Einstein's Problem-Solving Formula, And Why You're Doing It All Wrong

Einstein spent nearly all his time thinking, and very little time doing. Today, we do just the opposite—and it's working against innovation. Here's how to get your ratio right.

While Einstein said he had no special talent aside from being passionately curious (and being possibly the smartest person ever), he also knew how to make time for insight—a skill that's scarce in our present cult of stimulation. Innovation consultant and author Jeffrey Phillips tells this tale:

When asked how he would spend his time if he was given an hour to solve a thorny problem, (Einstein) said he'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives and 5 minutes solving it. Which is exactly opposite of what the vast majority of executives today would do.

Instead, Phillips says, our harried execs default to the slog of defining a solution, hurtling into its implementation, and then taking a sort-of break by thumbing through their email—a pattern of behavior that predicts shallow thinking, rather than depth. Sounding a bit like Thoreau, Phillips makes a strong argument for why our busyness is killing our business—that is, if you're in the business of creating anything new.

When we're infatuated with efficiency, Phillips says, we let innovation die. By imprisoning ourselves in metrics, we don't value the less quantifiable, more long-term aspects of value creation, like exploration, empathy, contemplation, and stillness. Since we're conditioned to the thrills of fighting fires, firing off emails, and the validation that gives us, we feel starved of time. And our product development gets malnourished.

As Phillips notes, you can't shortcut your way to design thinking. It's a deliberate process:

And yet if you're deep in the click cult, you can't fight the urge to skip from noticing to commercializing, cutting out that boring, non-incentivized phase of thinking. Phillips talks about how we load ourselves with meetings and tasks as a way of appearing valuable to our teams—which means that managers should make it clear that innovative thinking, rather than endless doing, is what leads to results.

So how do you build more time to ponder? First, realize you have more time than you recognize. Second, learn how to start the conversation.

Too busy to innovate

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Bieber]

Add New Comment


  • Mark A Hart, OpLaunch

    What about Step Zero?

    "Einstein Said"

    Note that Einstein said that he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives. Prior to the start of the 55 minutes, Einstein invested decades developing his problem solving capabilities. He was so prepared that he needed only 55 minutes. 

    Most average problem solvers should spend a lot more than 55 minutes before they declare their answer to an intractable problem. Most average problem solvers do not have Einstein-equivalent skills.

    "You Notice a Problem"

    Typically, this type of statement is applied to someone that may have uttered the phrase "I will know it when I see it." Unfortunately, one's powers of recognition may not be as infallible as they surmise.

    Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe wrote "we may adduce the true proverb ‘We see only what we know.’ " All of us tend to perceive problems by what we know. Often, what we know is insufficient. Often, what we perceive is distorted by framing errors.

    Step Zero

    Prepare for solving these types of problems by enhancing your capabilities. This preparation includes time-intensive investments to understand theory and develop proficiency through practice. 

  • The Executive Coach

    That's a great article.I especially like the topic how Einstein would spend 60 minutes to solve a problem.

    It reminds me of a recent coaching session with two entrepreneurs. They wanted to jump into writing a long business plan without defining what their market really is.

    And during that coaching session they realized that first they have to define which problem they want to solve & how they could solve it. Only then it would be easy to write a business plan. And so they did.

    Thanks for this great article!

       Axel Rittershaus
       The Executive Coach

  • Dl Garrett2

    Since the discussion is about the man of the century, I offer yet another of his quotes: "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." I think the problem Mr. Baer was describing further illustrates how advances in technology have hindered intellectual development. It is no secret we live in an age where everything is now expected to happen at the "speed of now". From fast food restaurants, and email, to financial transactions and engineering, we as a society have grown into this mind set that the faster something happens, the better. The problem with this, is that while we can control to speed at which the processes we manage, occurs, we cannot control the speed of thought. Our brains are built in such a fashion that creative thought cannot be completely controlled, but must follow its own natural progression. Anytime innovation is forced, creativity suffers and you end up with the same known elements, just in a different configuration. In effect, this isn't really innovation in the truest sense of the word, but a regurgitation of the same. (though there if your intent is to simply create new ways of using the same variables, this could be considered creativity, but not really innovation). I tend to agree with the author, that true innovation take time and considerable thought, and too often deadlines and forced results hinder the ability to reach somehting truly innovative.

  • re:invention, inc.

