant solution. Rarely do great things come instantly.
  3. Keep an idea journal. – Don’t lose your ideas, write ’em down. Then, later on, review these ideas. Don’t just write them down – make a habit of returning to them and reviewing them.
  4. Look for better ways to do things. – Make a habit of thinking-up ways to “plus” things, ideas, products, systems… From the belt system at the grocery store to raking leaves… Keep your wheels turning. Is there a way to add-value in the projects you work on. How they depart your desk in a better when then they arrived?
  5. See problems as opportunity. – We can get hung-up on the word ‘problem.’ Problems are perceived as impenetrable walls – something that gets you stuck. (Like the stick figure above). Assume a problem is a positive challenge that, with enough poking around, has a solution.
  6. Relax – Allow yourself to daydream. To think up goofy ideas. Lighten up. The more you relax, the more access you get to your subconscious.
  7. Think Young – Be playful. Be a kid again. Don’t do this all day of every day, but at least once day.
  8. Be Curious – Think in the world of possible. Start sentences with: “Could this…” and “What if…” and “Let’s try…”
  9. Inspire You – Move. Go somewhere else. Do something physical. Listen to music.
Illustrations by Dan Roam, found in his book “Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures.” (The sand-kicking cartoon is from a Charles Atlas ad.)