Working in a technical field, I interact with many highly intelligent, highly educated professionals who just don’t know when to stop going down a path that isn’t working. Picture running repeatedly into a brick wall instead of realizing that you can go around, get a rope and climb over, find a friend to give you a boost, build a door, or get a ladder.

When one of these people is faced with a problem they cannot solve, maybe it is missing data or a bug in a computer code or a tough mathematical analysis, they continuously hit the problem from the same angle hoping that it eventually works. This often happens when you follow a standard process that breaks down. You don’t know what else to do, so you keep pushing against the brick wall. If you are in a team with one of these people, don’t let the frustration overwhelm you. If you are one of these people, be flexible. Try these 7 tips to increase your creativity, go with the flow, and solve the problem.

1. Walk away (for now)

Don’t give up, just set down what you are stuck on and walk away, step away from the keyboard. Sometimes we need space to see the problem or situation objectively. Sleep on it. Go for a run. Work on something else. While you are doing other things, your subconscious is still mulling over the problem. Next thing you know, you’re walking down the street, and the solution pops into your head. A lightbulb goes off, and you weren’t even “working” on the problem. Carry a notebook or keep an app like Evernote handy for when these ideas strike.

2. Talk it out

Grab a coworker, and go get a cup of coffee or head to the water cooler. The goal here is not to work through a step-by-step solution with your coworker but to have an open ear while you verbalize the problem. Speaking out loud organizes your thoughts, provides clarity, and solidifies what you’ve absorbed about the project. It can also relieve some of the stress or anxiety you feel over the project by acknowledging the problem and gaining support from your coworker, thus giving you renewed confidence to face the problem.

Bonus: Bringing a friend along also keeps people from thinking you’re that crazy person talking to himself as he wanders the office.

3. Ask questions

Maybe part of why you ran into this brick wall is a looming deadline or pressure to provide a solution that meets a certain standard. Stress can stop you in your tracks and play negative thoughts on loop. Ask yourself, “What if?”

Some recent what ifs I’ve asked myself are:

What if I can’t get a point of contact to provide the data I need?

What if all the data arrives after the set deadline?

What if I can’t fix my VBA code tomorrow?

Use what ifs to address the negativity surrounding the problem. Break the project into small pieces, and state the problems as questions. Doing this directs your brain to answer the question, lessens any anxiety, and maybe even solves the problem. For example:

What if I can’t get a point of contact to provide the data I need?

  • Who else can I contact?
  • Is there another data source?
  • Can I research similar products using online resources?
  • Do I have any similar projects that I can use to fill in any gaps?

Now you're thinking productively and creating alternative solutions.

4. Make a list

I like lists, but they’re not for everyone. If you’re not usually a list person or a note writing person, try it out and see what happens. If it’s really not for you, try a verbal method like 2. Talk it out.

Break down what you have to do into an itemized list. However you want to do it – actions, nouns, you name it. You can see how I started listing questions for 3. Ask questions. You may start by answering these questions with more lists – lists of contacts, lists of products, lists of places your code could break, lists of what to do next.

Get the project, problem, or steps on paper and tackle each point one at a time. You’ll gather new information and better understand the big picture. You’ll see that you’re making incremental progress toward solving the problem or finishing the project.

5. Draw it out

I recently attended the Military Operations Research Sociaty (MORS) Symposium, where I participated in a session called, “Back to Basics: DOE in Operational Test Using Excel.” Captain Abigail Capano discussed how drawing pictures is important to discover factors that you didn’t anticipate. She demonstrated this by creating a flight path drawing right in Excel.

Drawing pictures is something that I had nearly forgotten from childhood or, more recently, engineering school. Engineering homework typically follows a set structure that helps you set up mathematical problems. One key step is to always include a sketch. This session resonated with me, because we keep our heads buried in Excel spreadsheets and forget to use our other skills.

For more on the 84th MORS Symposium, check out this previous post.

6. Google

Google. It is number 6 on this list; though, this is probably the first thing you turn to when you’re stuck on a problem. The internet can be a great resource for solving problems. Someone else has likely already faced the same problem, so you want to leverage their experience. However, I often find that in the first moments after I am absolutely stuck on a problem my searches are too vague to deliver the solution I want. Use tips 1-5 to clarify the problem and target your search to a more specific topic or question.

7. Change the problem

There are often restrictions that limit the alternative options for solving a problem. When this happens or if you’ve tried everything else, change the problem. So you need to wait for this particular point of contact to gather and submit data. What does this mean for your project? Now the problem can be time or educating your contact on what you need or helping to coordinate data collection. Maybe you need to request an extension for your analysis or set up weekly meetings to walk someone through a process. We accept that there is no alternative for the data we need, so address the issues that result. You'll be ready to face them head on.

Have you used any of these tips for creative problem solving? Would you add any to the list? Start the discussion by sharing this post on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.