• 03.26.13

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.

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

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


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.