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Rack, Rest, Repeat - a Method for Creative problem Solving

When was the last time you saw something that made you say, “Hey, that’s clever?” Or cool? Or creative? Probably very recently. Every day I am amazed at the creative solutions devised in response to fighting the coronavirus pandemic - great ideas on staying safe, staying sane, and staying fit physically and financially. A few of the many examples: - Companies that make pillows, headbands, and other textile products have converted some of their production to producing protective masks. - In Louisville and central Kentucky, my neck of the woods, bourbon distilleries are making hand sanitizers. - To make kids actually want to take walks with you, neighborhoods are participating in teddy bear hunts. Creativity seems to accelerate in a time of crisis, proving perhaps that necessity really is the mother of invention! But don’t think creativity is limited to a few exceptionally talented people. We all have it and since we are now facing so many challenges, this is a great time to build your own creative problem solving muscles. Before embarking on the process, you need to dispel the myths about what creativity is and your own capacity to be creative. Then prepare your internal and external environments to maximize the creative process, including identifying the core problem you are trying to solve. I encourage you to review those articles before moving forward. Ready? Let's dive into the process itself.

Identifying limitations - real and imagined

You probably have an idea of what your constraints and limitations are. Are you limited by cost? Is there a time limit or deadline? Are there regulations or standards that must be considered? Are other needed resources, such as personnel, in limited supply? How about potential impact on others? We often have more flexibility than we intuitively feel we have, so making a list of perceived limitations can help you identify which ones are real and which may potentially be violated.

Rack that rascal

Set aside a block of un-disruptable time in an un-distruptable place, and put your big conscious human brain to work on the problem. This is the “rack” step (as in “rack your brain”) and takes energy and resolve to power through. I will list a few ideas to get you started, but there are many resources on brainstorming, such as, which is full of great methods and tips for creative problem solving. A few important points to get you started: - When developing ideas, write down as many as possible, no matter how wacky or unfeasible or boring or dumb you think they are. At this stage, quantity overrules quality. - Consider what skills or knowledge you have in other areas that you can apply to the problem. Can parenting skills be applied to an employee issue? Can a concept from your favorite board game apply to a workplace motivation issue? - Write down solutions that would work if there were no constraints at all, such as unlimited resources. New creative avenues can open up and you can then apply the constraints you identified earlier – potentially producing unique ideas you wouldn’t have fathomed otherwise. The most important thing at this stage is to expend as much mental energy as possible. When you think you have no more ideas, keep at it. Approach the problem from every angle. This concentrated effort tells your subconscious brain, “HEY! This is important!” and it sets you up for success in the next step.

Give it a rest

After exhausting your conscious brain’s work on the problem, stop thinking about it. Give your noggin a rest. This is essentially passing the baton to your subconscious brain so it will go to work with as much vigor as your conscious brain did. While you do other things, your secret processing system will be coming up with its own ideas and solutions. At some point during this rest period, engage in activities that require low levels of conscious mental energy. Doing nothing is also okay. It feels like laziness, but it’s an important part of the process. Definitely sleep at least once before you take the problem up again. You can also provide creative stimulus during this period. I like to enjoy the creativity of others by watching videos, listening to music, or light reading which can provide additional input for the subconscious as it works on your problem. The output your subconscious creates will appear in a variety of ways. These are “a-ha” moments of inspiration that seem to come out of nowhere. You may have an illuminating dream, which is how the song, Yesterday, appeared to Paul McCartney. You may get an insight while you are in the shower. Sometimes the results won’t appear until the next time you think about the problem. Unfortunately, we have no control over our subconscious processing and have no insight into what it will provide us or how long it will take. If nothing seems to be coming, be patient and give it as much time as you can afford.


After having time to simmer and stir, at least a day or two, schedule another un-disruptable “rack” session where you re-engage your conscious brain. You can now re-visit your previous ideas and start whittling them down to ones that are workable. Hopefully new insights you hadn’t discovered will bubble up – thank you subconscious! Then if needed, brainstorm some more and repeat the “rack and rest” cycle.

The power of the team

I have described this as a method for personal creative problem solving, but it works even better for teams. You can dramatically increase your potential for creative solutions by including others in the process. The more diverse the experiences, skillsets and perspectives of the participants, the better. Just don’t forget the “rest” period and be sure to reconvene the group after the initial “rack” brainstorming session. While some brains can generate many great ideas quickly, others (like mine) produce much better results when given time to percolate, so someone who was relatively quiet during the initial session may bring several ideas to the table in the following session.

Avoid the mind traps

The key is to not get trapped by these two fallacies: 1) That creativity is a magical insight that you just have to wait for. In reality, it takes a lot of brute force and grit. 2) That if you aren’t thinking about the problem, you aren’t working on it. The truth is that your subconscious will work on it in the background as long as you tell it what to do first. Now go become indispensably creative! Think well and be well, Steve

P.S. My signature line, "Think well and be well," is more meaningful than ever in the scary days of this health crisis. It is so important to practice good judgment as we weather the storm of this pandemic. To help with that judgment, check out my post on improving how we process information in a time of crisis. I hope you and your families are safe and healthy and remain so through this ordeal.


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