A Creative Way to Solve Your Most Nagging Problems

LeanUX NYC 2014

Pick a nagging problem. It can be big or small. It can be personal or professional.

Choose one that’s defeated you so many times you’ve given up on ever trying to solve it.

Do you have one? Once you do, keep reading.

Doorways to Creativity

To solve your problem, let’s take a page from Mona Patel’s new book Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate, and Think. What’s refreshing about her approach is that her background in user-centered design causes her to view every problem, no matter how challenging, as an opportunity.

For Patel, problems are doorways into creativity.

She recognizes that when we get to a point where we’re labeling a problem as difficult or nagging, it’s usually because we’ve gotten stuck in how we think about it. We ‘re defaulting to the same questions and then falling back on the same excuses. Without even realizing it, we’re closing down possibilities.

To counter this tendency, Patel developed a toolkit that she uses when she works with individuals and teams. Rather than directing them to rethink a problem (advice that’s easy to give and harder to implement), she arms them with an arsenal of creative tools to jar their thinking and to guide them in finding solutions.

Creative Openers

So let’s take one of Patel’s strategies and apply it to the problem you’ve chosen. It’s her Creative Openers, a set of questions Patel crafted because, as she explains, “ . . . questions can be tricky. The way you ask a question can impact the answer you get.”

Here’s the list of questions and the reasons behind them:

  1. Why? to define the problem – she encourages the 5 whys approach
  2. What if? to get unstuck and create a space for creativity
  3. Imagine if? to open up possibilities and dream big
  4. What if I can’t? to push beyond the doubts
  5. What if I don’t? to clarify what’s at stake (my personal favorite – like to think of it in terms of what regrets I’ll have if I don’t do it)
  6. What? to explore underlying issues – includes questions like, what do you think, what happened next, and so on
  7. Why not? to incite conversation and spark competitiveness
  8. How about? to dig deeper

Try asking these questions about your nagging problem. Better yet, see if you can work with at least one other person or a team of people to push your thinking.

Do you see the problem any differently than before?


Possibilities that Energize

In my experience, when we step back to think about difficult and nagging problems in new ways, we feel more energized. We become more curious and gain more objectivity. The problem stops feeling so personal.

At the same time, as our thinking expands, we can feel more uncertain about what we thought we knew. And that can be scary. Patel says that at those moments, “[y]ou have to be able to push through uncertainty, question what you know, and not necessarily always have the answers.”

Patel recognizes that the uncertainty we feel is a natural part of the process. In fact, it’s evidence that we’ve begun to expand our thinking. Once our minds are open and we have a bigger perspective on the problem, we can tackle the additional exercises Patel provides. These include narrowing choices, responding to constraints, and talking about the fears associated with our excuses.

It’s a powerful approach.

Patel’s creative attitude is contagious. Give one of her creative openers a try and let me know how it goes!


  1. elisabethjohnson on July 21, 2015 at 11:42 am

    While I certainly want to try some of these thought experiment tools/questions with my students, I also want to try them on myself to craft a sustainable exercise program. Way to support me in every domain of my life, Gayle!

  2. Gayle on July 21, 2015 at 11:52 am

    That’s great to hear, Liz! Think you’d love her book. Loving your blog!