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Look for the Solution within the Problem

Look for the Solution within the Problem
The Thinker

    Two prisoners dug a tunnel from their cell 80 feet to escape from prison. Where did they hide the dirt? This is one of the examples used by Roni Horowitz of the consultancy group SIT to show the advantages of a method called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT).

    The answer is that they hid the dirt in the tunnel. The prisoners stole nylon sacks from the prison bakery and each day they dug the tunnel and put the dirt into the sacks. At cell inspection times they pushed all the dirt bags back into the tunnel and tidied the cell. When the prisoners escaped the guards found a cell full of bags of dirt and an empty tunnel.

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    It is a good example of one of the principles of SIT – look for the solution within the problem or its environment. The prisoners had very limited resources – but one of them was the tunnel itself.

    If we are given unlimited resources to solve a problem then we can always come up with something – and often it is expensive and over-engineered. When we have to use the limited set of resources contained in the problem and its immediate environment then we are forced to be more creative – and very often the result is a solution that is elegant, inexpensive and effective. Using the tunnel is a prime example.

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    When Hiram Maxim went pigeon shooting he noticed two problems. One was the strong recoil of the rifle into his shoulder. The second was that he had to stop to reload the gun. He wondered if it was possible to use one problem to solve the other and by doing so he invented the machine gun.

    At the end of the first Gulf War fires were raging out of control in the Kuwaiti oil refineries. What could be used to put them out? One answer might have been sand. But a better solution was found. The pipelines that were normally used to pump oil from the refineries were used to pump water to the refineries. By using an existing resource and reversing the flow the problem was overcome.

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    Engineers are accustomed to working in very constrained conditions. In the very early Volkswagen Beetle car there was a problem of how to provide the power needed for the windscreen washer. The ingenious solution that the engineers came up with was to use the air pressure from the spare wheel (which was in the front of the car) to power the water jet.

    But it is not just product engineers who can use internal resources in ingenious ways. In 2005 the IRA pulled off a major robbery at the Northern Bank in Belfast – they got away with £25m in banknotes. How could the authorities catch the criminals or stop them using the proceeds of their crime? They came up with a clever idea using one of the resources within the problem – the stolen banknotes. They changed the currency in Northern Ireland and reprinted all bank notes. Anyone holding old bank notes had to bring them in to be changed – and that is a big problem if you are holding millions of stolen banknotes.

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    So how can you use this approach in your problem solving? One of the methods taught in Systematic Inventive Thinking is to break the problem down into a chain of unwanted effects. Now consider in turn each element in the problem or its environment and say to yourself – this element can be adapted to stop one of the unwanted effects and to break the chain. Then come up with ideas. By rigorously and imaginatively applying this technique you will often find an inventive solution.

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    Paul Sloane

    Professional Keynote Speaker, Author, Innovation Expert

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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