Theodore Scaltsas wrote a Harvard Business Review article last year in which he outlined an interesting strategy for solving problems creatively. Scaltsas explains that the brain mines our past experience for possible solutions when it faces a problem. Yet we think of creativity as inventing entirely new solutions to perplexing challenges. Are we really inventing something new each time we come up with an ingenious solution to a vexing problem? Perhaps not. Scaltsas explains:
So how do new solutions emerge? The answer to that question is rooted in how one approaches the problem. Although the brain’s solution-generating mechanism is inherently predictive (bringing familiar solutions to a given problem) you can also address an intractable problem by reinventing the problem itself. Doing so coaxes the brain into proposing old solutions for types of problem these old solutions have not solved before.
One way of triggering these solutions is to imagine ways out of the fix you’re in by imagining that the circumstances blocking your progress are being lifted one by one. This produces different versions of the challenge. One of these new hypothetical versions may well resemble a type of problem that you have solved in the past. Your mind will then fire out a whole new set of solutions, one or more of which may work. If the solution you select for the new version of the challenge is untypical for the original version, it can certainly qualify as a creative solution to the new one.
What Scaltsas has proposed is essentially a strategy for helping people reframe complex problems. By reframing in this manner, one triggers the mind to search for solutions embedded in our past experience. To make this concept more concrete, Scaltsas uses a famous historical example. He recounts the story of Odysseus and the Trojan Horse. He explains how Odysseus reframed the problem, and thereby came up with a deceit-based strategy rather than a combat-based plan for defeating the enemy:
The lesson is not that the Trojan Horse was a new solution per se. Misdirection of that kind is the staple of any con artist. The creativity lies in the fact that Odysseus was able to transform the 10-year-old problem of overpowering the Trojans into a problem of deceiving them, which opened up a whole new set of ready-made solutions that he was already master of. And given the 10 years the Greeks had spent failing to win the war, Odysseus was able to make a convincing case that his treating the core problem not as one of combat but as one of deceit offered an unexplored path to success.