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A problem shared: How trading a challenging problem with someone else can help deliver a solution

Ever come up with a great idea for someone else, but find yourself stymied by your own problem. Sometimes it’s easier to come up with a great idea for someone else than it is to solve your own issue.

Idea in brief: Creating distance encourages a more abstract and creative approach to problem solving.

Research undertaken by Evan Polman of NYU and Kyle J. Emich of Cornell may provide an explanation as to why that is. In three sets of experiments, they found that when people solved problems on behalf of others, they produced faster and more creative solutions than they did when they solved the same problems for themselves.

In the first experiment, Polman and Emich asked participants either to draw an alien for a story they were going to write themselves or for someone else’s story. The aliens people sketched for others were more creative than the ones they drew for themselves.

In the second study, participants were asked to come up with gift ideas for themselves, for someone close to them, or for someone far away. The result: the more distant the recipient, the more creative the gift.

And in the third study, participants had to solve the following problem:

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?

Subjects were more likely to come up with the answer on behalf of another person than for themselves; the farther away the other person was imagined to be, the more likely the participants were to come up with the correct answer.

Polman and Emich say the principle at work is something called “construal-level theory,” which really means thinking more abstract terms about distant problems (or problems belonging to distant people) - and thinking at a more abstract level produces more creative solutions.

So given that we’re often more creative solving someone else’s problems, what can we do to more effectively solve our own? Here are three ideas:

1. Trade problems with someone. When you get stuck with an issue find a colleague to trade with. 

2. Involve third parties in problem solving. The next time you have a brainstorming session which requires a creative output, involve people far removed from the issue – different departments, temporary or interim staff, consultants.

3. Build in distance between yourself and your issue. Writers know something magical happens when you put your manuscript away in a drawer. When you come back to it a week or a month later, you have a fresher, more creative perspective on the work. Try building in some reflection time in to your project planning.

Idea worth implementing: Identify a problem you are currently struggling with and share it with another person who is slightly removed from the issue to get their input.