In my last blog post I talked about the practical uses of dissonance. Be it in marketing or education, creating gaps which force individuals to pause and think over the question or contradiction you present can awaken individuals to give their attention.

In this post I’m going to talk about how we resolve dissonance. We humans are creatures who want harmony in our world view; we don’t like unresolved problems, contradictions, conflicts or gaps that don’t allow us to rest in a coherent, peaceful world. 

Advertising leverages this all the time. Think of all those commercials that accentuate some inconvenience in our daily lives so that you focus your attention on the issue, feel a NEED for a solution, and are ready to buy whatever they’re selling.

So let us now say you are in a situation of dissonance — you find yourself wrestling with a problem that is important in your life or business. How do you go about resolving it? What I’m going to do in this post is present two frameworks, neither of which is wrong in itself. As I will argue, however, we tend to apply the first in situations where the second is really applicable, especially in situations that call for more creative, out of the box solutions.

Framework 1: Spotlight Consciousness helps us solve the simpler problems.

In my last post I used “spotlight consciousness” to describe the way a typical adult adopts perspective and makes decisions. The brain wants to prioritize efficiency, even within the context of problem solving. Like a spotlight, we tend to focus on certain particulars that reinforce our perspective instead of opening us up to other viewpoints and more data. That would be less efficient.

Like a spotlight, we tend to focus on certain particulars that reinforce our perspective instead of opening ourselves up to other viewpoints and more data.

It’s a useful perspective, especially for those of us with busy, stressful lives because it allows us to act quickly and decisively. And when we wrestle about problems, those using spotlight consciousness probably follow the pattern John Dewey lists in How We Think:

  1. We sense or acknowledge a problem and focus our attention on resolving it.
  2. We form a rational formulation of the problem in that we clarify to ourselves what actually is the problem.
  3. We generate and explore possible solutions
  4. We pick the most likely solution
  5. And then we test that solution. If it doesn’t work we go back to step 2 and begin again until the problem is actually resolved. 

Seems like a very commonsensical way to go about solving most problems we face throughout the day. But, what about those times when the problem persists despite our attempts to find resolution? What about those times when the challenge just seems more than we can handle from our perspective? What happens when you face situations you haven’t experienced before?

Do we have the ability to let go of this perspective and perhaps adopt a better, broader, more comprehensive framework? 

We need another approach to problem solving — what I would call creative problem solving: a way of drawing upon resources outside of our spotlight consciousness to generate not only creative solutions but solutions that can actually resolve these types of wicked problems.

Framework 2: Transformational Logic plumbs the depth of our subconscious for novel connections.

The most insightful rubric I’ve come across for creative problem solving is from James Loder’s Transforming Moment. He describes a five step transformational logic that, when put side by side with Dewey’s rubric, shows some rather interesting differences. Let’s go over the rubric in his own words, which will sound a bit odd at first. I’ll explain each step below:

  1. Conflict in context
  2. Interlude for scanning
  3. Insight felt with intuitive force
  4. Release and repatterning
  5. Interpretation and verification

Both rubrics start with sensing a problem or conflict, but then they radically diverge. Dewey describes what most of us tend to do: You have a problem or a challenge and you keep thinking about it, keep it in the forefront of your mind, and wrestle with it until you find an adequate solution. And I think that’s a good description of how many of us approach problems. We turn them over in our minds and won’t let them go, thinking we can squeeze out the right solution if only we apply enough pressure, like cracking a nut.

Loder, on the other hand, talks about an “interlude for scanning.” What in the world is that? 

by letting go of the problem during this interlude of scanning, we free up our tacit dimension to formulate creative, “out of the box”, solutions.

While we will no doubt begin wrestling with the issue at hand, Loder suggests that we actually have to let go of the problem and divert our attention away. When we do this, all the data we’ve been wrestling with “sinks” down into what the philosopher Michael Polanyi labeled the “tacit dimension” — basically, your subconscious. Polanyi says that this is the part of your consciousness that is focused on overall meaning and coherence, and it is where the brain stretches beyond our spotlight, fixed frames of references for novel solutions. So, by letting go of the problem during this interlude of scanning, we free up our tacit dimension to formulate creative, “out of the box” solutions. 

And when the tacit dimension of our consciousness comes up with a solution that might actually work, it throws it back up to our focal awareness with an imaginative insight (step 3) and a release and repatterning (step 4). These two steps encapsulate those “Aha” or “Eureka” moments we’ve all had and that seem to come out of nowhere — nowhere, that is, until now!

Insight in the interlude

Recall those times when you weren’t thinking about a problem but all of the sudden had a creative insight, most likely in the shower or somewhere or at some point when you were quite relaxed. Seemingly out of nowhere an image (step 3) popped into your mind and you had a sudden surge of energy (step 4) when you realized that you had the solution. 

What did you want to do then?  Yep, step 5. You wanted to make sure it worked. When I get stuck on a problem, be it with coding or writing, I make it a point to walk away from my desk in order to let the problem go. I may go for a quick walk or do something else unrelated to my work (step 2). At some point I’ll get that aha moment when a solution pops into my head (steps 3 and 4). I make a b-line to my desk to make sure it works (step 5). 

Counterintuitive as it may seem, our best ideas for solving complex problems comes not from intense focus, but from stepping away and giving our brains a chance to explore.

Now, even if I’ve convinced you that Loder’s rubric perfectly encapsulates the creative problem solving experience, there’s still the issue of how we cultivate and nurture this practice in ourselves and among our teams. That is the focus of my next post. Stay tuned!