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Cover of Society's Breakthrough, a book by Jim Rough
Society's Breakthrough, Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People

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The Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0075 | October 15, 2002
5,500 Subscribers

picture of Steve Davis, editor of the Master Facilitator Journal.

From the Publisher: 
Hello MFJ Readers. This issue explores the use of Dynamic Facilitation to help your groups solve what they believe are impossible problems using "choice creating." Using choice creating, not only can we solve impossible to solve issues, but we also introduce the possibility of transforming our feelings about such problems. We'd like to thank Jim Rough for submitting this article.

Please forgive the length of this article as a deviation from our regular format. I chose to run it as is because it is very well written and rich with examples that drive home the important points Jim is making. We're interested in hearing your thoughts on this format and on the article.

If you or your colleagues are interested in submitting an article for consideration, please email your ideas. I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!
Steve Davis


Choice Creation: How to Solve Impossible Problems
Creative solutions to difficult problems must address the emotional component first.

The Point

A group of twelve maintenance workers in a sawmill were unanimous and adamant - an additional full time person was required to oil machinery. "It is obvious! Because that person is missing, machines break down and maintenance costs are excessive. There is no other way," they said. Later, after a few meetings the group, devised a six point plan which more than solved the problem without requiring an additional person. 
By thinking creatively they solved a problem which had seemed impossible. Their solutions included the following:

1. They invented a new oiling device that saved about 20 person-hours a week!

2.Changing lubricant types gained more time.

3. The use of a state-funded training program for oiling and maintenance made existing oilers more capable.

4. Changing job classifications meant that operators of the equipment could do much of the needed oiling. 

Instead of pursuing the "only thing we can do," the group used creativity to breakthrough old patterns of thinking. As a result, the group not only achieved success but also grew in competence, confidence, and trust.

This story illustrates that there is always the possibility of creating new, better solutions. When an impossible-to-solve problem is encountered, it should be a signal to mentally shift gears to a creative thinking process, one suited for such issues. Unfortunately, the approach of most people toward seemingly impossible problems seldom involves creativity.

The Limits of Brainstirring
In companies, classrooms, friendships, and families, there is a natural drive to compulsively implement the first known or traditional solutions, even when there is little prospect of success. In the example above, hiring another oiler seemed like the only thing that could be done. The group was initially focused on achieving that solution.

The story also tells us something important about the creative breakthrough process, that it is emotional as well as mental. At first, the millwrights were resistant to creative thinking approaches. They were sure that the problem could only be solved by hiring another oiler and were unable to achieve a frame of mind which tolerated other options. In other words, their strong feelings about the issue could not be ignored. Most approaches aimed at impossible problems, helping people be creative, do not address these emotional aspects. They should. In brainstorming, for instance, one is encouraged to generate many ideas in a short period of time, postponing discussion and judgment. Crazy, silly are welcome in the hope of breaking out of traditional patterns into new lines of thought. Other Creative Problem Solving (CPS) methods include using forced analogies, or random words to help generate ideas. These brain-stirring techniques, are useful for helping people escape from old patterns of thought. These methods are especially useful in research, advertising, and new product development.

When it comes to real problems, however, these CPS methods tend not to be used. Why? Brain-stirring is only effective when the emotional component of an issue is small, where problems are more like puzzles or challenges. When strong feelings are present, ideas do not naturally bubble out of the brain in a playful way. Feelings need to be addressed before the intuitive mind can be tapped. Often feelings of anxiety, frustration, intimidation, etc. are the problem. So the first breakthrough is not so much a change of thinking, but a change of feeling.

Impossible problems require creativity but the creative methods used must be multifaceted, stirring the heart as well as the mind. I call this broader thinking process choice-creating.

Stopping the Car
As an illustration consider the following tale:

My family took a drive in the mountains to have a cook-out. We were going to a campground which looked to be nearby on the map. We arrived at the turnoff, a two lane road into the mountains, and began a slow winding drive. On the map the campground looked to be about 3 or 4 miles from the main intersection.

As time passed and we had already gone 5 or 6 miles, the driving became more intense. We had not seen another car in either direction. There were no road signs. The car rocked forcefully as we rounded the curves tightly. The kids in the back became restless and a feeling of frustration prevailed.

When we came upon a car approaching from the opposite direction. We flagged it down and asked the driver how much farther it was to the campground. The answer - another 18 miles of slow mountain road - was a shock. We continued driving for a while and then did something we later realized was critical. We stopped the car.

We sat for a minute by the side of the road with our feelings of frustration. We talked about what we wanted to do. We talked about the new prospects of when we were going to eat. Together, mulling the situation, we decided to go on.

After driving a little farther we came upon the scene of a beautiful valley. We stopped, got out for a moment and took a picture. A little further yet we discovered an apple tree and stopped again to try the apples. Our trip had transformed into a beautiful country drive, a creative time, and we arrived at the campground surprised that the time had gone so fast.

Through this simple experience we learned a crucial lesson that has stood us in good stead over the years. Stopping the car allowed us to change our frame of mind, not because we did creative exercises, but because we took time out. We stopped working on the apparent solution, driving faster, to think in a new way. This timeout transformed our thinking and the problem miraculously turned into an opportunity.

The story is a simple illustration of how choice-creating can work. Stopping the car had sparked a quality of thinking that allowed a new perspective to emerge and for our situation to be transformed. The process was not brainstorming or brain-stirring, which avoids feelings. It was heart-stirring, a creativity of a different type. Feelings, attitudes, motivations, and relationships with others were involved. The creative shift wasn't due to a new idea, an innovation. Instead, it was an shift within each of us.

