Freak Out and Innovate: Problem-Solving Tips from Freakonomics

Freak and Innovate Image

If you know anything about the current business environment, you know it’s changing, it’s unpredictable, and businesses are at risk from various forces, including globalism, increased competition, and the threat of disruption.

And that’s why it’s important for businesses to make an investment in learning and performance improvement. And why we write about the importance of being a learning organization (see our interview with Arun Pradhan on Learning Agility & Learning to Learn and with Michelle Ockers on Becoming a Learning Organization).

One of the benefits of learning agility, learning to learn, and being a learning organization is that you’ll increase the creativity and innovativeness of your employees and, as a result, of your company as a whole. And this increase in creativity and the ability to innovate will protect your company from the risks of changed, increased competition, and disruption.

But of course, there’s more to do to help your employees become more innovative. Our article about employee motivation based on Daniel Pink’s book Drive noted one thing you can do is create conditions that make for motivated employees, since motivated employees are more likely to create innovations.

In this article, we’re going to consult some more experts to find what else you can do to foster creativity and create innovations at your workplace. And who better than the crew at Freakonomics with their book Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain?

Tips for Applying Creativity & Innovation to Problem-Solving

Although we encourage you to buy a copy of the book and read it for yourself, here are their main tips for “thinking like a freak” and becoming a more creative, innovative problem-solver.

Be Able and Willing to Say “I Don’t Know”

Being creative in your problem-solving efforts, leading to innovation, begins with the ability to recognize you’ve got a problem and you don’t currently know the answer.

It’s difficult for people to admit this–that they don’t know.

But saying “I don’t know” is where problem-solving and innovation begins.

Once you’ve admitted that you don’t know, you can set about trying to learn. You can test things. You can run experiments, get feedback, evaluate results, and see what potential solutions work and which don’t (quick related side-note: be sure to download the free PDCA cycle infographic at the bottom of this article).

Identify the Real Problem

Problem solving works best if you solve the right problem. But it’s easy to focus your efforts on solving the wrong problem. .

If you don’t step back and think things through (ah, the value of reflection and getting other opinions!), you may wind up treating the symptoms rather than the true underlying problem.

Remember, this is a time to put on your systems-thinking cap and realize that problems at work don’t exist in a vacuum. Things happen partly as a result of interactions between different elements of the system in which they occur.

So don’t be so quick to try to solve the problem that you think you see when you first begin thinking about the situation. Dig deeper and think systemically and see if there’s a different, less-obvious underlying problem. You may have to redefine the problem you’re really trying to solve.

Find The Real Cause

Once you’ve done the hard work of finding the real problem, now you’ll have to set out to find the real cause.

Don’t be quick to identify the easy–and often wrong–answer. Keep looking until you’ve found the real cause–or, in many cases, the real causes and/or contributing factors. And, again, this may involve thinking of things systemically.

(Another quick side-note: In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman mentions that we can think of our brain as having two processing systems, that we default to the quick System 1, and that System 1 often solves an easier problem instead of the harder and true problem without our noticing the switcheroo).

Safety managers out there, here’s an example for you: If you think the problem is often “human error,” the problem may really be something in your system. Check out our free recorded Introduction to New Safety webinar for more on this issue.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the “Wrong” Question

The Freakonomics folks title this chapter “Think Like a Child,” but the main point is to avoid limiting yourself by trying to be appropriate or being afraid to sound silly or stupid.

Sometimes, they say, this means thinking small, not big. Sometimes a small problem is something we can understand, solve, and fix.

They also say we shouldn’t be afraid of the obvious. Sometimes the answer is staring us straight in the face but for whatever reason we’re unwilling to acknowledge it (it’s the elephant in the room nobody’s talking about). This begins with asking obvious questions that nobody else will. Things like: Why do we do that? and Why do we do it that way? These can sometimes be difficult conversations, because they’ll at times seem to challenge “sacred truths” of your organization, even if they’re never officially acknowledged. You may find that the emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes, and that’s scary. And that’s also why psychological safety is important at the workplace.

Finally, they remind us to have fun. Learning can be fun. Problem solving can be fun. Innovation can be fun. Leaving what worked for us in the past and moving on to something that will work for us in the future can be fun. Don’t fear it…recognize it as a natural part of your organization’s existence.


Use Incentives

People respond well to incentives. So if you want to innovate, you’ll want to provide incentives for creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

But it’s not quite that easy. One of the things we’ve learned from behavioral economists like the guys from Freakonomics and Dan Ariely is that the things that motivate us may not be what you’d think would motivate us.

And what we have learned from researchers like Daniel Pink in his book Drive is that people are more motivated at work, and also more creative and innovative, when you give them autonomy, the freedom to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose (I’ve got a little acronym for this that I like: AMP).

The folks from Freakonomics give these five tips for creating incentive programs:

  • Create incentives for what people really care about, not what they say they care about
  • Create incentives that are valuable to workers but cheap/affordable for you
  • Pay attention to how your incentive program works and how people respond; if necessary, adjust based on their reactions
  • Don’t think people will do something just because you think it’s the right thing to do
  • Remember that some folks will always try to game the system

Take Advantage of People’s Natural Inclinations

Change isn’t easy. Not everyone will want to make changes.

And getting people to go along with change can sometimes feel like you’re herding cats or swimming upstream.

So when possible, try to promote change or give people the opportunity to change in a way that they’re more likely to buy into. Maybe even unconsciously, because it fits their natural thought pattern.

This is where a good understanding and application of nudge theory might be helpful.

Persuade People at Work

To create lasting innovations at work, you’ll probably have to persuade some folks.

This isn’t easy. The authors offer the following tips:

  • Realize this is hard and it’s partly because people have cognitive biases that prevent them from being persuaded by facts and evidence and reason
  • Remember that the person you’re trying to persuade is the important one–not you
  • Admit your argument isn’t perfect/has flaws
  • Acknowledge the strength of their viewpoint too
  • Don’t resort to insults
  • Tell stories (click to read more about the persuasive power of storytelling)

Know When to Cut Your Losses and Give Up

Sometimes you can’t solve a problem.

And sometimes the solution to your problem isn’t the right solution.

Don’t be pig-headed. Don’t keep on and on and on. Sometimes the best solution is to cut your losses.

To evaluate a potential solution, it’s not a bad idea to roll it out in a beta or small-scale trial version. Collect data and see what happens. If it’s works, great. But if the data says it doesn’t work, don’t get all emotional and be married to your wonderful idea. Realize it for what it was–a failure–and remember that we learn from failures.

Hint: We provided a free PDCA cycle infographic at the bottom of this article for just this reason. 

Conclusion: Take a Walk on the Freaky Side to Innovate and Problem-Solve

So there you have it. If you want to have a learning organization, if you want to be flexible and adaptable, if you want to be creative and innovative, you may benefit from trying some of these freaky trips from your friends at Freakonomics. What have you got to lose–the same old, same old?

Don’t forget to download the free P-D-C-A infographic below to help you with your creativity, innovation, and continuous improvement efforts.

pdca Button

FREE PDCA Cycle Infographic

Download this free infographic of the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle commonly used for quality control, project planning, and continuous improvement.

pdca Button
Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *