Why the ability to solve problems is more important than having a right answer

When I was 8 years old I knew all the flags of the world. When I was 16 I knew about Pythagoras theorem and when I was 21 I knew how Nylon was made.

Whilst flags, Pythagoras and Nylon are all interesting to a degree, I’m not sure how genuinely useful any of those topics have really been in my career. I learned about them to pass exams. I crammed the information in order to regurgitate it and get as many questions right as I could. Then I forgot it all. My schools and Universities could tick a box though. If enough of us remembered enough facts it meant they got better ratings, which meant more students and more money in subsequent years.

Throughout education I remember being rewarded for getting things right. And I learned this young. At an early age I figured out that asking challenging questions, thinking differently or being a maverick didn’t make me popular with teachers, so over time I stopped.

Then when we start work we are given key performance indicators and objectives. As adults working for an organisation we are measured and judged on how we conform to a set of pre-defined objectives. These are just the grown up versions of getting rewarded for getting things right passing tests, and ticking boxes.

So it’s no wonder that so many organisations struggle to be successful at innovation. Learning to pass exams rather than learning to think for ourselves discourages innovation from an early age, and lets not underestimate the impact that our early years experiences have on our adult behaviour.

Innovation isn’t about confirming to a set of rules or learning about how things have always been done. It’s about thinking differently, responding to change and solving problems. I’m not saying that it’s not important to learn from history and the great discoveries that have gone before us, but if we are not mindful, we may end up focusing on the events of the past and miss the real lessons of the innovators experiences; of questioning the status quo, learning from the present and not giving up when others said it was impossible.

And the real life lessons that we experience are really important in a world that is changing faster than ever before and will never move so slowly again. It’s unlikely that anyone entering the workforce today will have the same job in ten years time. *One estimate suggests that 65% of children starting primary school today will end up working in jobs that currently don’t even exist.

Right now we need our innovation and creativity skills more than ever before.

We’ve been forced to change radically in 2020. Many of us have already adapted to working from home or adjusted into new roles. We’ve stayed connected, and many people have been even more connected while remaining socially distanced. Parents have adapted to teach their kids (and many kids have adapted to teach their parents)!

Human beings are good at creativity, innovation and adapting, but we’re not used to having to adapt so quickly in a highly stressful situation and for a sustained period of time. The adrenalin needed to respond to a crisis exhausts us and we run out of steam. Gary Gower talks about it in his recent blog about getting past the 6-month wall.

When we’re stressed, anxious or out of steam our ability to think creatively is diminished.

When we feel stressed, it’s common to experience ‘brain fog’ – that feeling of not being able to think straight. When we’re out of steam we can lack the ability to focus or concentrate on anything properly. When we’re anxious we can make quick and ill thought through decisions or procrastinate so much that we do nothing at all.

This is because when we’re feeling stressed or anxious our basic survival instincts kick in and our bodies go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This makes it very difficult to access the creative thinking parts of our brains needed to solve problems effectively.

We are all creative and according to research, to think creatively we simply need to be in a relaxed or playful mindset. That’s why many people have their best ideas in the shower, walking the dog or in the pub. Ideas flow when we’re relaxed.

There’s no relaxation or playfulness when we’re operating in fight, flight or freeze mode. So in a crisis it can be hard to think creatively and solve problems, despite knowing that in a crisis is the time when we need these skills the most.

Being able to solve problems is a very important skill right now. That’s why I’ve joined forces with leadership coach Charly White.

Charly specialises in helping leaders and teams build their resilience and wellbeing. I work with teams to help them think creatively to solve problems. Between us we’ll provide you with the tools to lower your stress and anxiety levels, getting you ready to play with practical tools to build your creativity and problem solving skills.

Join us on 22 October. For more information and sign up here. (Hurry – the early bird ends at midnight on Friday 16 October) 

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