Creative Thinking for Transformational Problem Solving

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Decision Making, Strategic Intuition


In an earlier article I talked about Strategic Intuition, the source of truly transformational business solutions.

There are four components to this type of transformational problem solving:

  1. Expert Knowledge – often of seemingly disparate fields of expertise.
  2. An Open Mind – willingness to set aside preconceived assumptions to play with possibilities.
  3. The Aha! Moment – also known as the coup d’oeil, French for “glance of the eye,” when the stroke of insight occurs. Both Napoleon and Patton, widely known as brilliant military strategists, were well known for such intuitions.
  4. Resolve – to carry forward an untested solution in the face of uncertainties. Usually the accuracy of the coup d’oeil seems obvious only after the fact.

That’s all fine and well but how do I actually do this?, you may be thinking. You don’t “decide” to have an Aha! Moment.

Or do you?

Strategic intuition seems mysterious to our rational, logical, western minds. Until recently there wasn’t a way to talk about it without sounding like a tassel on the lunatic fringe. Now, however, a growing body of research illuminates what such thinkers are doing, and how it might be taught.

The first step is self-evident. Strategic intuition flows from the bodies of knowledge you have developed as a content area expert, and harnesses the serendipitous ways they intersect. Today I want to focus on the second step.

An Open Mind

Mental flexibility is a talent that some people naturally have, but like most skills it can be enhanced through practice. Here’s one exercise:

For the next 60 seconds write down all the uses you can think of for a sock. Ready? Set? Go!

If you can’t come up with more than wearing it on your foot you’ve got some work to do.

It can also be used as a hand puppet. It can be worn as a mitten, or with the toe cut off it can be worn as an arm warmer. It can be used as a filter for silty water. Use it as a flower pot, tea strainer, cleaning rag, wash cloth, or Christmas stocking, fill it with fragrant herbs to make a sachet, add it to a woven rag rug, put a rock in the toe and swing it as a weapon, or use it as kindling to start a fire.

The list is endless, and the point isn’t the specific answers you generate but honing the practice of stepping out of your habitual grooves in the way you look at every problem.

Use the same approach to generate possible solutions to a business problem, no matter how outrageous or magical they may seem. Then go back and consider how they might actually be implemented.

Here’s another technique Byron Katie developed known as The Work. Designed to help people get unstuck in their personal lives, The Work is a powerful tool in business problem solving too. Often we need to tear down our current framework and build new ones in order to see the solution. The Work helps us do that.

First state your business problem. For example, a supply chain client I worked with was frustrated that his employer had offshored some of their manufacturing to external partners. Because quality, delivery dates, and inventory levels were no longer under his direct control, he felt he was being held responsible for a process he no longer owned.

Then ask yourself four questions:

First, is it true? Absolutely, he says.

Second, can you absolutely know that it’s true? Well sure, he says. Just look at what’s happening. I can’t ship on time because I’m not receiving the parts I ordered when they’re supposed to arrive. And I never know what the quality’s going to be. Everything has to be checked and it seems like half the time we send it back because it isn’t up to spec. But the buck stops with me. If I ship product out late or it fails in the field, that reflects badly on me.

You’re absolutely sure you’re held responsible, and you’re absolutely sure you no longer own it?

Long pause.

Third how do you feel, what happens when you have that thought? Furious! And frustrated. And anxious. And powerless. I’m afraid I’ll lose my job because this is so out of control.

Fourth, who would you be without that thought? This stopped him for a moment. Umm, a lot calmer for one thing…. More level headed and less emotional dealing with problems with our vendors…. More confident that I can find a solution.

Finally, turn the thought around. Then find three specific, genuine examples of how the turnaround is true for you in this situation.  A statement can be turned around to the self, to the other, to the opposite, and sometimes to “my thinking” if that feels appropriate. So his belief that he is held responsible for a process he no longer owns becomes, for example:

I am not held responsible for a process I no longer own. He acknowledged that quality engineers were currently engaged to bring product quality at the offshore factories up to U.S. standards and consistency.

He also acknowledged that everyone knew the offshore management had proved difficult to deal with. He developed strategies to better manage the expectations of others and make sure they knew what he was up against.

I am held responsible for this process and I do own it. This led to a long conversation and series of private coaching sessions on the importance of being a skillful influencer. As a business leader, he has to enlist buy-in and cooperation regardless of whether he has direct control or manages indirectly through collaborative relationships. He needed sharper tools for building greater alignment and accountability with his new partners, not for “controlling” them.

I hold myself responsible for this process and I want to own it. He acknowledged that he was a perfectionist, and often held himself to much higher standards than his colleagues, his boss, or his clients. He was uncomfortable with the messiness of the changeover to offshoring and couldn’t wait for the supply chain to settle down again and become a well-oiled machine.

It was informative for him to learn more about the differences in the way he digests change compared to his colleagues and his boss. He developed better ways to cope with the distress caused by the uncertainties of change.

It isn’t so much that his first belief – that he was being held responsible for a process he no longer owned – was wrong as it was that there was more than one truth to the situation. Approaching his challenges from different points of view helped him loosen up his thinking, recognizing both the real complexities that existed as well as the possible solutions offered by various viewpoints.

Are you caught in a dilemma you can’t see your way out of? Try these techniques, or contact me to see how I might be able to help.


E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D., President of The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides performance coaching and consulting to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Creative Thinking for Transformational Problem Solving