How You Define the Problem Determines Whether or Not You Solve It

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Art Markman for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Typical stories of creativity and invention focus on finding novel ways to solve problems. James Dyson found a way to adapt the industrial cyclone to eliminate the bag in a vacuum cleaner. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed cubism as a technique for including several views of a scene in the same painting. The desktop operating system developed at Xerox PARC replaced computer commands with a spatial user interface.

These brief descriptions of these innovations all focus primarily on the novel solution. The problem they solve seems obvious.

But framing innovations in this way makes creativity seem like a mystery. How could so many people have missed the solution to the problem for so long? And how in the world did the first person come up with that solution at all?

In fact, most people who come up with creative solutions to problems rely on a relatively straightforward method: finding a solution inside the collective memory of the people working on the problem. That is, someone working to solve the problem knows something that will help them find a solution — they just haven’t realized yet that they know it.

Sure, some people stumble on the answer. When Archimedes stepped into the bath and noticed the water level rise, he lucked into the solution for finding the volume of an ornately decorated crown. And others invest decades and millions (or even billions) of dollars into research and development (see drug companies). But tapping into the individual’s or group’s memory is one of the most cost effective and repeatable problem-solving approaches.

The key to this method is to get the right information out of memory to solve the problem.

Human memory is set up in a way that encountering a piece of information serves as a cue to retrieve other related things. If I ask you to imagine a birthday party, you can quickly retrieve information about birthday parties you have attended, and you will likely be able to think about party hats, cake, and singing “Happy Birthday.” You don’t have to expend much effort to recall this information; it emerges as a result of the initial cue.

If you want to retrieve something else from memory, you need to change the cue. If I now ask you to think about salad, you can likely call to mind information about lettuce, tomatoes, and dressing, even though you were thinking about birthday parties just a minute ago.

When doing creative problem solving, the statement of the problem is the cue to memory. That is what reaches in to memory and draws out related information.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision-making, and motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership.ey know it.

Sure, some people stumble on the answer. When Archimedes stepped into the bath and noticed the water level rise, he lucked into the solution for finding the volume of an ornately decorated crown. And others invest decades and millions (or even billions) of dollars into research and development (see drug companies). But tapping into the individual’s or group’s memory is one of the most cost effective and repeatable problem-solving approaches.

The key to this method is to get the right information out of memory to solve the problem.

Human memory is set up in a way that encountering a piece of information serves as a cue to retrieve other related things. If I ask you to imagine a birthday party, you can quickly retrieve information about birthday parties you have attended, and you will likely be able to think about party hats, cake, and singing “Happy Birthday.” You don’t have to expend much effort to recall this information; it emerges as a result of the initial cue.

If you want to retrieve something else from memory, you need to change the cue. If I now ask you to think about salad, you can likely call to mind information about lettuce, tomatoes, and dressing, even though you were thinking about birthday parties just a minute ago.

When doing creative problem solving, the statement of the problem is the cue to memory. That is what reaches in to memory and draws out related information.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision-making, and motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership.

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