The Art of Framing Challenges Creatively


While it seems clear that Aristotle’s strategies were responsible for producing some of the greatest advances in human thought, modern society and education have tended to focus more on the discoveries resulting from these strategies than on the mental processes through which the discoveries were made. Aristotle believed that words and chains of words that we use in framing a problem play a significant role in the way we approach problems.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: The figure is a square defined by four dots. A square is a rectangle with four equal sides and four 90-degree angles. Please move 2 dots and create a square twice as big as the one defined by the dots as they are presently arranged. (60 second time limit).  The solution for this thought experiment is at the end of the article.


For every word a person uses, psychologists say there is a mediating response which provides the meaning of that concept for that individual. A few years back, Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive. They received few suggestions. They reworded the question to: “How can you make your job easier?” They were inundated with ideas. Even tiny changes can lead to unpredictable, cataclysmic results. In a sentence, one can randomly change a single letter and alter the way every other word is used. “The kids are flying planes” becomes “The lids are flying planes.”

A simple change of words or the order of words in a problem statement will stimulate your imagination by adding new dimensions of meaning. Consider the statement “Two hundred were killed out of six hundred,” as compared to “Four hundred were spared out of six hundred.”

Examine your problem statement, identify the key words, and change them five to ten times to see what results. One of the easiest words to change is the verb. Suppose you want to increase sales. Look at the changing perspectives as the verb is changed in the following:

In what ways might I increase sales?

In what ways might I attract sales?

In what ways might I develop sales?

In what ways might I extend sales?

In what ways might I repeat sales?

In what ways might I keep sales? Magnify sales? Restore sales? Target sales? Inspire sales? Cycle sales? Encourage sales? Grow sales? Copy sales? Complement sales? Acquire sales? Vary sales? Spotlight sales? Motivate sales? Prepare sales? Renew sales? Force sales? Organize sales? And so on.

PLAYING WITH VERBS AND NOUNS. Playing with verbs and nouns encourages you to think of perspectives that you would probably not think of spontaneously. Try changing the nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in your problem statement. For example, a problem might be “How to sell more bottles?” Changing the verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs makes this into “How to bottle more sales?” Bottling sales now suggests looking for ways to close sales, instead of ways to sell more bottles.

The problem “How to improve customer relations?” becomes “How to customize related improvements?” This new perspective leads one to consider customizing products and services for customers, customizing all relevant aspects of the customer relations department, and so on.

Another way to change your perspective is to substitute an antonym for the noun. If your problem is “How to increase sales?,” convert sales to its antonym “expenditure.” The new line of speculation now becomes one of spending more to get more: Should we budget more money in our sales budget? Should we sell higher quality products? Should we buy more advertising? And so on.

TRANSPOSE THE WORDS. One of Aristotle’s favorite ways to test a premise was what he called “convertibility.” He felt that if a premise were true than the negative premise should be convertible. For example, if every pleasure is good, some good must be pleasure. By simply transposing words, you achieved a different perspective. Sometimes changing the order of words in a problem statement will create a verbal-conceptual chain that may trigger a different perspective.

In the following illustration, words were arranged in two different series, “A” and “B,” and subjects were asked to solve certain situations. When “skyscraper” was listed first, subjects tended to come up architectural concepts, and when “prayer” was transposed with “skyscraper” and listed first, it increased the likelihood of a religious direction.

SERIES A                                                         SERIES B

SKYSCRAPER                                                    PRAYER

PRAYER                                                           SKYSCRAPER

TEMPLE                                                           TEMPLE

CATHEDRAL                                                    CATHEDRAL


To change the order, transpose the words in your problem. Following are some examples:

In what ways might I get a promotion?

To: In what ways might I promote myself?

In what ways might I advertise my T-shirts?

In what ways might I use my T-shirts to advertise?

In what ways might I learn how to use the Internet?

In what ways might I use the Internet to learn more?

A very simple change in the way something is looked at can have a profound effect. One of the most effective medical discoveries of all time came about when Edward Jenner transposed his problem from why people got small pox to why dairymaids apparently did not. From the discovery that harmless cowpox gave protection against deadly smallpox came vaccination and the end of smallpox as a scourge in the western world.

SOLUTION FOR THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: The trick is the word “square.” The definition of the word “square” biases your thinking and diminishes your capacity to see the right answer. Most people try to solve it by keeping the sides of the larger square parallel with the smaller one. That won’t work. But, if you rephrase the problem and rethink the illustration, you might figure out that a diamond is a “square with a point.” Then by connecting one diagonal and then moving the two other dots to make the remainder of the points, you’ve got a square twice as large as the original one.


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