One simple tool to help you solve any problem

Have you ever had the experience where the same challenges keep coming up again and again? Whether that be in one to ones or in team meetings after a while these things get you down and you lose perspective or energy to solve them.

In my last job I managed a large remote team, we met together about 6 times a year. I used to sit in the day long meetings and note down everyone’s problems and take on the burden of solving them. I left the team meetings drained, stressed and quite honestly depressed. While my team left feeling upbeat and positive because they had unloaded everything. However, their initial relief soon faded when they realised that I wasn’t actually going to solve their problems. Just a quick aside – if this is a challenge you have – read: The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Ken Blanchard.

So, how do you solve this problem and indeed all the problems of your team? During my last three months in the job I took on a new team, a team that had lots of challenges. I knew that I had a short period of time to support them and that taking on their problems wasn’t going to help. I needed to empower them and give them the tools to problem solve.

The team was a small team in a charity responsible for looking after supporters – they were saying they were overworked and couldn’t take on a bigger caseload.  By looking at the problem in a more abstract way you start to unlock the root cause of the problem and frame it differently.

This is where the Ladder of Abstraction comes in. As you go up the ladder the thinking becomes more abstract and down the ladder thinking becomes more concrete. To move up the ladder you ask WHY and down the ladder you ask HOW. It is a useful tool to help describe our language and thoughts and re-label a problem. It can be used in many different ways but I have found it useful for problem solving and evaluating activity.

So how does it work?

You take your problem and start at the bottom of the ladder. For each statement you keep asking WHY. Eventually you get to a root cause of the problem and then you can work your way back down the ladder asking HOW. If you start with how you miss the opportunity to re-label the problem and you take it at face value. So, in the example below the problem is “We do not have enough capacity”, you might jump to – we need to recruit more staff or maybe we need to change a process or reduce workload. But you might be unsure which process to change or simply providing more capacity might not actually solve the problem – exploring the why helps you get to grips with this.

One simple tool to help you solve any problem

By using this simple tool we thought the problem was that the team didn’t have enough capacity but then we realised that we didn’t need to discuss every supporter together but that we could set aside a set time to creatively discuss specific challenges. This also helped the team focus on the solution and not the problem.

I have also used this tool personally to reflect on how a project or piece of work went – this is particularly useful if you feel that the project failed in some way. You could use the ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ method Better If’ method, which is useful. But the Ladder of Abstraction helps you to explore more deeply WHY things went wrong and then HOW you would do things differently in the future. It also makes it less personal because you can look at it objectively from a more abstract viewpoint.

I hope that this simple tool can help you unlock your thinking, solve problems and learn from failure. Used enough, asking WHY becomes second nature.

Emily Petty


Emily Petty, a member of the Lucidity Network, is a fundraising and change consultant. She is passionate about helping charities build a relationship led approach to fundraising and supporting them to unlock potential and manage change. You can find her on Twitter @EmilyPetty1 and on LinkedIn


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3 tips for creative leaders

Last week I interviewed Kirstin Kaszubowska, innovation and creativity expert about her thoughts and experiences helping individuals and teams to think creatively. One of the questions from the audience was about how to be a creative leader.

First lets define leadership – I define it as leading in your own sphere of influence. It’s how you behave, your mind-set and your attitude not what your job title is.

Creativity is one of those words that means something different to everyone. I define it as having ideas, original ones, unusual ones or even boring ones. They all count as long as the ideas serve a useful purpose or more precisely solve a problem.

So how do you actually ‘do’ creativity and then lead others? There’s no silver bullet. No blueprint. No one right way. Creativity is messy. And as Kirstin points out there is a process but what comes out at the end of the process is not predictable because creativity is on a continuum, there are different types of creativity and it’s different for everyone. If we all went and did the same things to spark our creativity we’d get a whole bunch of different ideas.

The process can feel messy. You identify a problem that needs solving, you get curious, you draw on different contexts, situations and experiences, You mull it over, you play, you sleep, you relax, you go and do something entirely different instead. Ideas come to you. You repeat the process and evolve and blend your first ideas. You keep going until you have an idea that warrants testing. It can be unpredictable, time-consuming, fast-paced, exciting, frustrating and emotional.

Leading creativity is about embracing messy, trusting in the process and leading by example. Here are our top 3 tips:

  1. Leave your desk, get curious and go exploring. Go to that gallery, that exhibition or the talk that looked interesting. Encourage your team to take time out of their hectic business as usual day to go exploring into the topics that interest them too.
  2. Creativity is about being open to new things and learning to experiment and then fine-tuning. Creativity comes in layers. Stop trying to get things right first time. Do lots of small tests, approach everything as a small experiment and if and when they don’t work (because not everything will work – that’s probably the only guarantee with creativity), be open, tell people, share the learning and keep going.
  3. Don’t spend too long planning, or making your team construct lengthy business plans that will be out of date by the time they are signed off. Try ‘napkin planning’ – a plan that fits on the back of a napkin that by its very nature can be more flexible to change. Just remember to buy a good supply of napkins.

