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The Myths We All Believe About Breakthrough Thinking

Aha moments don’t just happen, they are usually preceded by dead ends and bad ideas. Here’s how to troubleshoot yourself to success.

The Myths We All Believe About Breakthrough Thinking
[Photo: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson]

The moment a great idea or solution hits you can feel like magic–like it’s been delivered whole to you by some divine being. We all hope for those moments. But what ends up happening, more often than not, is quite the opposite–we’re floundering and stuck on a problem, desperate for one of those magic breakthroughs to pull through.

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Of course, there’s nothing magic about it. “Struggle and insight go together,” says David Perkins, research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “You are not likely to achieve an insight, unless you’ve struggled with the problem some.”

In other words, breakthrough thinking is usually preceded by a lot of dead ends and bad ideas. “If you look historically at breakthroughs, the story is never just about the key insight. It’s also about what led up to it and what followed it,” says Perkins. “Typically that involves a lot of work.”

Perkins, author of the book The Eureka Effect: The Art And Logic Of Breakthrough Thinking, spoke with Fast Company about what holds us back from breakthrough moments and how to find our way to them faster.

Two Kinds of Struggles

Typically, the challenges we are faced with fall into one of two categories–a technical challenge or an insights challenge. A technical challenge requires you to work through technicalities to arrive at a solution. “It’s not easy, but it doesn’t feel like an insight,” says Perkins. “It feels like climbing a mountain handhold by handhold.” An insights challenge, on the other hand can feel a lot murkier. “It’s more of a gap to get across verse a cliff to climb,” says Perkins.

Of course, arriving at a solution isn’t a matter of deciding whether you’re faced with one type of challenge or the other. “Most problems out there are a mix,” says Perkins. But trying to better characterize the challenge you’re faced with is a first step in taking a more informed approach to the solution.

Are You Boxed-in Or Bewildered?

Maybe you have a solution in mind, but it just doesn’t seem to be working out. You feel stuck–boxed in. On the other hand, you could have no clue what approach to take to a problem, without the faintest idea where to begin or what might work. According to Perkins, most people faced with an insight challenge find themselves in one of these two camps–they’re either boxed-in or bewildered.

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If you’re boxed in, that likely means there’s an assumption you need to get past. “That’s what we mean when we talk about thinking outside the box,” says Perkins. When you’re bewildered, on the other hand, you can feel completely untethered or lost. “Bewildered means you are operating in a huge wilderness of possibilities,” he says. Understanding which camp you fall into can help you start to see past the limitations you’re facing.

Four Problem Solving Approaches

Remember: the struggle is part of the process. A breakthrough moment is essentially a rapid reorganization of ideas that you’ve been brooding over. It’s the moment when, while rearranging the moving pieces, they finally snap into place.

And while there is no magic bullet to better problem solving, there are a handful of strategies that research and history have shown can help you arrive at those breakthrough moments faster.

1. Expand Your Search
Brainstorming has been a longtime approach to problem solving. But it can be a total crapshoot. “The whole thing about brainstorming is that it doesn’t always work,” says Perkins. But studies have shown there are certain approaches to help make the most of brainstorming.

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In group brainstorming sessions, for example, research has shown that allowing group members to brainstorm and think about a problem on their own before discussing it with the group leads to better results and prevents group biases or “collaborative fixation” from forming. “The best thing to do is to have your participants do an individual brainstorm before sharing ideas,” says Perkins.

Another effective technique is using random stimulation. Open a book to a random page, close your eyes and point to a word. Using that word as a jumping of point for thinking about whatever challenge you have at hand can help you start to develop new unexpected associations and solutions.

2. Change The Problem
Often, we are stuck on finding a solution because we’re not focused enough on redefining the problem. “Narrow formulations of problems are one of the principle reasons of lack of insight,” says Perkins.

If you’re solving for the wrong problem, you’re going to be hard-pressed to arrive at the right solution. One of Perkins’s favorite personal strategies is simply asking the question: what’s the real problem? “It’s a kind of brainstorming about the problem itself rather than the solutions,” he says. Trying to see the problem from a new perspective opens up the opportunity for new approaches. Keep asking yourself, “What’s the real problem here?”

3. Reach Out To Others
If you feel stuck, look outside yourself. Reach out to experts or friends, read up on different related topics. Perkins calls this approach “deliberate cross fertilization.” You’re essentially on the hunt for new interactions that “might spark a connection or new angle.”

If you’re a product designer faced with a design challenge, for example, try talking with other designer friends, or better yet, reach out to an architect or visual artist–someone who works slightly outside your field who might be able to offer an out-of-the-box alternative.

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4. Get Away From The Problem
Actively getting away from the problem at hand may seem counterintuitive, but breakthrough moments are often the result of this very time away. “Time away gives you free cross fertilization,” says Perkins. In other words, you’re allowing yourself to make new and unfamiliar connections by putting yourself in new surroundings.

Time away also allows you to recover your energy and gives you space to think differently. “You’ve forgotten some of the biases that were originally in the way,” says Perkins.

Even after trying all these steps once, you may very well still be stuck. Try them again. “There’s no magic bullet. But there is a quiver of arrows. You can pull an arrow from the quiver and see if you get some place,” says Perkins. “There’s no guarantee you’ll solve the problem, but you have to try.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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