Wednesday, 10 September 2014

We come up with more creative solutions for others

In work, some managers have a tendency to assign a problem or issue to a specific subordinate. It literally becomes ‘their problem’ and it’s up to them to solve it. Some would see this approach as one that encourages responsibility and ownership of the task in hand. In other words, if you make someone directly accountable, they will be more motivated and perhaps more effective in coming up with a solution.

Some research however casts doubt on this approach. Being too close to a problem or being personally involved in it can affect our ability to come up with creative solutions. This is based on an idea called the "Construal Level Theory" - the notion that distance from a problem provokes a more abstract thinking style.

Evan Polman and Kyle Emich at New York University examined how we are more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. They conducted four studies involving hundreds of undergrads.

In one study they found that participants drew more original aliens for a story to be written by someone else than for a story they were to write themselves. In another study, participants thought of more original gift ideas for an unknown student completely unrelated to themselves, as opposed to one who they were told shared their same birth month.

When it came to problem solving the trend continued. Participants were given a tower puzzle. They were asked to explain how one could escape a tower by cutting a rope that was only half as long as the tower was high. (The solution is to divide the rope lengthwise into two thinner strips and then tied them together). Participants were more likely to solve the problem if they imagined someone else trapped in the tower, rather than themselves.

This could explain why we sometimes surprise ourselves when giving advice or solutions to others. We are more likely to be creative and think in an abstract way when sorting out someone else’s problem rather than our own. This could impact on how we assign problems (like the tower puzzle) to co-workers. Perhaps we could construct the task so that they see it as someone else’s problem but one they are asked to help solve.

Next time you have a problem to delegate, try and create some healthy distance between the conundrum and the person coming up with the solution. You might see improved results.

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