Think Outside the What? – Three Creative Tools for Novel Problem Approaches

March 26, 2014 | Blog-Admin1 | Methods & Tools |


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Pic of Lawrence McGrath

The reframing of a problem whilst working towards its creative solution is a balancing act. Luckily there are a few tips and tricks to support you: try putting yourself in others’ shoes using the empathy map; view your problem from a variety of angles with the reframing matrix; or ‘flip flop’ the problem onto its head to unfreeze your assumptions and gain a fresh perspective.

by Lawrence McGrath, Institute for Media and Communications Management of the University of St. Gallen

Have you ever really needed to ‘think outside the box’?

Most people have, and most people have struggled. Successful innovators soon discover that creativity is full of paradoxes – such as the importance of an open-minded scepticism towards issues. Tackling thorny issues head-on is most often unproductive, instead – work around them. The art lies in being resilient to accepting a problem as you first see it, and striving to engage the problem at arm’s length and see in a new light. Once this has been accomplished, your time and energy will be better used.

Question Questions

You firstly need to question ‘the box’. What box? Question your basic assumptions about how the problem can be seen. Reframe it. Why aren’t you thinking outside the sphere? Indeed, why aren’t you thinking inside the sphere?

thing look diferent

Things look different when you change perspectives


The reframing of a problem whilst working towards its solution is a balancing act that is difficult to master. Practice is needed to build, and retain this skill. Luckily, there are a few tips and tricks to support you.

 1. Put Yourself in Others’ Shoes

Problems and our solutions often impact upon people – so put yourself in others’ shoes. A particularly useful approach to take is that of your user, partner, recipient or customer. Try to understand who they are, and what’s important to them – what makes them tick? Try watching a member of the group you are trying to solve a problem for. A great tool for compiling your observations, and insights on people of interest is called the empathy map (click here).


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Blank empathy map – ready for filling with stakeholder observations

2. Offload your Thoughts onto Paper

Reframing problems puts high demands on our working memory. The easiest and most effective way to reduce strain on your working memory is to offload your thoughts onto paper. Write down new perspectives on a problem, and their implications as you work. A useful framework for doing this is the reframing matrix (click here) . Once noted down, elements of perspectives can be combined to form hybrids; and the problem can be continually redefined. I recommend revisable tools such as pencil and paper or whiteboards. An especially useful standardised problem reframing is that of Morgan (1993), which is shown below. Presentation of this tool comes with a caveat, as powerful as this framework is – pre-packaged approaches often lead to pre-packaged ideas which others may have already used.

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3. Turn the Problem on its Head

So far we have been speaking about reframing problems to see completely new perspectives on it. This may not always be possible for an individual – luckily it is not always necessary. The relaxation of rigidly fixed assumptions allows us to access our minds more flexibly. The human brain is a patterning system, yet the fixed thought structures it inevitably creates don’t let creative thought paths gain momentum. Even the relaxation of these insipid patterns requires strong direct action as they are often regarded as common sense. One method taken from Prof. Dr. Martin Eppler’s multi-step Paths to Success (P2S) creativity method is called ‘flip-flop’ . Flip the problem solving frame of mind on its head – instead of trying to solve the problem, what would you do to make it worse? The answers to this question, and their effect will surprise you. The importance of unfreezing assumptions and reframing problems is one of the lessons borne out of the Creability series of workshops which Prof. Dr. Martin Eppler and I held with the SDC and other partners throughout 2013. More of the lessons gleaned from these workshops can be found at

Change of Perspective = New Knowledge

Knowledge, like beauty, often lies in the eye of the beholder. If you have a new perspective, you are likely to have new knowledge. Finding and exploring a new perspective on a problem will result in rapid, original progress on the issue at hand while the box you were commanded to think outside of will be left in another room. Unopened.

The art of reframing problems lies in balancing a motivated embrace of the problem with a tentative exploration of perspectives. Visual tools such as the reframing matrix help you to achieve this balance by freeing up working memory and enabling a more systematic search. The concerted breaking and loosening of assumptions will also help you to access new perspectives.

Do you agree, or are there higher priorities when beginning to solve a problem?

 Further Links





Comments to“Think Outside the What? – Three Creative Tools for Novel Problem Approaches”

  1. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Dear Lawrence, I love your blog post and the 3 creative tools you introduce to keep our minds open while searching for solutions. They can be applied so easily, and it won’t even take a lot of time to open up our thinking and see different perspectives.
    Especially the empathy map. Tom and David Kelly formulate it like this: “Empathy means challenging your preconceived ideas and setting aside your sense of what you think is true in order to learn what actually is true.”
    And by the way: Many more great exercises to spark ideas and different thinking can be found in ‘Creative Confidence’ by the two Kelly brothers. Here the link:
    Best, Nadia

  2. Lawrence McGrath says:

    Hi Nadia,

    Thanks for your comment.

    In combination with the mindset you mention, the empathy map is indeed a powerful tool. Customer- and partner-centricity are universally important, but I think empathy towards stakeholders is especially important for the SDC – you interact with a wide range of individuals in unique and often trying circumstances.

    The Kelley brothers are greats of the creativity field – thanks for the link. Their site mentions the supposed ‘creative’/’practical person’ division. I think this perceived division is largely to do with the difficulties of moving a concept through the inconvenient truths of implementation – especially the first steps. Determination and a different approach to conventional, everyday projects are needed.

    On that note, HBR just released a new book on the early testing and implementation phase for the new ideas we put so much effort into developing. The following video is largely a sales pitch for the book, but the testing approach taken looks promising:

    The key implementation steps mentioned are:

    > Document the idea (what’s the idea, and what’s needed to realise it)

    > Evaluate the uncertainties (where have assumptions been made? What are the risks?)

    > Focus on the key uncertainties

    > Test various approaches (run limited exposure pilot projects and do A/B testing to scientifically discover which measures work, which can be made to work and which don’t work)

    I especially like the idea of limited liability tests of on-paper ideas to discover, and work around, the issues they’ll face in the world outside the flexibility of ideation sessions.



  3. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Dear Lawrence, thanks for your additional thoughts on how to turn ideas and new concepts and practices into reality. The short video gives indeed a great introduction; here the direct link:

    As you pointed out the steps mentioned in the video require a different approach than many of us are used to. It’s an enquiring one including uncertainty and failure in the long run. One with much shorter cycles than we are used to in many of our planning processes; going for iteration, probing and testing and moving step by step forward.

    I especially liked in the video the thoughts on curiosity! A curious organisation sees stakeholders as people, goes for prototyping, loves learning, and lives at the intersection bringing in thinking from other industries.

    Best, Nadia


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