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Has a friend or colleague ever come to you with a problem where they didn’t know what to do, but you solved it very quickly? Business professors Evan Polman (NYU) and Kyle Emich (Cornell), as well as Lile Jia (Indiana University), conducted experiments that show we are more creative in solving other people’s problems than our own. When we consider problems from a distance, we are not only more creative and innovative, but faster and more decisive too. We explore the valuable implications this has for startup partners and directors below.

The Psychology

Polman and Emich asked participants the following question: a prisoner is locked up in a tall tower, with only a rope with a length half the distance to the ground. Yet he halves the rope, ties the two parts together and escapes. How did he accomplish this?

Half the participants were told to imagine that they were the prisoner, while the other half were to imagine helping the prisoner. Less than half of those acting as the prisoner could figure it out, while two-thirds of the latter group solved it. Want to know the answer? Keep on reading.

In another experiment, participants were asked to draw a picture of an alien as the main character of a science fiction story. Half were told that they would later write the story themselves, while the other half were told that someone else would write the story. The drawings that participants drew for others turned out to be more creative than the drawings that participants drew for themselves.

Psychologists call it ‘construal level theory’. The theory explains that when people, events and problems are cognitively distant to us – whether spatial, temporal or social – we tend to think of them in abstract terms, while things which are cognitively nearer are thought of more concretely. Also, in thinking about things abstractly, we are faster and more creative in coming up with solutions.

According to Jia’s study, ‘even minimal cues of psychological distance can make us more creative.’ Jia and his team reported that participants found it easier to solve problems when told that an institute 2000 miles away had devised them versus 2 miles away. Management and consulting readily demonstrate that making decisions for others are more creative than decisions for oneself.  If you are a startup or business owner seeking innovative breakthroughs, here are four practical suggestions.

1. Diversify Corporate Governance and Exchange Advice With Peers

Having directors separated from the day-to-day running of the company helps to bring different perspectives on challenges and new ventures. They are less decision-fatigued by operational concerns and constraints, as well as being more concerned with the big picture. At the same time, they have a vested interest in the wellbeing of the company and are incentivised to make sure that the firm is governed ethically and invests wisely.

Similarly, asking advice from others helps to bring in new insights and strategies. Not only does it take you out of a mindset of doing things in only a specific way, but it also requires you to articulate your situation to someone else which helps you to see it in the bigger context. Others can also test your assumptions with a more objective eye.

Within your professional circle, you can form an inter-disciplinary group that meets regularly to exchange problems and ideas and offer solutions. You can do this informally or join a peer advisory group that does just this, such as the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, Vistage, and the Women’s Presidents’ Organization. These organisations have chapters in major cities and take applications.

2. Dissociate Yourself

Not all problems are best solved by thinking about them closely and concretely. Create some psychological distance for yourself by imagining that you’re doing your project for someone else, and consider what advice you would give, or imagine that someone far away, on a different continent on the other side of the world, has this exact problem. Consider also how others have approached a similar situation to yours in the past.

Often, peers can give us hard but good advice because they are emotionally detached from the consequences of following through. Imagine what advice you would give in their situation if you weren’t the person implementing it – you just might get some extra insight.

Think of the solving process as two separate, independent stages: the advice-collecting stage and the decision-making stage. When collecting advice, having more options should put you in a better position, but ruling out some options early due to perceived difficulties can mean missing out on potential winners. Indeed, things can often be more viable than they seem. In the decision-making stage, consider the long-term benefits of options that seem difficult or costly to follow through, especially if short-term losses seem overwhelming.

3. Assume Fewer Constraints

Let me ask you: if you had a billion dollars at your disposal, what would you do with your life? Think about it for a second. Do you notice that your thinking and perspective of the world changed slightly with this hypothetical question?

Imagining your problem with fewer constraints helps you to challenge the core assumptions of your business. For example, the assets on your balance sheet may all seem necessary, but what happens if you had to remove half of them? Which ones would you remove in this hypothetical situation?

Thinking hypothetically also helps you to introduce change into operational processes instead of being bogged down by running these processes every day and trying to optimise them. It allows you to take a step back – hence providing some psychological distance – and see whether things should be run differently, introduced or removed. For example, if an asset in a portfolio has low or negative returns, it may be wiser to sell that asset than to spend time and energy to optimise it – an optimised loss is still a loss. However, without taking that step back and recognising that the asset was a poor performer, you might end up optimising it for longer than you should.

4. Hold a Hackathon

Team up with other firms or hold an internal think tank or ‘hackathon’ to generate new ideas for business growth, direction and processes. Earlier this year, LegalVision joined forces with Gilbert + Tobin and Westpac in a team-based brainstorming competition to come up with innovative legal solutions to a range of operational issues. One of the participants said that the collaboration allowed them to ‘develop and crystallise long-held ideas within 24 hours.’ This highlights the power of taking a break from routine, getting others involved and creating a concrete plan to carry out what would otherwise have been an idea reserved for ‘later’ but never actually implemented.

LegalVision also held an internal hackathon this year where employees were grouped into teams of five. Teams were to suggest one business process or innovation, present a cost-benefit analysis, produce an implementation plan and suggest a clear way of measuring its success. Management approved the majority of these ideas and gave them back to employees to implement. This was an excellent opportunity to realise some of the creative potential in the firm’s human resources, have employees voice opinions that were practical and well thought out, and create more awareness of the big picture within the company.

Key Takeaways

Getting outside opinion or dissociating yourself from operations creates a psychological distance that helps you think more creatively, act more decisively, and gets the ball rolling with implementation. Ultimately, a habit of taking a step back and questioning why certain strategies, assets or processes are in place is a beneficial health check on whether you’re focusing on and investing in the things that matter in the long term. On the other hand, many situations are solvable by looking into them more closely rather than from a distance. Creating distance is simply another tool to use to attack the problem from a different angle.

And if you were wondering – the prisoner in the tower frays the rope and unwinds it lengthwise, then ties the two pieces together. So the next time you’re imprisoned in a tall tower, pose the problem to someone else – you might have better success.

Think I’ve missed something? Let us know your thoughts on LegalVision’s Twitter page.


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