And one more tip for free; never, ever, if you are inspiring other people to be creative ask anyone to ‘think outside the box’.

The Unlock Your Inner Creativity’ webinar is available on the Lucidity Network. The Lucidity Network is a pick and mix of online and offline practical tools and advice as well as access to a dynamic network of expertise to help you take the lead in getting the results you want.

Follow this link for more information and to join the Lucidity Network.  You can also join the Lucidity Community free Facebook group  for clearer thinking and better results.  

Creativity explodes when you turn on your brain

A guest blog by Genevieve M Hibbs.

One area of creativity that I frequently and spontaneously enjoy and invest in is visual. I have my point-and-click camera with me whenever I have my day-clothes on. Yes, my camera is limited in its zoom, and its movie clips, but it’s readily available and that means that I can usually get some record even if it is a mental one that I would have otherwise missed.

My several hundred thousand photos, online, record good, bad and most importantly, the changing. As a local ‘street champion’ I forward photos of issues to the local council and have seen the results in many ways, for example, a set of six pavement crossovers, graffiti removed and reduced locally and cars no longer seriously overhanging the pavement in the road where I live.

Along the way there have been some ‘stunners’, like the Canada goose that stood still on one leg in a tapestry-like setting allowing me two sets of photos.

When one focuses on something, the brain learns that the point of one’s focus is interesting. So, I found that when I carried a leaf that I had picked, turned it over and was amazed at its bronze colour, my brain set me to find other leaves to pick up (and photograph). That autumn I picked up many ‘packs’ of leaves that were all different in some respect like shape, shade or size.

In contrast to the time when in my 50’s I went on a group coach trip to the seaside and was thinking, ‘I have done this before’, ‘I know what they will say’, ‘then we stop at …’, ‘this is boring’. Now that I made a conscious decision to do so, I see and enjoy the new and the different every day.

Following Jim Rohn and Jack Black, in the 1990’s, I was challenged to make a ‘day book’. One was instructed to set, and how to set, goals, and then find pictures, from magazines or use one’s own drawings, that symbolised each of those goals, and to look at those pictures every day.

Image source unknown

The photograph relevant to this theme, that I put into my day book was of an old-fashioned wheelchair with a child standing by it and looking in. The caption was ‘take a peek at something new’. I looked at it more or less every day for six months only. Nothing happened, that I observed, from this picture, until some two years later, when suddenly one day I realised that three significant things had happened, that I had noticed, that I would not have noticed without that discipline.

How often do we lack focus or overlook the value of new experiences? I have wasted too many. However, now, at 83 and with my photography themes as a prompt, every day has ‘new’ experiences that I record!

Genevieve M Hibbs former: nurse (general and occupational health), midwife, Christian missionary, lecturer, elected councillor and mayor.


Let’s sleep on it some more – Part two – The sloth approach to creativity and innovation

A guest blog by Vanessa Longley.

In my last blog I explained the connection between a good night’s sleep and increased productivity and creativity. Here’s where I explain how it all works.

Imagine you have an account at the Sleep Bank. Every night you invest your sleeping hours and your balance increases. And every day you ‘spend’ this value in staying awake and being productive. So, by the end of each day you need more sleep to keep your balance in the black! If you keep a positive balance, then the Sleep Bank pays you interest in the form of creativity – quality sleep leads to increased creativity.

However, when we spend more in being awake and productive than we earn by accumulating quality sleep then we end up going into the red and managing a ‘sleep debt’. If you are in sleep debt, then you are not getting your creativity interest payments. Using the techniques discussed below will help you effectively increase the quality of your sleep and increase your creativity – to give you great ideas from a better night’s sleep.

Dispelling the myths

People are understandably very protective about their sleep and especially their dreaming! Getting great ideas from a better night’s sleep is not about creating a 24-hour working day – in fact these techniques help to improve the quality of your sleep whilst boosting creative ideas in the day. It’s also not about Freudian (or Jungian) understanding of your dreams! This is about neuroscience not psychoanalysis.

5 steps to great ideas from a better night’s sleep

There are countless stories of insights in sleep solving the problems of the waking world…but practically where do we start

1.Preparing to sleep

As a society many of us have forgotten how to get ready to sleep. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as complex computers that can just be switched off at night. Instead we need to take some time to prepare to sleep. Make good sleep a good habit by keeping your bedtime reasonably regular, be sure to turn off screens an hour before sleep, keep bedrooms cool, dark and quiet – or just follow nine ways to a great night’s sleep:


If you want your brain to help you solve a problem creatively at night – you need to know the problem you want to work on. Choose any challenge you’d like to find a solution for. It can be complicated or easy – but it has to be something somewhat in your control (not how to bring about world peace please). Now write it down in a notebook.

