“There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” H. L. MENCKEN

You can break your pattern of thinking about a problem by radically changing your definition of the solution. As we discussed earlier, a good definition of the real problem is vital. But what if a serious misconception of your problem is distorting your thinking? Perhaps your rules are so strong that while defining your problem, you were unable to expand your definition of a solution enough to give yourself room to maneuver. Jolt yourself out of your rule rut by dramatically altering the problem that you are trying to solve.

Bigger or Smaller Answers

Your perception of the size of your challenge may be part of the problem. You may be worrying about a mountain when your prob- lem is really a molehill. Test your perception by radically changing your problem’s size.

What if the required solution was much bigger? Instead of find- ing a solution for yourself, create one for the whole world. Solve the problem for all time. Making the problem bigger does make it harder, but it also justifies a greater effort. So if your problem is crossing a small river, think about building a bridge instead of where to wade across.

When Tesla Motors was looking to increase the market penetra- tion of its electric cars, it realized that the high cost of batteries was a key limiter. Rather than focusing on small cost improvements, Tesla decided to build a massive Gigafactory with a battery making capacity greater than the total worldwide capacity for battery cells. That huge increase in capacity would enable greatly improved manufacturing efficiencies and costs, improvements unattainable by solving a smaller problem.

Or, what if your problem was really much smaller? Imagine that you only needed to solve it for a single person or for a single hour. Smaller problems are easier to solve. Solutions that are unthink- able on a large scale are practical when applied on a small scale. As Ricardo Salinas Pliego said, “Sometimes big problems are best solved with lots of small and creative solutions.” Imagine that your advertising campaign only needed to reach one person. What would you do to influence your audience of one?

With your new problem definition, try to break through your mental barriers. Look for solutions to the now much smaller (or bigger) challenge.

Sooner or Later

Deadlines profoundly affect problems. Next month’s challenge might be trivial if it were pushed back a year, and your approach to next quarter’s project would change if it had to be done tomorrow.

Move up the deadline for your solution to an unreasonably early date. Then consider how you would act. Panic doesn’t count. Don’t give up if it makes the problem impossibly hard, although giving up may be one solution. Think hard about what you would need to do. After you have developed one or more courses of action, apply them to your current deadline. What would work? What won’t work?

Repeat the process with your deadline pushed far out into the future. What would be different if the solution wasn’t needed for twenty years? How would your thinking change? You may find a wonderful solution that is wrong for your current deadline. Consider changing the deadline. The deadline may be the rule that makes the whole problem impossible.

If you were having difficulty merging two companies, like General Motors and Tesla imagine how the problem would be dif- ferent if you had five years to prepare for the merger. Which divi- sions and products would each company have emphasized over the years to join seamlessly with the other?


Forest fires and floods are horrible natural disasters, leaving incredible destruction in their wake. They are also very hard to stop. In the natu- ral world, numerous species have learned to use these disasters for their own benefit. They profit instead of perishing. Pine trees take advan- tage of the open space that forest fires create. In a forest, living space is at a premium. Entrants have a tough time finding their own niche. Fires create new openings that a prepared pinecone can quickly fill.

Learn from their example. Perhaps a better solution target would be how to benefit from the debacle you have been working to avert. When all your hard work is leveled, think what you can do with the space. Is there room for you to expand? Since you must start over again anyway, why not improve on your original design? View the damage as a clean slate, an opportunity for you to improve on your original plans.

Young Christopher Columbus benefited when his ship was sunk battling pirates off Portugal. He almost drowned. He luckily washed ashore and found himself penniless in a foreign land. It was one of his

best breaks. He had no choice but to go to Lisbon, where he married into a powerful family and became an important mariner. While in Lisbon, he first heard the idea of going to Asia by sailing west, which also demonstrates that your best ideas may not be your own.

Floods inundate the landscape with water, but they also spread vital nutrients. For plants, the mud that is dumped everywhere is an opportunity. They take advantage of the natural fertilizer to grow and flourish. Floods in China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt nurtured the first human civilizations. Regular disaster was perfect for sup- porting the advance of agriculture.

When you are inundated and dumped on, consider how you can use the disaster to grow faster. Can you improve your use of time or your strategy? What is there to learn from the experience? View your flood as an opportunity to grow above your adversity. Changing your view of your disaster may not make it less of a trial, but it will make it an opportunity.


“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” ABRAHAM MASLOW

Changing the tools that you employ to solve a problem will change your thinking about it. Tools are key in shaping strategies. You have probably used some specific techniques to resolve your problem. Your dependence on these tools is hiding some other interesting solutions. Forcing yourself to use a different tool can open up scores of new solutions.

The Moslem empire swept out of Arabia using a remarkable new weapon—the tax roll. Cities opened their doors to the invad- ers because they knew taxes would be lowered. Taxes were equally effective in converting the new subjects to the faith. The caliph didn’t care if subjects were Moslem or not, but adherents paid lower taxes. Millions became true believers.

