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The power of creative confidence: Humanize problems to unlock innovation

October 31, 2013 -- Updated 1909 GMT (0309 HKT)
  • Unleashing the creative potential to solve problems is within us all
  • One of the most powerful ways to reframe a problem is to humanize it
  • Focusing on the right question can deliver breakthrough innovation

David and Tom Kelley are the authors of "Creative Confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all". Follow them on Twitter. "Thinking Business" focuses on the psychology of getting ahead in the workplace by exploring techniques to boost employee performance, increase creativity and productivity.

(CNN) -- Sometimes, the first step toward a great answer is to reframe the question.

Problem statements often assume that you already know what to look for, that you know the correct solution and that the only challenge lies in figuring out how to achieve it.

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Before you start searching for solutions, however, step back to make sure you have unearthed the correct question.

Great leaders are good at reframing the problem.

Considering the future of Cisco's high-end TelePresence system, for example, Cisco CEO John Chambers reframed the obvious question, "How can we improve videoconferencing?" as "How can we provide a viable alternative to air travel?"

Reframing the question can send you off in promising new directions.

At IDEO, our teams have designed dozens of precision medical devices and surgical instruments.

Read: Why doodling may boost concentration at work

When doctors complained that their hands became tired using existing dissection tools for sinus surgery, our client asked the question "How can we make the tool lighter?" It's a worthy question and points to a solution that would include substituting materials with a higher strength-to-weight ratio, consolidating multiple parts into one, or specifying a smaller, lighter motor.

All were potentially viable options. But we reframed the question as "How might we make the surgical tool more comfortable in the hand during long procedures?"

The new question opened up a broader range of possible solutions. Working closely with the company and its medical advisory board, we redesigned the tool, shifting its center of gravity so that it was more comfortable to hold. The finished tool may even have ended up a few grams heavier than the previous device. But surgeons love it.

At IDEO's Munich office, we call the reframed challenge "Question Zero," since it is a new starting point for seeking creative solutions.

Read: Why success can hinder innovation

Great leaders are good at reframing the problem.
David and Tom Kelley

Reframing the problem not only gives you more successful solutions but also allows you to address bigger, more important problems. For example, many people think high drop- out rates in college occur because students cannot afford to stay.

That assumption suggests that the underlying problem is lack of scholarships and financial aid.

Studies show, however, that only 8 percent of students drop out for purely financial reasons.

Researchers are now finding other factors that play key roles, like academic preparedness as well as intangibles like emotional disengagement and lack of a sense of community.

Read: Can wearable technology boost your productivity?

Without getting at these deeper questions, we cannot hope to solve the deeper problems. Even when you're in a hurry for the answer, reframing the question can be time well spent.

One of the most powerful ways to reframe a problem is to humanize it.

For GE's Doug Dietz, reframing his work from designing MRI machines to getting young patients safely and willingly through an MRI scan changed not only the product but his life.

And it's not just MRIs that could use a bit of humanizing.

One of the most powerful ways to reframe a problem is to humanize it.
David and Tom Kelley

If you look around, you will see all kinds of things constructed around machine needs rather than human needs.

Read: How power affects your brain

For example, we are both over six feet tall. Why do we have to bend down on one knee to get a can of soda from a vending machine?

Because it's easier for the machine to let gravity drop a can into a bin at our feet than to de- liver it waist high into our hands. So the machine wins, and we lose.

Rolf Faste, the former director of the product design program at Stanford for twenty years, used to say, "If a problem is not worth solving, it's not worth solving well."

Focusing our energy on the right question can make the difference between incremental improvement and breakthrough innovation. Where innovation happens is often in the "Aha" moment when you realise what the real problem or need is and begin solving for that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tom Kelley and David Kelley.

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