How solvable do you feel this problem is? Mark it on the scale in the notebook. This is entirely subjective – we don’t need to know how tricky other people are finding this issue – this is all about your challenge, and the solutions you can find. So, what might be a 2 for you might be a 7 for others.

Now practise these incubation exercises, spending no more than 5 minutes completing one of the following:

  1. Rephrase your challenge by writing it as a paragraph starting ‘how might’ or ‘how to’
  2. Summarise your challenge as a simple single sentence
  3. Focus on your challenge by rewriting it considering every word


Stating the obvious – if you are not relaxed you will not get a good night’s sleep! Remember your brain is not a computer and sleep isn’t an off switch. You need to give your brain permission to relax into sleep. There’s a million ways to do this – but one of the simplest is focussed breathing. This isn’t all about meditation and Buddhist chanting – this is science.

Dr Alan Watkins – physician and neuroscientist is the country’s leading expert on Heart Rate Variability – the higher the variability of heart rate the more hormones you produce that pump into your system affecting how you think and react. But you can control this – and the way you breathe controls whether you pump your system full of adrenalin to keep you awake or GABA for a feeling of peace and serenity! So rather than reaching for your phone to check Facebook before bed, instead after your incubation exercises relax through 2-3 minutes of mindful breathing. If you don’t know how to breathe (!!!) just follow the guide below:


There’s no secret trick here. If you’ve followed stages 1-3 then stage four requires no effort on your part.


You drift to the surface after a great night’s sleep…what’s the first thing you do? Reach for your phone? Well not anymore. Now before you get out of bed grab your notebook from last night and spend 3 minutes recording your most memorable and vivid dreams from the night. Sketch or write about this dream – include colours, scents, sounds, how you felt – anything that feels meaningful. You are not looking for direct links to the challenge you set yourself (though you may find that obvious connections start showing themselves) you are looking to continue the creative state you were in whilst asleep.

Now recall your work-related challenge from the night before and spend 5 minutes (no more) completing both of these post sleep exercises;

  1. Solutions: quickly record as many solutions to this work-related challenge as you can
  2. Support: quickly record what you might need to help solve this work-related problem

Now re-score your problem using the scale below. How solvable do you feel this problem is now? This is still subjective – you are comparing with how you felt about this problem last night not with how other people might feel about it.

Remember we are modelling the sloth. If you don’t see an obvious answer to your problem after the first night – don’t worry – in my research some people took two or three tries before it worked for them. Others didn’t see the connection between their dreams and their work-related problem until they thought about it for a while.

Your take away

You are already immensely creative. Of course, there are techniques to learn and tricks to boost your creativity – but however many training sessions you attend, however many qualifications you get, however many extra hours you do in the office…

Remember you are at your best and most creative when you rest, so chill out, improve your sleep and boost your great ideas…

Vanessa Longley is the Director of Development at YoungMinds, and is currently researching how creative leaders can effectively and affordably develop the fundraising leaders of the future…plus she is working hard on fitting in a solid 8 hours sleep every night.

If you’re looking for more insight, tips and support to get better results check out the Lucidity Network.

The Lucidity Network is designed to help you take the lead in getting the results you want. It’s a pick and mix of online and offline practical tools and advice as well as access to a dynamic network of expertise. We’re open for new members a few times a year. Sign up to the waiting list to be the first to know when the Network is open for new members. In the meantime you can join the Lucidity Community free Facebook group  for clearer thinking and better results.  




Let’s sleep on it some more… How sleep and creative thinking are connected. Part one.

A guest blog by Vanessa Longley.

Last year, as part of my MSc in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership studies I wanted to understand more about the connection between sleep and creativity. You may have read my previous blog about creativity in sleep and whether we could use our inherent night time creativity to increase our creativity problem solving in waking life.

More than 100 UK managers worked with me to develop real world ways to get great ideas from a better night’s sleep – and the good news is that it works! Of those who tried the suggested techniques, 100% reported finding more creative solutions for work related problems (measured as increased ‘solvability’), as well as showing increases in the quality and quantity of sleep.

So, what’s the problem?

My interest in sleep started after my daughter was diagnosed with sleep maintenance disorder – a nero-disability meaning she requires far more sleep that you or me. On average she sleeps an extra 35 hours a week compared to her peers, you could say that sleeping has become her full-time job.

I’ve been fascinated by whether we might make sleep an enhancement of wakefulness – so time asleep is not just a necessity but becomes a useful part of who we are.

