Try to solve the following puzzle:
In a tower is a prisoner who desperately wants to escape. One day he discovers a rope in his cell. Trouble is, the rope is only half the length necessary to allow him to reach the ground safely. Yet he divides the rope in half, ties the two parts together, and escapes to his freedom.
How did the prisoner accomplish this feat?
This isn't the sort of problem most of us face in our daily professional lives (IMF chiefs and insider traders notwithstanding.) But how we approach it, and how quickly we fashion a solution, yields some surprising lessons about innovation and creativity in business.
In a recent experiment, Evan Polman of New York University and Kyle Emich of Cornell University posed this problem to 137 undergraduate research subjects. They asked half the participants to imagine themselves as the prisoner. They asked the other half to imagine someone else as the prisoner.
Fewer than half of the participants in the first group figured out the problem. But in the second group, 66pc came up with the solution. In other words, people were faster and more creative when they tackled the problem on behalf of others rather than for themselves.
This was no isolated result. Polman and Emich found the same phenomenon in two other experiments. In one, they asked participants to draw a picture of an alien that could be the basis of a science fiction story. Half were told they would later write the story themselves; half were told that someone else would write the story. The aliens that people in the second group drew for others turned out to be more creative than those the first group drew for themselves.
Likewise, in a third experiment, the researchers asked participants to come up with three gift ideas – for themselves, for someone close to them, or for someone they scarcely knew. Once again, the more remote the recipient, the more innovative the gift. (Which might explain why many of use are useless in choosing gifts for our spouses and partners.)
Polman and Emich build upon existing psychological research showing that when we think of situations or individuals that are distant – in space, time, or social connection – we think of them in the abstract
. But when those things are close – near us physically, about to happen, or standing beside us – we think about them concretely.
Over the years, social scientists have found that abstract thinking leads to greater creativity. That means that if we care about innovation we need to be more abstract and therefore more distant. But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. We draw closer rather than step back.
That's a mistake, Polman and Emich suggest. "That decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self... should prove of considerable interest to negotiators, managers, product designers, marketers and advertisers, among many others," they write.
Indeed, their findings have practical implications at every level of business. Let me offer five suggestions to stir your thinking:
• Recruit more independent directors.
Begin with corporate governance. If recent scandals and ethical breaches weren't sufficient evidence, this body of research underscores the importance of having independent directors on the boards of public companies. Beyond providing watchful eyes on auditing and compensation committees, their very distance from the quotidian concerns of incumbent managers might make them valuable sparks to corporate creativity.
• Rethink the structure of your firm.
Perhaps loose alliances of distantly connected people – think Wikipedia or a Hollywood film – can produce more creative products and services than fixed rosters of employees in traditional arrangements. And maybe those consultancies, which all of us love to malign, are offering a valuable service after all by providing distance for hire.
• Harness the power of peers.
The day-to-day crush of obligations often lures leaders closer to their challenges rather than giving them the distance that social scientists say can be more valuable. One counterweight is to assemble a small group of peers – all from different industries – and gather periodically to exchange ideas and offer solutions from new perspectives. Many such peer advisory groups in America – among them Inner Circle, CEO Clubs, and the Women Presidents Organisation – already exist and are growing in popularity.
• Find a problem-swapping partner.
If regular meetings aren't your thing, try finding a friend or colleague with whom you can occasionally swap problems. When you're stymied, give your problem to him or her. In exchange, when he or she is stuck, they can toss their dilemma to you.
• Disasssociate yourself.
When partners aren't an option, establish distance yourself. Create some psychological space between you and your project by imagining you're doing it for someone else or contemplating what advice you'd give to another person in your predicament.
Of course, there are plenty of times when getting the job done calls for concrete thinking and a close focus. But those hammers shouldn't be the only tools in our toolbox.
And while much of our business world is ill-configured to benefit from Polman and Emich's insights, the rise of crowd sourcing and ventures such as Innocentive (which allows companies to post problems on a web site for people around the world to solve) suggests that the moment may be right for reconfiguring the broader architecture of problem-solving.
Which leads to one final question: how exactly did the prisoner with the insufficiently long rope manage to escape? The answer: he split the rope lengthwise, tied the two halves together and shimmied to freedom.
Think about that next time you're imprisoned in a tower. Actually, don't. Instead, have someone else think about it for you.
Daniel H Pink writes about the world of work. His most recent book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us