This section contains a number of “tools” that you should use as seed ideas. Almost anything can be a tool. For example, what if the only tool you had was a handkerchief?

Five Handkerchief Solutions

Handkerchiefs can be excellent tools for solving more than hygiene problems, if used creatively. Here are five ways to use a simple handkerchief to help reach a solution to more compelling problems.


Fold your handkerchief in half diagonally and tie it like a mask over your face. Safely disguised, do something that must get done anony- mously. Important tasks are often left undone because no one wants the responsibility or the blame. Finding a discreet way to address the problem will get things moving. If you needed to highlight some flaws in a high-profile consulting firm’s strategic plan, you could do it anonymously. You may want to dispense with the handkerchief, but anonymity can give the freedom to clear obstacles.


Gag the person who has been killing your ideas. Then proceed with your solution. He cannot tell you to stop now. You may not actually use the gag, but you can still ignore the skeptic and get started. If your teenager has been complaining about a trip that will take him away from his friends, imagine that he is gagged and can’t say a word. Then plan the trip. Even imaginary gags work.


Drape your handkerchief over a small object. Approach a particu- larly bright friend and announce that you have found the desired solution to your problem, and it is under the handkerchief. You could use this strategy if you were responsible for improving the service for an airline. Explain what the object will do, using your definition of a solution as its attributes. Ask your friend to guess what it is. He may respond with “a laptop-computer power jack” or “a stiff drink.” Note his answer and try to use it as a solution.

Flag of Surrender

Tie the handkerchief to a stick and, waving it over your head, meet with someone that you have been feuding with. Offer to surrender your position to get things moving and to spare the noncombatants. Ask for honorable terms but end the conflict. You could use your flag of surrender if you were striving for a particular mood in paint- ing but getting it wrong. Wave the surrender flag and accept the feeling you have created on canvas.


Cover your eyes with your handkerchief. Thus blindfolded, listen to a proposal. Ignore who is making the proposal and focus on what is being presented. Use the blindfold, whether you actually wear it or not, to remind yourself not to be prejudiced by the source of an idea. A blindfold could be the perfect tool for talking with a hostile teacher. Forget that you hate the guy and listen to what he is saying.

Random Tools

Just as a handkerchief can be used to solve serious problems, other new tools can help you break out of your rule rut. Try using one of the tools in Figure 11.5 as creatively as possible. Select the tool that corresponds to the last digit in your phone number.

Yellow Pages

Imagine that your only tools were the Yellow Pages and a tele- phone. The solution must be in the phone book. How would you solve your problem? If the problem were a fight with your spouse, would you call a counselor, a lawyer, or a flower shop?


Pocketknives are wonderfully handy. They have been used to solve countless problems. How could you use a pocketknife to create a solution to your problem? If you can’t think of a way, you are not listening to your imagination.

A pocketknife could help you select divisional leaders in a newly acquired organization. Just pin the candidates’ pictures to a cork- board. Throw the knife at the board. Select whomever the knife sticks next to. Then explain to yourself why the person was right or wrong for the job. The knife will help force decisions.

Press Release

It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Imagine that your only recourse in solving your problem was to issue a two- page press release. How would you make such an opportunity into a solution? What would you say? Where would you send it? What actions would you want your readers to take?

Imagine that you needed a babysitter so that you could go to the theater. What would your press release say to assure yourself of an eager, competent sitter? Now use what you learned from your release to get the babysitter.

Spit and Bailing Wire

Fixing things with only spit and bailing wire has become a cultural cliché. But if those were all you had, how would you employ them to solve your target problem?

If your problem was raising money for a new CT scanner at the hospital, you could construct a scanner with bailing wire and an Etch A Sketch in the lobby. Remind patrons that only their donations can replace the bailing-wire version with a real community asset.

Change of Heart

What kind of solution would you pursue if you could cause a change of heart in a single person? Whom would you select? How would you modify his or her opinion? Now go convince that person!

A change of heart can work for all kinds of problems. Even if you are developing a new vaccine for the flu, there is someone who could speed your work. Perhaps it is someone with a special skill or who controls a useful facility. Identify this person. How would you cause a change of heart to get the help you need?


As far as I know, there is no way for you to be physically invisible. But if you could be invisible at will, how could you use invisibility to solve your problem?

Perhaps you want to write a passionate love song. Where would you invisibly slip to get the material for your song? What kinds of emotions would you look for? Imagine what you would find, then use it for your song.


What if the only tool at your disposal was a large billboard on which you could display any message you wished? What would you say? Where would you place the billboard?

If you were raising seed capital for a new venture, you may put the three main bullet points of your business plan on the billboard, along with your phone number. Even if you don’t use the billboard, use the concise message you develop.

