Recently, Dan wrote Flip — 16 Counter Intuitive Ideas About Motivation, Innovation and Leadership. At the end of this blog, I will show you how you can get a copy from Dan’s Website.
Dan collected and refined this manifesto from columns he wrote for the UK newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph and some his best-selling book: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
One article in that collection that resonated with me is Pass Your Problem To Someone Else.
At Inotivity, we spend a lot of time understanding and reframing a problem. In general, most people accept a problem as given. In many cases, that problem may be just a symptom of a bigger problem or challenge.
Typically, we try to own the problem — we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. The counterintuitive approach may be to divorce ourselves from the problem.
As Dan writes, “ Try to solve the following puzzle: In a tower is a prisoner who desperately wants to escape. One day he discovers a rope in his cell. Trouble is, the rope is only half the length necessary to allow him to reach the ground safely. Yet he divides the rope in half, ties the two parts together, and escapes to his freedom.
How did the prisoner accomplish this feat?”
This isn’t the sort of problem most of us face in our daily professional lives. But how we approach it, and how quickly we fashion a solution, yields some surprising lessons about innovation and creativity in business.
“In a recent experiment, Evan Polman of New York University and Kyle Emich of Cornell University posed this problem to 137 undergraduate research subjects. They asked half the participants to imagine themselves as the prisoner. They asked the other half to imagine someone else as the prisoner.”
Fewer than half of the participants in the first group figured out the problem. But in the second group, 66 percent came up with the solution.
In other words, people were faster and more creative when they tackled the problem on behalf of others rather than for themselves.”
“This was no isolated result. Polman and Emich found the same phenomenon in two other experiments. In one, the researchers asked participants to come up with three gift ideas—for themselves, for someone close to them, or for someone they scarcely knew. Once again, the more remote the recipient, the more innovative the gift. (Which might explain why many of us are useless in choosing gifts for our spouses and partners.)”
Polman and Emich build upon existing psychological research showing that when we think of situations or individuals that are distant—in space, time, or social connection—we think of them in the abstract. But when those things are close—near us physically, about to happen, or standing beside us—we think about them concretely.”
Ultimately, what Pink is reporting is that social scientists are finding
that abstract thinking leads to greater creativity.
“That means that if we care about innovation, we need to be more abstract and therefore more distant. But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. We draw closer rather than step back. That’s a mistake, Polman and Emich suggest.
Pink demonstrates five ways you can use “abstract” thinking to elevate your innovative thinking and problem solving. He also offers a solution to the prisoner question. I could tell you, but it’s better if you discover it in Dan’s primer, Flip. Just click here and look for the Flip book cover and sign up for Dan’s newsletter.
Dan is generous with his insights, and you’ll get a sense how much we do to generate smarter answers is counterintuitive.
Thanks Dan, can’t wait to see you come out of that bunker in the Fall.