    Shocking misinterpretation of Einstein's principles. While Einstein encouraged experimentation and focus, he never suggested that "innovation thinking" was more important than "innovation doing." In fact, Einstein once wrote, "the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing." Einstein heralded everyday thinking as a means of simplifying and solving complex problems, not as an excuse to avoid taking action. Great ideas and products are not enough - you need to commercialize them. Commercialization is the tough part; the world is littered with great ideas, poorly implemented. Woe to those companies and innovators that daydream, but never do. In the words of Bruce Nussbaum, the decade of design thinking is over and it did more harm than good.

  • an_star

    Just wondering because I keep seeing this posted again and again, can you give an example of a time or period or anything really where design thinking (which is really just the process of thinking in a more stakeholder-centered way) did more harm than good?

  • re:invention, inc.

    Hi An_Star. The design-thinking quote was quipped by Bruce Nussbaum in his Fast Company article: http://www.fastcodesign.com/16.... Design thinking is a diluted buzzword, a fad, and an inflexible flawed operational process like Six Sigma. Thinking is important, but the biggest challenge is the actual doing. Incremental innovation makes products work and helps companies thrive. An intriguing video to watch if you are interested: http://fivewhys.wordpress.com/....

  • corey becker

    I agree the article may have exaggerated some of Einstein's quotes but I think you have to an even greater degree.  The application being mentioned is an innovative business and you're using a quote about evil in society and people not standing up to those dangers.  That's a bit of a stretch to say he was referring to commercialization.  Commercialization is only the hard part in a capitalistic economy because every innovation needs to be profitable or it will never see the light of day.  It certainly provides motivation for innovation though.

  • re:invention, inc.

    Hi Corey: Sorry to hear that you didn't like that particular quote from Einstein. Here are a few more: “Nothing happens until something moves"....“Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work"...."Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving." Of course, there are those who believe that Einstein's wife did much of his math so he was admittedly also very good at delegating.

    Commercialization is the only success metric for innovation. Like it or not, profit, utility, and market adoption still stand as the preeminent benchmarks of business success. Innovation enables value creation and achieves impact. No value creation, no impact, no market adoption, no innovation. The bottom line: ideas have to be executed well to generate value. Innovation DOING is as important as — if not more important than — innovation THINKING. When companies understand how to adapt, evolve and commercialize products/services rather than merely invent them – they survive and thrive. Companies that have a history of converting innovation into ACTUAL GROWTH outperform the market by an average of 78 basis points a month.

    In the new economy where accelerating change is an overriding force, the window of opportunity to capitalize on new ventures is getting shorter. Companies that can't adapt quickly to change, take action, and shorten the lifecycle of product development will perish. There are plenty of modern examples of companies that have failed because they haven’t been able to re-invent themselves quickly enough to survive -- J.C. Penney, Best Buy and Circuit City are just a few that have been in the media lately. It will only get worse as the rate of change is exponentially accelerating and is not linear as many may falsely assume.

    P.S. What I like most about Einstein? He dared to question "gospel truths" and stuck to his guns when folks attacked him intensely.

  • Phil Linter

    Really interesting comment, our company recently had a retired Lt General of the British army, Sir Graeme Lamb, give a keynote on how intelligence in the military drives field operations. He referenced Einstein but also discussed how even under 'life or death' pressures he would spend a third of his time simply reflecting. He's a really interesting man, if you want to have a look at the report or video, these are the links



  • Jose Omar Nunez

    Extroverted people are primed to spring into action and Introverted people carefully analyze problems and solutions.  I don't think that has changed since Einstein.  I've never seen this happen at my job, a state engineering firm. 

  • Rachel Kaberon

    Insight sadly seems to be an empty phrase, everyone uses it and few understand it. 
    Sure Phillips is right, our society may have come to favor efficiency over experimentation.  But we do so pretty naturally.  We all do what we know and avoid the things we don't understand. 
    Insight literally represents when understanding and knowing come together. 
    Consider the quote in the article about Einstein's process. 

    How could his mind spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives? That catalyst curiosity, that's how.  Rather than merely run with what you know, check in with you understanding, do you know why that problem exists?  Why that problem bears solving? Take off the covers on what you know, test the assumptions that you have made?  Don't accept  that what you know matches what others know, it rarely does.  The exploration and spiral drilling process to a foundation that you understand will quickly exhaust you, so be prepared. 
    Ultimately some problems can't be solved quickly or on the first go around. 

    That's the beauty of what designers do. , they literally give themselves some time to get a better grip on the problem, and  seek to understand what they are told.  Then they come back with some tangible representation to share, to help them get more understanding and test if the meaning they've made makes sense to others.  Best to run through multiple iterations quickly...that's Einstein's process too, in which he runs through multiple alternatives. 

    Gain efficiency by taking the time to fully understand the problem and create a more sustainable solution.