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Four Techniques to Increase Your Solution-Generating Power

Carolina Fullen
, Tue, 03/12/2019

Wombats and Wood Ducks: CIA’s Secrets to Creative Problem Solving

Carolina Fullen, Innovation and New Business Director, MSL Brazil

At SXSW 2019 I was particularly impressed with the insights shared by the CIA's creative thinking instructors Nyssa Straatveit and Jacob Eastham about how the agency educates its employees to solve difficult problems, using divergent (create choices) and convergent (make choices) techniques. We definitely end up much more on the convergent side. And this is natural and normal, but it’s not always ideal.

This was the most well rehearsed presentation I’ve attended at SXSW during my last three visits. The concept was simple: share tools to break four habits that interfere with solving problems.

Towards the end of the session participants were encouraged to share their views on creative problem solving using #CIAWombat, while CIA's recruiters were more than happy to share additional inputs if you were to visit their booth - quite an ingenious PR strategy by the CIA to attract and recruit creative talent during the event.

CIA Secrets to Creative Problem Solving
Image Source: SXSW.com

To address the creative thinking challenge and help unlock our creative potential, Jacob and Nyssa introduced us to their team of secret agents i.e. Wombat, Wolf, Wood Duck and the Otter.

1. Wombats to combat the framing bias (our preconceived notions)

The first secret to enhancing your creativity. If we want creative answers, we have to ask creative questions. Utilize the power of invitational questions.

What if instead of asking “How do we do our work better”, we rather ask ourselves “What might be all the ways to do our work better”? This helps our brain to understand there's not just one answer, but several. And that these answers can include different resources, people, and so on.

2. Wolves to explore beyond the comfort zone

There is a French phrase for twilight; entre chien et loup literally translated it means between the dog and the wolf - the dog being daytime, think of it being comfortable, the known, and the wolf being nighttime, highlighting our fear of risk, or the unknown.

Oftentimes to broaden our understanding of an issue we need to escape our comfort zone and look beyond, seek extended knowledge, sometimes from a entirely different perspective. This can be achieved by engaging in conversations with people from other trades, markets and knowledge areas, one may even find answers in art or in an hobby one pursues, and try to see if there are things in common with the question to be solved. The results can be surprising.

3. Wood Ducks to take us into new territory

Sometimes we need that divergent detour to get us to another solution or different mental construct. Analogical thinking and metaphors will take us into new territory.

Inspiration is everywhere, to cite an example, an agent once saw a man photographing wood ducks and decided to understand why, only to find out that these animals were rare in that particular region. These ducks have peculiar habits – they stay in trees (hang out with squirrels) and have an unusual migration pattern. The agent soon realized that people (and animals) behave differently than one would assume. Quite often we adopt a “logic” paradigm and simply believe that certain situations / problems are most likely to unfold in an “expected” way, by changing ones perspective from the obvious to the analogical we can take holistic look at the problem; how it could unfold over time and subsequently achieve better results in solving them.

4. Otters to challenge the status quo and to break paradigms

We are pattern making machines, we have a strong desire to always find order in the chaos and because of that we can easily get stuck in our own patterns.

We need a spark in our own thinking to see alternatives that are beyond our understanding and knowledge. This is possible through what the CIA calls "Status Quo Brainstorming" which helps assess all possible scenarios. Rather than coming up with new ideas, the objective of this exercise is to generate all the existing norms, standards, customs, and assumptions, once these aspects are made "explicit" we can work towards reversing the assumptions and busting the norms.

This articles contains excerpts from Nyssa and Jacob's presentation at SXSW “CIA’s Secrets to Creative Problem Solving
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