I had discovered yet another bird stuck inside our hobby greenhouse. Unfortunately, this happens once in a while: a bird finds its way in, and then can't find its way out. True to its instinct to fly high when there is danger, it flies close to the top of the greenhouse. The door, however large and however obviously open, is invisible to the poor bird. The more the bird panics, the less likely it is to find the one exit that could save it from baking itself in the greenhouse.
It is easy to say that this is just a silly bird with a brain the size of a small pea. However, I think that there is something to be taken by us humans as well. Sometimes, the more we know, the harder it is for us to see the obvious. The more scared we get, the less likely we are to see that something we didn't expect but that could help us.
In seminars, sometimes I use a creativity puzzle taught to me by my mother. As a mathematician, she loved bringing home unsolvable and tricky puzzles for me to solve. She thought it would make me strong and better able to face the world. In hindsight, these exercises likely did make me more able to think creatively. It also meant I got skinnier as dinner was postponed until I solved the puzzle she assigned me. This particular puzzle she brought home did stick with me.
The puzzle has two parts to it. The first is a somewhat complex one (to divide an L shape into four same-size and same-shape pieces), the next one simple (to divide a square into five same-size and same-shape pieces). If the simple one was assigned first, every person would have a solution to it within two seconds. However, most people struggle with a solution to the first problem for quite some time. Once done, the second problem is introduced, with words designed to mislead. "Now that you have been able to decipher the first problem, you should be able to find a solution to this second, tougher one." With those words ringing in their ears, the problem-solver then gets stuck with trying to apply similar (ie. complex) logic to an extremely simple problem. The more complex solutions they attempt, the further they get away from the obvious simple solution. Interestingly enough, the more educated a person is, the longer they are likely to take.
So what does this mean to our lives and businesses? Simple.
One, we cannot assume that our prior knowledge is always serving us for the better. Sometimes, what we know (or think we know) actually inhibits us from seeing a simple solution. It isn't surprising that many industrial breakthroughs tend to come from outside that industry - it is as if all people in that industry adopt the same thinking and cannot get out of it. It isn't an accident that small children have an easier time learning languages than adults do. Adults tend to learn languages by comparing the new language to what they already know, whereas children tend to learn by thinking in the new language without referring to the little they may know in their first language.
Two, it may be helpful to ask someone else to look at a problem we are stuck with. For example, if we are having a problem at work, someone who does not work for the same employer may see your issue from a fresh perspective. Someone who works for the same employer may be having similar issues to you and your "problem-solving" session may simply turn into a "misery loves company" meeting with nothing solved. When looking for some industrial innovation, present your problem to someone from a completely different industry. Someone outside encumbered by the current thinking in your industry may suggest a solution you would not think of. You still need to apply your own knowledge to solutions offered by others who don't know your own environment, but you will still be ahead of the game by getting your brain stretched further.
Happy flying outside your box, sunshine and smiles,
"You can't solve a problem on the same level that it was
created. You have to rise above it to the next level."
"As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more
comprehensible, but more mysterious."
"Normal is in the eye of the beholder."