4 Ways to Practice Flexible Thinking When Problem Solving


While at the beach the other day, I noticed a young boy trying to move his beach umbrella. As he lifted it from the sand, a gust of wind tuned it inside out. He struggled to close it against the wind for some time. Suddenly, he stopped as if an idea had occurred to him. The boy then turned around to face the wind and closed the umbrella with ease. I watched a smile of satisfaction cross his face and thought to myself…That young man has just learned a lesson he will find useful in life. That is, we cannot solve a problem standing in the same place it was created. We must learn to turn and face it from a new direction. This ability to think flexibly while problem solving is an essential skill in resilient people. Here are four ideas to practice:


  • Redefine the problem:  Sometimes, our greatest barrier to problem solving is incorrectly or too narrowly defining the problem itself. This can limit the way we see the solution. At first, the kid on the beach might have thought the problem was just his lack of strength. Seeing that it was the wind keeping the umbrella open gave him a different perspective. Ask yourself how you define your problem. Then, brainstorm three to five different ways of reframing your problem statement. Now, try to find solutions for each new statement.


  • Welcome collaboration:  Different people add different perspectives that broaden your options. Don’t just surround yourself with people that think like you. Seek input from unlikely sources.  Collaboration works best in an atmosphere that suspends judgment. So, all ideas should be welcome. Sometimes, an idea that does not work can inspire an idea that does.


  • Try some creativity:  Sometimes, there is a need to stretch the limits of our imagination to get a new perspective. One of my favorite creative problem-solving techniques is to use a bag of unrelated objects or pictures of well-known characters. Randomly choose one and brainstorm ideas for how that object or character would solve the problem. Remember that in brainstorming the goal is quantity and creativity, not necessarily the feasibility of the idea. Once a long list is generated, then go back and look for elements that might inspire a possible solution.


  • Go to the beach:  Sometimes, to look at something differently you need to stand in a new space. I schedule time every week to work outside my normal environment. I pack the book I’m reading, a pen, notebook and sketchpad then head to the park, the beach, the zoo or, on a rainy day, my favorite coffee house. The change in environment helps me to see things differently. I find these days to be some of my most productive. Often, I am able to solve problems that I have been wrestling with all week. Every now and then, I find the source of a new idea or inspiration. As was the case of the boy and his umbrella.


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