How to Be a Better Thinker, Innovator and Problem Solver

UPDATED: November 16, 2022
PUBLISHED: November 15, 2022
How to Be a Better Thinker, Innovator and Problem Solver

Cogs replaced hands, so to speak, during the U.S. Industrial Revolution, when businesses rushed to automate manual tasks. Now the technology rush is removing the cogs as we hurry to replace people with automated systems. With true artificial intelligence not too far away, the trend for less human involvement is set to continue into the future.

So it makes sense that business is evolving too, moving from a “doing” model to a “thinking” model.

As technology handles more tasks, mental agility has never been more important. If we want to future-proof our businesses—and ourselves—we need to be able to think, rethink and even unthink current processes. Like anything, coming up with solutions and new ways to see things takes practice.

Behavioral strategists Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan, authors of the 2014 book Selfish, Scared & Stupid, teach people in business how to become better thinkers, innovators and problem solvers. Here are their best tips to get your mind muscles working:

1. Ideas are a numbers game.

When brainstorming, you want the numbers on your side. This is the secret to the best creative and problem-solving minds on the planet. You have to generate enough options to get the obvious thinking out of the way. Like reps at the gym, you need to push through the easy and get to the difficult for the best results.

Your first ideas are obvious and thus first-level thinking. You need to go deeper than that to find gold. You must go beyond that first-level thinking to discover the unseen ideas which truly solve the problem.

2. Think in questions.

Train your brain to think in questions, not statements. The problem with statements is that they presuppose a solution and can stop you from thinking innovatively. In contrast, questions open up your mind, letting you find solutions. Asking for a shelf sticker that draws attention to a product, for example, is very different from questioning how to increase the noticeability of a shelf.

The first gives you exactly what you asked for, but the latter could lead to breakthrough ideas like new packaging or product designs, sound-activated point of sale or multiple products in new flavors.

3. Don’t come up with ideas. Come up with solutions.

You need a problem to solve. One of the biggest problems we see is people saying, “I need a great idea,” and then wondering why they can’t think of anything. We have never come up with a great idea in our combined 40-plus years in business, but we have come up with a huge number of innovative solutions.

Ideas solve problems (even those the market is unconscious of), and if you have not defined a problem, chances are you will not miraculously have any ideas that are useful. Spend time looking for problems that need solving rather than trying to think differently about nothing in particular.

4. Back yourself into a corner.

The tighter the corner, the more creative you seem to get. So much so that creative people have a mantra: “Grant me the freedom of a tight brief.”

The brain seems to work better under duress; perhaps our survival instincts kick in and adrenaline fuels us to find a way out. So find a problem and then add parameters until you feel a little panicked. Slight beads of sweat forming on your brow are perfect.

5. Collide ideas and thinking.

Your ability to think differently is crucial. A great way to do this is to get different inputs and inspirations from different people, places, industries and systems. If you want to become an agile thinker, you have to learn beyond your own role, read a lot, be interested in everything and look to other industries to see what they are doing.

The most successful patents often combine thinking or tech from different industries, and new product design can be as simple as colliding thinking. For example, putting use-by dates onto pillows as the Australian brand Tontine did is a food industry idea repurposed very successfully.

Are you ready to start working out and developing those idea muscles? You may be surprised at what you can do.

This article was published in May 2015 and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock

A behavioral researcher and strategist, as well as an author, educator, international speaker and social commentator, Dan Gregory specializes in behaviors and belief systems – what drives, motivates and influences us.  One of the most respected voices in the industry, Dan is a regular on ABC’s Gruen Planetand has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world: Coca-Cola, Unilever, Vodafone, MTV and News Ltd.

A behavioral researcher and strategist, author, educator and corporate coach, Kieran Flanagan is one of the only female creative directors in the world of “Mad Men” and has won awards around the world for creativity and effectiveness. Kieran is a TEDx Sydney partner and speaks to audiences including the UN in Singapore and Coca-Cola. She is a passionate advocate for the commercial power of creativity and a return to more human engagement, cultures and leadership.