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Thinking Like a Kid: A 3-Step Guide to Creative Problem Solving

Ah, problem solving: a vague term that we find too often on resumes and not often enough in challenging work situations. Sometimes we focus so much on arriving at a solution that we don’t focus on the process of solving—and that can be an issue. After all, if we’re not creative in our approach, we probably won’t be creative in our solutions.

One of the best things about children is that they don’t see problems; they see questions. If kids don’t know something, they try their darndest to figure it out. If they can’t figure it out, they make up their own answer, often coming up with an original idea in the process.

I saw this in action when I volunteered with a group of Pardot employees at a local elementary school. We got to hang out with a classroom of kindergarteners, and they were pretty remarkable. At one point, the teacher held up a storybook for the class—but she didn’t read it to them. Instead, she let the students tell the story. Now remember, these were five-year-olds who couldn’t read, so they accomplished this by looking at the pictures and spinning their own tale to go along with them. In the end, their story was more interesting and complex than the one the author wrote.

Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has an apt analogy, which she shared on the Freakonomics podcast. She suggests we think of kids as the Research and Development Division of humankind, and adults as the Production and Marketing Departments. She says:

“From the production and marketing perspective, it might look like the R&D guys are really not doing anything…sensible or useful. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas, and we poor production and marketing people, who are actually making the profits, have to subsidize these guys. But of course, one of the things that we know is that that kind of blue-sky, just pure research actually pays off in the long run.”

So how can we boring ol’ grown-ups train ourselves to look at problems in a more creative way? There are tons of problem-solving exercises out there (Google returned 59 million sites’ worth), but one of my favorite approaches comes from the Freakonomics hosts’ book Think Like a Freak. They suggest reverting to childlike thinking “because you’ll come up with better ideas and ask better questions.” Here are three (fun!) steps we can all take to help us think more like kids and come up with innovative business solutions.

1. Confront the obvious.

Write down your problem—yes, with a pen and paper. Below it, come up with a list of very basic questions about that problem. These questions should be seemingly obvious, like something a young child would ask. For every who, what, when, or where question, follow up with a why. Kids are always asking why.

Sample problem: Our newsletter open rate has been consistently dropping over the past three months.

Sample questions: What is a newsletter? Why do we have a newsletter? What kind of content is in our newsletter? Why do we include that content? What does a newsletter look like? Why does it look like that? What if the newsletter didn’t look like that? Who reads the newsletter? Why do they read it? Who doesn’t read it? Why don’t they?

2. Loosen up.

Like stretching before a workout, it’s important to loosen up your brain before really putting it to work. That’s where this step comes in. Answer the questions you came up with in step one, but answer them in terms simple enough to explain to a child. Then answer them again, but this time make your answers entertaining or funny. Answer them again in the form of a story, and yet again while doing something fun and completely unrelated—like painting or dancing or playing golf.

Don’t be afraid to come up with ridiculous, even nonsensical answers. These aren’t necessarily the answers you’ll be sharing with your team or your CMO. This is just an exercise to get you thinking creatively.

3. Think small.

Now it’s time to take another look at the questions and answers you came up with. Even the ridiculous ones can give you a valuable perspective on your problem. I guarantee you will discover that your big problem (e.g., you want more sales qualified leads or more productive employees) is actually an amalgamation of smaller, easier-to-solve problems. Sure, you probably already knew that, but this exercise makes it easy to pinpoint exactly what those challenges are.

Of course, this exercise won’t magically solve all your problems for you—but now that you’ve looked at them from different (and even goofy) points of view, you’ll have an easier time solving them creatively.

Now, I’m not suggesting you play ping pong and make up fairy tales every time you’re faced with a challenge at work. If thinking like a child all the time were effective, then six-year-olds would be CEOs instead of first graders. But as the guys from Freakonomics say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we all smuggled a few childlike instincts across the border into adulthood?”

You know what? I think it would.