Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Four keys to creative problem solving

(jschumacher via morguefile.com)
(jschumacher via morguefile.com)

In the most recent episode of Madame Secretary, “Winter Garden,” Blake Moran, newly promoted from personal assistant to a policy advisor, wrestles with getting two groups with differing goals to work together. One governmental office tasked with fighting malaria is doing a great job using nets but the other, with a decimated budget, is left to deal with the fallout of those treated nets, i.e., harmed sea life.  They cannot sanction their continued use. Blake is unsure what to do, and after consulting with Matt, the speechwriter, understands that he needs to bring them together. He does this, informing both that the Department of Defense will be taking over the project. After they protest, Blake offers an out. If they can work out a solution, the DoD won’t be needed. This maneuver is necessary to make them see a common enemy as it were, and to find a way to work together. A solution is found.

The Secretary herself uses a similar tactic with two countries, Kosovo and Albania. In their case, they share a common enemy, that of fake news being spread by troll farms in a third country. Once that was cleared, they were free to join NATO.

Key number one: Differing sides need a common framework, something to unite them. It could be a threat or an enemy, but it could also be some otherwise arrived at recognition that the goal is more important than the resistance to the other party’s means of reaching it.

This brought me back to when I used to oversee communications at a Jewish day school. One parent who came in often to volunteer complained to the head of school about the children’s behavior in the hallways where visitors were concerned. What the head of school did next, I thought, was particularly inspired. She acknowledged the issue and invited the parent to be on a committee which would find a way to address it. Why was this brilliant? Because when you co-opt a complainant into addressing the issue, he or she will have shifted to become part of the solution.

Similarly, in one of my favorite parenting books, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, one of the strategies the authors recommend parents use with kids who have difficulty coping with things is to sit down and facilitate brainstorming with them. Write down all their suggestions about what they could do instead of the unwanted behavior; pass no judgement, make no comment. Afterwards, review with the child the viability of the suggestions, ultimately settling on a few that will work. This too, like the mother brought into a committee designed to solve the problem of hallway behavior, forces buy in, since the complainant becomes problem solver. He or she owns the solution.

Key number two: Ownership.

Decisions should not be made in a vacuum. We cannot make educated, viable, helpful plans if we do not take those who have to live with the decisions into account. How can a committee come up with a plan to address the best way to improve hallway behavior without knowing, for instance, the ages of the students, the “traffic” schedules, or anything about the adults that may be present at the time. Similarly, the reason brainstorming solutions works is because those which are not satisfying to both sides are eliminated. This often requires acquiring additional information. If a four year old son lists jumping up and down on his parents’ bed as a means to working out his frustrations, but doesn’t know that this could be dangerous, he cannot see why this won’t work.

Key number three: More information.

Creativity doesn’t magically appear when a page is blank or a room devoid of distractions. It is often induced when there are some kind of parameters that constrain the problem-solvers. Time is often one. Racing against a deadline, as with the Kosovo and Albania in the television episode, creates a sense of urgency. Limitations on resources, as with the budgets for malaria nets and education, is another. In business, the third parameter often cited is quality. Two of the three can often be reached, but at the expense of the third. It takes a lot of creativity to figure out a way to make something fast, cheap and good.

Key number four: Limitations, be they related to time, resources or quality, build the box within which creativity can be fostered.

* * *

I do not know if these keys would work with Israelis and Palestinians, but I also cannot see why they couldn’t help move things forward. Their common enemy should be the status quo and the toll it takes both on people’s lives and on everyone’s soul. Brainstorming ways to solve the issues where there are impasses – right of return, Jerusalem, borders – would give them ownership if they worked together. Getting additional information, e.g., from institutions which could carry out studies to help depict economic or other future outcomes under different scenarios, would give the sides new avenues to explore. And finally limitations, such as actual deadlines for different steps, would move things along.

Now, who can give Israelis and Palestinians these keys?

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Lawn Guyland, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. Recently remarried, this Ashkenazi mom of three Mizrahi sons, 26, 23 and 19, splits her time between managing knowledge in corporate America, pursuing a dual masters in public administration and integrated global communications, blogging, relentlessly Facebooking, once-in-a-while veejaying, enjoying the arts and digging out of the post-move carton chaos of her and her husband's melded household.
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