Smart Dog

Can you devise a solution to your problem if your only tool is a dog? Of course it must be a smart dog, like Lassie, so it can do whatever you wish that is within a dog’s power. But your only course of action is something the dog can do. What would you have it do? How would you solve the problem with a dumb dog?

Imagine you wanted a date with someone in your building. What could the dog carry to him or her that would start the right conversation? How could you do the same thing without the dog?


What if a song was your solution? Imagine that you can write one really great song. Everyone will hear it and love it. What message would you write into that song to help solve your target problem?

Perhaps your song needs to smooth a difficult group reorganization. What tune would win you the support you need—“Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” or “Happy Days Are Here Again”? How should it make your team members feel? The refrain will carry the key message you want everyone to remember. Now deliver the message without the song.

Famous Aunt

How would you solve your problem if your only tool was a famous aunt? Everyone who is anyone knows and loves her. She is very fond of you but won’t give you money lest it spoil you.

How would you solve a problem using a famous aunt? One way is to use your well-connected aunt to introduce you to someone who can help you directly. Who is that person for you? Now deter- mine how you are going to get together with this person without the help of a famous aunt.

Magic Feathers

Magic feathers are an interesting tool. Although they change the reality of a situation very little, their impact can be enormous. Dumbo, the little elephant with the big ears, was able to fly after some helpful crows gave him a “magic” feather to help him off the ground. While the feather did nothing to improve Dumbo’s ability to fly, it did give his confidence a big boost. Believing that he could fly, he did.

Tough problems need magic feathers. It is difficult to do anything unless you first believe that it can be done. You will not try hard enough or long enough until you are convinced that you can succeed.

Magic feathers can be anything that imparts confidence. It might be a diploma or a platinum card. A public endorsement of your abil- ities or a private memory of a past triumph both work well. What would give you the extra confidence you need to do the impossi- ble? A friend’s business made dramatic advances after he acquired a tailored suit, an office, and expensive name cards. He felt like a player and soon was.

To discover what could work as a magic feather for you, think of someone who has had the success you are seeking. This person will be your model. Write this person’s name on the top of a sheet of paper. Then list as many of the person’s positive attributes, both tangible and intangible, as you can. You might list that your model is patient or that she drives a red convertible.

Review the list, and pick out an attribute that would make you feel more like your model. It should also be something you would very much like to acquire or develop. Buy it, foster it, or fake it— whatever it takes. Just getting your magic feather will help to boost your confidence and effectiveness.

New Words

The words that describe your solution may not exist yet. If they don’t, you will be misled by vocabulary that describes some other situation. Use new words to describe the new idea you will create.

To invent your new idea vocabulary, substitute words of your own creation for the more general terms that you have used to describe your opportunity or problem. Include a word that represents your desired solution. These words are placeholders for the ideas that you will have.

Physicists regularly invent particles, like quarks, to solve problems. Quarks filled a need before there was any evidence of their existence. Then, after the solution was defined, the quarks were found.

Use new words in talking and thinking about your challenge. As you use your new words to describe your solution, you will discov- er their meaning. New words are free to mold themselves to fit your solution—they have no other definitions to distract you.

For example, if you needed to develop a menu item to compete with a competitor’s pizza, you could call the item Zalt. If you called it the Super Taco project instead, your mind would be 99 percent made up. Explain to a colleague what Zalt is, how much it costs, how it tastes, and how to prepare it. Discover what is needed to solve your problem.

If you like, use any of the words that follow as the basis of your new vocabulary.

Different Words

Words like typhoon, crusade, or plague can add powerful images and emotions to ideas that you are only beginning to develop. Try applying them to your problem. Any word that is not normally used in conjunction with your problem can be used.

Take a phrase like market share loss that you use repeatedly in discussing your problem. Replace it with stronger nouns and verbs that are unrelated to the problem, words like pandemic or meltdown. Observe how saying meltdown changes your thinking about the severity of the problem.

New Symbols

Einstein used the powerful symbolic language of mathematics to solve his problems. The same strategy can work for us, particularly for problems that we don’t consider mathematical. Inventing sym- bols for a problem provides a useful, new point of view. It may be just the thing to get you out of your rule rut.

If you were concerned about your child’s friends, you could assign symbols to all the children in your area. Then write equations showing who gets along and who doesn’t. Look for a solution by manipulating the equations. Perhaps you have never thought of s + e—b before.

Create symbols to represent elements of your problem. Represent the people involved, the physical circumstances, or the emotions. Create new, unique operations that allow the symbols to interact. Go beyond plus and minus. Playfully manipulate the symbols to describe your problem and search for a solution. You are not trying to create a new branch of mathematics. Use symbols to probe your own view of the problem.

Do your calculations inspire any new insights? How would you solve your problem symbolically? What missing variables are needed to make it work? Express a useful solution. Force yourself to look at the problem in a new way.

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