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It’s a Puzzle, Not a Problem

leadership transition Jan 25, 2022

- By Sophie Pinkoski

Back in 2020, the world experienced a shift in innovative thinking. Without any warning, we were thrust into a global crisis that required us all to think on our feet to keep each other safe and businesses afloat. Organizations pivoted their focus in order to serve people’s needs in a dire situation and came up with ideas no one thought possible before. We thought these would be short-term solutions to a short-term problem. Yet two years later, the pandemic is still an issue we face on a daily basis with no end in sight.  

As the emergency dies down and we learn to live with the pandemic, we lose that sense of urgency that got us thinking so creatively in the first place. Instead, many have slid back into old habits simply because it’s easier and more familiar than constantly adapting to change. However, the uncertainty that comes with the pandemic means we can no longer afford to return to our traditional operating practices.

Volatile crises like the pandemic leave too many unknown factors that cannot be handled through traditional means.

When information is liable to change on a regular basis, we only ever have half the answers and now is not the time to become complacent. Instead, we need to find a way to regain the energy we had at the start of the pandemic to carry us through. But how can we keep innovating when two years in crisis mode has left us nothing but exhausted? 

Here are some ways to maintain momentum for creative problem solving during a long-term crisis: 

Reframe the problems you’re trying to solve – Often when strategic planning, it’s tempting to face a single problem head on with the first solution that comes to mind. Unfortunately, this may not be the only problem you have, and by coming up with the quickest solution, you ignore all other options open to you. Reframe the question your team needs to answer. What are you trying to accomplish and why? What does your audience need most right now? In digging deeper into your purpose, you allow your team to explore multiple options to find the best solution for your organization. 

Use abductive reasoning for a fresh perspective – Most problem-solving strategies are done using inductive (statistical) or deductive (scientific) reasoning.

When in crisis mode, however, something like a pandemic cannot be reasoned with in such a straight-forward, logical manner.

With so little information that changes every day, we have to do a certain amount of educated guess work to get the job done. Abductive reasoning –the logic of “what if?"– gives you the opportunity to consider things from a different angle. For instance, when brainstorming, try exploring how things could be broken even further in order to build it back up again not just from its current state, but its worst-case scenario as well. In this way, you’re opening your team up to identifying solutions to both potential and existing problems. 

Think both reactive and proactively – There are two types of creative problem solving, depending on the kind of problem you’re looking to solve.

If you’re reacting to a known problem, you’re using directed creativity. If you’re dealing with a completely unknown variable, you’re using emergent creativity.

Which one you use will be determined by whether you’re acting reactive or proactively. Often the more ambiguous a problem is, the more emergent your problem solving will be. When it comes to emergent creativity, you’re starting not with the problem itself, but a solution instead. The challenge is then to identify a potential problem, rather than the other way around. Your solutions in this case will be largely informed by the resources you have on hand and what can be done with them. By allowing yourself to think creatively with your resources, you can explore new opportunities for your organization you wouldn’t have considered before. 

Remember that problem solving is an iterative process – Design thinkers understand best that offering solutions for your target audience doesn’t happen all at once.  Designers are constantly creating products from scratch, envisioning something that doesn’t even exist yet. This is a process that involves experimentation to get it right. So too is the case for creative problem solving.

When coming up with new strategies for your organization, it’s okay to test your solutions before fully committing to them.

If your first solution doesn’t work, apply your latest insights to the next iteration and try something else.  By acknowledging that our solutions won’t be perfect the first time around, we accept our limitations and strive for better and more innovative ways forward. 

Yes, it’s exhausting, continually adapting to uncertain and often devastating change.

But by pushing yourself and your team out of the box, your organization will be healthier for it in the long run.

So don’t be afraid to dig deeper than your initial response to uncover new and exciting ways forward. Think of problems as puzzles and your creativity and energy will start to flow.


Further Reading: 

Problem Solving During Times of Crisis I, Continuing Education- School of Professional Studies, University of North Carolina, Charlotte 

To Solve Your Hardest Problems in Work and Life, Do This, Forbes 

“Using Design Thinking to Respond to Crises: B2B Lessons from the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic”, Industrial Marketing Management, Vol 88, Elsevier 

How to Respond to the Covid-19 Pandemic with More Creativity and Innovation”, Popular Health Management, Vol 24, No. 2 

“How Do I Sustain Momentum When My Whole Team is Tired?” Asking for a Friend Live, Let’s Grow Leaders 

“A Framework for Innovation in the Covid-19 Era and Beyond”Sloan Review, MIT 

From “Design Thinking” With Love: Use Abductive Reasoning to Flourish in Uncertainty, LinkedIn 

The Most Valuable Skill in Difficult Times is Lateral Thinking – Here’s How to Do It, Forbes 



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