9 Secrets to Solving Problems

Whether at work, home or in your personal life, coming up with creative problem solutions can be a difficult task. Try these simple ideas the next time you’re posed with a tough problem.

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1. Make Time to Think

Google gives its engineers one day a week to work on personal projects the company might benefit from. Joey Reiman, an innovation consultant for firms such as Coca-Cola, rewards his employees with five annual "Your Days" (as well as nearly five weeks of annual leave!) to get out of the office and do some blue-sky thinking.

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2. Turn Work Into Play

A gamelike scoring system for supermarket cashiers encourages them to work faster, giving them instant feedback on their checkout speed, says Aaron Dignan, author of Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success. And online video company Netflix famously offered a US$1 million prize to the first team-employees or not-to improve the company's software. "These companies are improving their business with games, but they're also keeping employees engaged and creating competition," says Dignan.

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3. Learn from Your Mistakes

"Success is inspirational; disaster is educational," says Chunka Mui, a management consultant and co-author of Unleashing the Killer App. "There's no formula for innovation; there are too many special conditions to any success story," but everyone can learn from the mistakes of the past. How? Mui says his own "aha" moment came from Steve Jobs's famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, in which he talked about connecting the dots between his failures and how that led to his success.

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4. Ignore the Rules

Try "white space management," says forbes.com blogger Adam Hartung. What's that? "No rules. Not really any plans. No forecasting markets." And no trying to outsmart customers. Sounds a little out there, but Hartung, an author and a consultant to Fortune 500 firms, says that's exactly the strategy Facebook applied to succeed (users guided the company to what they wanted), while its forerunner Myspace, saddled with highly paid corporate management, fell far behind.

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5. Think Like a Kid

Free your mind and eliminate your "inner detractor," says psychologist Darya Zabelina, who studies creativity in children. How? One tried-and-true way, according to Julia Cameron, a novelist and playwright who has been teaching creativity for 25 years, is to write three pages-in longhand-first thing every morning about whatever comes to mind: No second-guessing, no editing. It's a "mental DustBuster," Cameron tells U.S. News & World Report, "sucking up the negativity that might inhibit creativity later."

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6. Banish Fear of Failure

Josh Linkner, founder of an interactive promotions agency, knows of a company that issues its employees two "I screwed up" cards. Workers are encouraged to take creative leaps, and if they fail? "No questions asked; you're off the hook," Linkner tells IndustryWeek.

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7. Ditch the Routine

Try something new. Reiman's company, Bright-House, holds an annual event at which employees are invited to tackle something they've never done, such as skydiving or giving a big presentation. Mark Runco, a professor of creative studies, uses simple tricks to keep his creative edge: He never drives the same route twice and mixes his trousers, shirts and jackets in surprising ways.

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8. Break Problems Down

As a student with learning disabilities, celebrated portrait artist Chuck Close was easily overwhelmed by big projects before he "found a way to break down a complicated image into a lot of small, bite-sized pieces." As he explains to Kurt Andersen in Spark: How CreativityWorks, "I found it to be particularly helpful to use a grid to isolate one small piece that I could work on and forget about the rest of the picture."

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9. Use Feedback and Rewards

A quick "great job" email from a manager increases the likelihood of creative risk-taking in most employees. If you're not getting feedback, ask for it. Rewards should vary. Author Aaron Dignan suggests that managers reward star employees with challenges that will develop new skills. "Helping expand their repertoire will help keep them engaged and performing at a high level."

This article was originally in the December 2011 issue of Reader's Digest. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!