The research backed up my personal experience of just how busy we are nowadays with 95% of surveyed managers feeling they need more creative solutions for work-based problems – the barrier is time (or lack of it) with almost 70% feeling they don’t have time to complete their daily ‘to-do’ lists let alone come up with new approaches to old problems!. In fact, if you’re anything like the average modern worker you always have too much to do and too little time, and that’s before dashing home to feed the dog, think about going to the gym, get some laundry done…and then log-on again to finish that final report. And in the meantime, your boss is telling you that the organisation needs to be more innovative, that you need to be more creative…

…so exactly when are you going to fit that in?

And nearly three quarters of those asked said their mind is still buzzing before they go to bed – not helped by the fact that over 80% of them keep their phone by their bed, switched on with notifications coming through 24 hours a day (compared to only 10% of participants who have a clock!!!)

Why doing more isn’t doing better

But sleep isn’t the luxury we make it out to be. As humans we can survive for more than three weeks without food, but only 8-10 days without sleep. Yet as a society we are obsessed with the idea of proving ourselves good employees through long working hours. But the more work (and less sleep) we have, the less efficient we are. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) research in 2017 showed across the world’s richest countries, lower working hours correlates with higher productivity AND workaholism leads to: poor sleep, depression, burnout, depression, anxiety, recurring stress-induced headaches and stomach aches. The neuroscientist Matthew Walker feels we are facing a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” because: “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour. We chastise people for sleeping…We think of them as slothful”.

Practical perception of sleep has often been as a: “passive, dormant part of our daily lives” (American Sleep Association, 2017), yet far from an interruption in activity, sleep is vital for effective functioning of the human body. Studies with astronauts show disruptions in the circadian clock and sleep jeopardize mood, cognition and performance. Whilst most adults can manage challenges of short term sleep deprivation, over a longer timeframe: “SD [sleep deprivation] impairs decision making involving the unexpected, innovation, revising plans, competing distraction and effective communication” (Harrison & Horne, 2000). This is particularly important for those interested in high creative performance at work, as Harrison and Horne’s (2000) research shows innovation is particularly impacted by poor sleep.

Sleep and creativity

The correlation between sleep and creativity has been known as long as we have had ability to record our thoughts. Inherent creativity, shown through sleep in the form of dreaming, has fascinated humans through the ages; from dream records in Ancient Mesopotamia, through the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint Denys – the first to try and apply the scientific method to study lucid dreaming, to Jungian theories around the role of dreams integrating our conscious and unconscious lives. Throughout belief exists that within the creative experiences of sleep something useful occurs, that within dreams: “there must be a utilitarian aspect to these creative thoughts, or else they are simply just random firings of the brain” (Patel, 2014).

The development of scanning and imaging technology has allowed us to explore these ‘random firings’ more closely. Certain types of sleep state where you move between dreaming sleep (called Rapid Eye Movement or REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep has been shown to increase fluency, flexibility and originality of thought. Deirdre Barrett’s research published in 2001 shows we can direct our sleeping brains to work on problems we want to solve. Simply by focussing on the issue, over 50% of people found useful creative solutions to their problems during sleep.

The idea our sleeping brain may allow us to become better creative problem solvers is controversial, not least because so many have invested so much to develop problem solving methods for the waking world. The idea of simply ‘relaxing and having a nap’ seems counter-intuitive for those who have built careers on claiming creative problem solving is a skill that must be learned, with theorists like Blagrove’s stating: “…the place for problem solving is the waking, social world”. This however dismisses increasing evidence to the contrary from researchers such as Wagner et al where: “twice as many subjects gained insight into the hidden rule after sleep as after wakefulness, regardless of time of day”,

But not all sleep is equal! To maximise the usefulness of creativity in sleep it is important to reconnect to measurement of sleep itself.   It is within a certain type of active dreaming state (REM sleep) that individuals increase creative problem solving by up to 40% (Cai et al, 2009). Further work by Arico et al (2010) and Kirov et al (2015) show that whilst REM sleep remains crucial, it is the multiple transitions between REM and NREM sleep that increases fluency, flexibility and originality of thought, improving creative problem solving. Therefore, it is the process of a good night’s sleep, which creates a ‘useful’ night’s sleep; beyond merely creativity within a dream state.

Why the sloth approach may offer greater productivity…and creativity

We all instinctively know that a good night’s sleep must be good for us, but society puts pressure to work harder for longer each day. Hard work, long hours and reacting to everything instantaneously reminds me of the meerkat approach – but I am recommending we model ourselves after something much more laid back…Sleeping more…and working fewer hours may just be the answer if you want to be more creative, successful and healthy! The sloth is our model here: napping for up to 18 hours a day. I’m not advocating doing nothing – quite the opposite. I’m suggesting you trust the research – by resting more you will be a better more creative manager.

Vanessa Longley is the Director of Development at YoungMinds, and is currently researching how creative leaders can effectively and affordably develop the fundraising leaders of the future…plus she is working hard on fitting in a solid 8 hours sleep every night.

For how this all works check out part two…coming soon…