Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 37;   September 12, 2012: Solutions as Found Art

Solutions as Found Art

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Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways. Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
Still Life with Chair-Caning, by Picasso

Still Life with Chair-Caning, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), "painted" in May, 1912. I put painted in quotes, because this painting is only painted in part. The image of the chair caning is actually printed on a piece of oilcloth, which Picasso bought in a hardware store and glued onto the canvas, before painting over it. This painting is the first to incorporate this technique. Some regarded Picasso's technique as "cheating," because so much of the regard people had for artists at the time was based on their ability to reproduce images of reality. And here was Picasso, exploiting a manufactured image of reality, and asking for credit for his work as fine art.

Problem solvers today still suffer from this same phenomenon. Devising solutions from "scratch" without reference to previous work is more highly esteemed than is combining elements from existing solutions to create something wholly new. The resulting searches for the greater glory that is the reward for wholly new solutions are expensive and wasteful consequences of this attribute of many organizational cultures. We would do well to find ways to honor clever combining of existing work as much as we honor creating wholly new work.

The painting is in oil and oilcloth on canvas, with a rope frame. In size, it is relatively small: 10 5/8 x 13 3/4 in. (27 x 35 cm.). It is at Musee Picasso in Paris, which at this writing is closed for renovations. Photo courtesy Dr. Scott Contreras-Koterbay of East Tennessee University.

Problem solvers often begin by looking for new, innovative solutions, even though many solutions consist of innovative combinations of less-innovative pieces. But innovation can be as much or more in the way pieces are combined, rather than in the pieces themselves. Because this happens with such regularity, setting out to find solutions of this form can make problem-solvers more productive.

Many problem solutions are like found art, which is art created from objects that are not normally considered art. They might be everyday objects, like tires or chair legs. They might even be discarded or broken. By combining them in new ways, possibly with objects or materials that normally are considered art, the artist creates something that clearly is art.

Similarly, problem solutions sometimes consist of familiar elements of other solutions, possibly combined with truly new elements. Often, we come to these solutions only after failing to compose wholly new solutions. Here's a proposal: we might benefit by approaching problems from the beginning by searching for solutions that are hybrids of new and old.

Here are some suggestions for problem-solving using combinations of new and old solutions.

Generate a catalog of old solutions
Become a student of old solutions. Gather ideas that worked in the past to solve problems that are now solved. You can use this resource repeatedly for each new problem-solving effort. And the successful results of each new effort can become entries in this catalog.
Maintain a didn't-work-for-this-problem list
As you progress You can reuse past ideas
only if you know about
them. Become a student
of old solutions.
toward a solution, you'll try ideas that turn out not to work. Add them to the didn't-work-for-this-problem list. Then ask, why didn't it work? If that condition is still in place, address it. Addressing that condition is a slightly different problem — one for which you (or someone else) might already have a solution.
Search for themes in the didn't-work-for-this-problem list
As you add items to the didn't-work-for-this-problem list, search the list for themes. Sometimes, when something doesn't work, the causes of failure can be hidden in subtle ways. But when you ask what a group of failed solutions have in common, sometimes that hidden cause becomes evident. In this way, failed solutions can lead to success.
Be zany
Because intentional zaniness can help you relax constraints that might be keeping you from seeing a solution, search for obviously zany ideas. But not just any zany ideas. Start with an item from your catalog of old solutions, or from your didn't-work-for-this-problem lists. Then "zanify" it. Zanify it again in another way. You might be surprised at what happens.

Most important, we must learn to value the work of those who solve problems by combining cleverly into new solutions elements that others knew about but overlooked. Go to top Top  Next issue: No Tangles  Next Issue

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See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

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A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.

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