I read this article in the Atlantic a few months ago which described how a surprising number of inventions and innovations in various fields are coming from people who are not experts in the field of interest. It reminded me of how some scientists have created computer games based on real world problems, and people playing these games have been able to help solve some interesting problems (e.g. Foldit). In both the examples in the article and the real world computer games, a slightly outside perspective helped companies or researchers solve an important problem.
It is easy to get into a rut when trying to solve a problem because our inclination is to immerse ourselves in the problem. Although carefully scanning a problem can help us spot errors, focusing on details does not help if the solution to your problem requires seeing the bigger picture and thinking creatively. Outsiders generally do not have the same specific level of detailed knowledge, so it’s easier for them to see the bigger picture. So here are some suggestions to help you come up out of your rut for a breath of fresh air and see your problems in a new light:
- Mentally distance yourself from the problem. When we think of something as distant from us, we tend to think about it more abstractly, and research has shown that thinking abstractly can lead to being more creative. Imagining your problem as happening far in the future, in another country, or even to another person are ways of creating distance mentally between you and your problem.
- Walk away from the problem. No, seriously. And for those of you who made it a resolution to get more exercise, great news: you can now kill two birds with one stone. Leung and colleagues (2012) found that actually getting out of the box (i.e. the office) led to more creative problem solving. You can make it even more impactful by walking outside, since immersion in nature also increase creativity.
- Watch some funny cat videos or whatever other videos make you laugh or put you into a good mood. If your boss walks by, just point to this blog post and explain that you are problem solving. Researchers have found in general that positive mood helps us creatively solve problems.
- Sleep on the problem. Although getting enough sleep is sometime difficult when there are tight deadlines, sleep can lead to insights that help us solve problems.
- And of course, when you are completely stuck, find someone further removed from the problem to take a look at what you are doing. We all do this informally when we talk to friends and family about problems at work. (We often joke about how the friends and family of Corona employees are an invaluable asset to our company!) But sometimes you need to do it formally as well. Even though we are a research firm, we too have hired outsiders when we have needed to think creatively about our own company. Because sometimes you really are too close to a problem to see the forest instead of the trees.
 Forster, J., Friedman, R.S., & Liberman, N. (2004). Temporal construal effects on abstract and concrete thinking: Consequences for insight and creative cognition. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 87, 177-189.
 Leung, A.K.Y., et al. (2012). Embodied metaphors and creative “acts”. Psychological Science, 23, 502-509.
 Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS One, 7, e51474
 Isen, A.M., Daubman, K.A., & Nowicki, G.P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 1122-1131.
 Wagner, U.; Gals, S.; Halder, H.; Verleger, R.; Born, J. (2004) Sleep inspires insight. Nature 427, 352-355.