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Professional Help: 5 Strategies for Creative Problem Solving

Stumped? Psychologist Tony McCaffrey offers up five research-based ways to unleash that innovative idea you've always had in your brain.

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If you're stuck trying to solve a problem, try the obscure. "There's a classic obstacle to innovation called functional fixedness, which is the tendency to fixate on the common use of an object or its parts," says University of Massachusetts researcher Anthony McCaffrey. "It hinders people from solving problems."

This week on Professional Help, McCaffrey explains the "generic parts technique" he developed to combat this common design dilemma and shares insights based on his analysis of 1,001 historically creative inventions from his recently published paper in Psychological Science.


Think beyond an object's common function. Break an item into all of its parts and, if any of your descriptions imply a function (e.g., a prong is for transporting electricity), describe it more generically by its size, shape, and material make-up (e.g., small, flat, rectangular piece of metal). Calling something the prong of an electric plug may hide the fact that it can also become a screwdriver in a pinch. If the passengers of the Titanic saw the iceberg as a large floating surface rather than something that hits ships, many could have possibly used it as a lifeboat since it certainly wasn't going to sink.

Frame your goals carefully. If you state your objective as "adhere one surface to another that is hard to stick things to," then you've already severely limited your scope to "sticky" solutions that require a chemical process. To illustrate, we created a "magnetic sandwich" solution where the new surface had enough metal in it to make it stick through the no-stick surface to the magnet. We wouldn't have reached this solution if we had stuck with the poorly articulated goal, since it is magnetic (not chemical) and involves three surfaces (not two) where the two surfaces sticking to each other were not in direct contact.

Broaden your associations. If you ask people to list out the ways to fasten two things together, they will probably come up with about eight. But if you look up the more specific synonyms of the verb "fasten" in a thesaurus, you will find at least 60 ways -- buckle, clip, velcro, glue, tie, weld, sew, clamp, staple, etc. A thesaurus not only assists writers but also expands the associations of problem solvers.

Try the TRIZ methodology. Initially, after bulletproof glass was invented, there was a tradeoff. The glass would stop the bullet but crack to the point of obscuring the vision of the driver or pilot behind the glass. TRIZ, a Russian problem-solving method, has an extensive list of principles for resolving tradeoffs. In this case, the relevant principle was segmentation and the solution was to make a large pane of glass out of smaller panes so that the cracks only fill out the one small pane. If you can articulate your tradeoff, then TRIZ more than likely has ways to overcome it that have worked on other problems.

Don't fixate on known designs. We tend to focus on the features used in familiar solutions when trying to be innovative, but novel designs are most often based on obscure features. For a candle, for example, people overlook that these objects are motionless and that candles lose weight while burning. To apply these two obscure features in industrial design, we created a scale-like structure that holds a candle on one side and a weight on the other. As the candles burns it moves upward. For fun, we put a snuffer at the top so the candle eventually extinguishes itself.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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