Trading Problems

Dan Pink’s post on solving problems by sharing them intrigued and inspired me.  He reports recent research which shows that we are quicker and better at solving problems when we are solving them for other people than when we solve them for ourselves, and we get better and better the ‘further’ away we are from the person.  Put another way, the more we are able to distance ourselves from a problem, the more abstract and creative our problem solving is. It can really help your perspective to trade places with someone else (as Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy discovered).

This has important implications for creativity and innovation.  ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ may understate the power of sharing problems.  Design thinking places great emphasis on trying to imagine yourself in the place of the customer, helping us to use our imaginative capacities to move away from our own personal concerns to those of others.  We all have a great capacity for abstract and counterfactual thinking, which are powerful tools for imagining future possibilities

In research too, tools such as predictive markets have demonstrated that consumers often provide much better predictions of success by imagining how others would react to a new product or service than by focusing on their own response.  Our empathic imagination can help us to remove ourselves from our own particular situation and see the bigger picture more clearly and creatively.  There must be a role for more creative use of scenarios and imaginative contemplation in research, especially in forecasting the future!

Dan Pink offers three main suggestions for taking advantage of imagination and empathy, to help solve our own problems with others:

  1. Trade your problem with someone, especially when you are stuck in a rut
  2. Solve problems on behalf of someone else, by creating psychological distance
  3. Distance yourself from your personal projects to free your imagination (for example, by taking a break)

Great advice.  Our imaginative capacity and counterfactual thinking can help us be far more creative when we take ourselves away from our personal situation and focus on the problems of others.  Perhaps there is still a role for consultants after all?


3 tricks for solving problems faster and better by Dan Pink (

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