Innovation – Make It Someone Else's Problem

Oncoming Meteor Targets Traditional Book PublishersNew research suggests that you are likely to be more creative when you imagine the problem is someone else’s instead of your own. Evan Polman and Kyle Emich describe their studies in their April 2011 article that support this conclusion.

In one study, 262 participants were instructed to draw an alien for a story that they would write, or alternatively for a story that someone else would write. When drawing an alien for someone else’s story, they produced a more creative alien. In another study, 137 students were instructed to picture either themselves or a stranger stuck in a tower and to think of a way to escape using only a rope that did not reach the ground. Of the students who imagined a stranger in the tower, 66 percent found the solution—divide the rope lengthwise and tie the pieces together—compared with 48 percent of those who pictured themselves in the tower.

For innovation practitioners, teachers, and consultants, this research suggests a new technique to improve innovation output. When using an innovation method or problem solving technique, participants should try to image the problem is not theirs. Instead, they want to mentally simulate the problem belongs to someone else. One way to do this is to have participants imagine they are innovating for a similar issue but in a different industry. As an exercise, have participants apply a technique in this scenario first as a way to activate and expand their creative output. Only then, have them apply the same mental structure to their actual problem.

Here is an example. Imagine you are facilitating a team that makes diagnostic equipment for automobiles. They want to innovate new ways to use the data that is collected by their equipment. You are about to apply the S.I.T. Subtraction Technique (remove an essential component). Normally, you would have the team apply Subtraction by eliminating the vehicle data entirely – a great way to break functional fixedness.

Now, in light of this new research, here is what you might do instead. Tell the team they are in a different industry – medical diagnostics – but that they are not allowed to use any traditional diagnostic tests on their patients (like blood tests, x-rays, vitals, etc). Ask them, “What would you do now to get useful data about your patients?” After a round of ideation, have them re-do the exercise back on their own problem. Mentally imagining the problem to be someone else’s first will boost creative output on their own problem.

Polman, E., & Emich, K. J. (2011). Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(4), 492-501.

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Drew BoydDrew Boyd is Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at and at

Drew Boyd




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