How to Solve Problems Right Now Like Einstein Did

Mike Pelfini — 19 May 2016

Have you ever found yourself, or your team, brooding over a recurring problem or challenge for which there just doesn’t seem to be an easy or clear solution?  Albert Einstein famously said that problems can’t be solved with the same thinking that created them.  It’s easy to use familiar or comfortable patterns of thinking when confronted with a challenge or issue needing attention.  Without considering the kind of thinking we’re applying we can remain stuck or, worse, risk deepening the problem.

Staying aware of what kind of thinking you and your team are applying to any given situation or conversation opens the door to a tremendous landscape of possibility.

In general, we tend to see the world primarily—or at least initially—through the lens of our perceptions.  Our perceptions are shaped by our preferred style of thinking.  Without digging deeper, we are quite literally blind to potential solutions, answers, or possibilities.

Step 1:  Become self-aware of your own thinking.  We humans, with the huge neocortex portion of our brains and the vast neural network that connects all of our brain functions, are fortunately capable of this kind of reflective thinking.  Consider, as well, the thinking of your primary colleagues or members of your team.  Staying aware of what kind of thinking you and your team are applying to any given situation or conversation opens the door to a tremendous landscape of possibility.

Step 2:  Think differently.
Of course awareness alone isn’t enough.  Taking Einstein at his word, once aware of the kind of thinking you’re using, you have to cross the threshold and apply different thinking, based on a clear understanding of what the situation demands.  Fortunately there’s an evidence-based model that’s consistently proven to dramatically improve effectiveness with this kind of innovation or problem-solving work.

Figure 1.1 – The four-color, four-quadrant graphic and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.

Ned Herrmann’s Whole Brain model establishes a four-quadrant metaphor capturing how the brain manages its thinking activity (see Figure 1.1). [1]  Each quadrant is “responsible” for different kinds of thinking and, by natural extension, for different kinds of problem solving (see Figure 1.2).  Though each of us establishes a preferred thinking style over time, we can each access all of the types of thinking that any situation requires.

This model can be a powerful aid for approaching problems from new perspectives and thereby improve your problem solving effectiveness.

First, consider to which problem solving approaches you naturally gravitate (Step 1, above).  Are they clustered in one or two quadrants?  If so, choose an approach from an opposing quadrant (Step 2, above).  This approach could be difficult for you, but don’t worry—you will benefit from the exercise and, with practice, may develop more comfort with this different approach over time.  Alternatively, if you’re working with a team, identify the diversity in thinking style preferences among the members and make sure that each perspective is represented in the problem solving activity.

It’s important to bear in mind: there is no wrong, or right thinking—there are only situational consequences of the actions created by our thinking.  Considering problems from all perspectives prevents the closed-loop thinking cautioned against by Einstein.  It can also provide a powerful and effective means for bringing in new possibilities, and where there are new possibilities, there’s hope!

[1] N. Herrmann, A. Herrmann-Nehdi The Whole Brain Business Book (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 1996, 2015).  The organizing principle of Herrmann’s metaphoric model of brain function is that there are four interconnected clusters of specialized mental processing modes that function together situationally and iteratively, making up a whole brain in which one or more of its parts becomes naturally dominant.
Photo Credit: Basel, via
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