Creativity of Head and Heart
The emotional shift that happened when we sat by the side of the road was a change of heart. Stopping, sparked a creativity that not only transformed the situation but also everyone in it. With such a shift, a person become "empowered."

When this shift happens, a new motivation, enthusiasm, and perceptive capability occur in the face of problems. Problems move and change shape so that they become unrecognizable as the impossible or dragon issues they once were. The group which makes such a creative choice has a new perspective, attitude and field of action.

The difference between heart-stirring and brain-stirring, two modes of creative thinking, can be seen by contrasting the car story above with the example below. The example is designed to provide you with an aha! experience, which is the goal of brain-stirring. The aha! is a sudden perceptual shift, a new way of seeing the situation, an insight. Hopefully you will experience an aha! by thinking for a moment about the following puzzle:

Show that one half of eight is zero.


(Hint for the puzzle: see how 1/2 of 8 can also be 3,6,2,5, and more.)

If you "got" the puzzle, you experienced something that cannot be given to you from someone else. It only can come from within you . . . a sudden gift from your intuitive side.

Brain-stirring methods are only effective when the emotional component can readily be set aside. A puzzle is an invitation to play with a problem. Playing in this way, the mathematical viewpoint can be dropped fairly easily and other viewpoints are allowed to prevail. Innovations are achieved in this way. CPS methods help achieve innovations by encouraging a kind of mental vacation. The mind is freed of restraints to just wander through the mental landscape in a playful way. Ideas are encouraged to flow across boundaries of propriety and convention which have previously limited thinking.

However, the need for detachment from feelings also limits the effectiveness of brain-stirring methods. In courses teaching CPS common advice is: "Work only on problems you can do something about. Don't worry about something you can't affect." In other words, instead of using our limitless creative potential on serious problems, stay safe and use it only on limited, smaller issues.

The result is this: not only are difficult problems avoided, but when they must be faced, there is a natural repulsion to using the creative methods which are most needed. It is as though we protect our creativity from the possibility of failure by not utilizing it.

Looking again at the car story, a key element to achieving resolution was stopping the car. By stopping and looking directly into the problem; by asking one another how hungry we felt or how we felt in general; and by thinking together about what we wanted, something in all of us was changed. The situation changed because we chose to let go of the automatic solution and to give our unconscious some latitude.

This choice may not seem like a solution, since it develops outside of conscious awareness. But, stopping and thinking differently breaks up a mental and emotional logjam. Enthusiasm and commitment to a new challenge become possibilities. In the car story, this choice-creating process led not to a different alternative but to a different state of being.

From these three illustrations, the maintenance workers, the car story, and the "half of eight" puzzle, we can begin to see how impossible problems are solved.


Elements of Choice-creating
Here is a story which illustrates steps that help trigger changes of heart:

I was teaching a problem-solving class to a group of loggers called "hook tenders," who were the leaders at the logging sites. After we developed a list of problems to consider, they decided to work on one, the need for new radios. The group chose this because it was the most important and because they felt it was an issue they couldn't do anything about.

The need for radios had already been taken to management and been turned down. I asked if they had taken their request higher than their supervisor and the response came, "Yes! There is nothing more we can do!" They were adamant in the tone of their response as though this was obviously the final word.

To them this problem was impossible to solve, and as indicated by their responses, one which involved strong feelings. Because the economy was poor and their jobs were not secure, the feeling "Let's work on a problem we can do something about" was a natural sentiment, but they agreed to look at this one. (The radios in use often gave garbled transmissions and this made log movements unsafe along the mountain side.)

When asked "why do you want to improve safety?" one of the answers was "because we are responsible for safety at the logging sites." After discussing this a moment the group became newly inspired with a different point of view and a change of heart. Since they were restricted from buying the radios which they felt were needed for safety - they had not really been given the responsibility for safety! Talking further, the group energy shifted immediately from "We can't because we tried" to one that was powerful: "Either we are responsible for safety or we aren't. If we have been given this responsibility then we should be able to make this decision." The group decided that, above all else, the safety of the crews must be assured, and that they needed to assert their responsibility.

When they talked to management from this new standpoint, they got the radios, plus a new level of shared responsibility.

Using this example as an illustration, below are listed some key elements in the choice-creating process which led to this new level of empowerment.

1. Stop the Car occasionally. Reserve time to address impossible to solve issues in a creative way. Normal processes do not work on impossible to solve problems. The hook tenders did this in the class, away from the work site.

2. Face the problem. Since the hook tenders had already dismissed the problem as one for which nothing more could be done, their choice to reexamine it took an effort of will. They chose to reopen a difficult topic and to think about it in a different way. It was like choosing to stop the car in the earlier example.

3. Identify and let go of the blocking solution. In this case the blocking solution was to ask management. The hook tenders wrote this down this solution. Acknowledging it in this way, allowed them to let go of the blocking emotions associated with the idea.

4. Name the dragon. That is, to articulate the primary concerns. Here, the entire group was anxious about their job security and feared that a complainer could lose his job. When the primary concern is identified and articulated its emotional tone changes. The concern becomes less demanding and people become more open to creative possibilities.

5. Describe the current situation factually and without exaggeration. The group discussed the difficulties with the current radios and the possible consequences of not replacing them. This step is an important part of all problem solving approaches, both rational and creative. A dispassionate examination of the situation is needed to establish a new emotional perspective as well as an intellectual perspective. It was in this step that the group realized that they really weren't responsible for safety if they didn't have the authority to buy the radios.

6.Identify the mission or motivating goal as clearly as possible. The hook tenders wanted to insure the safety of the crew, their friends. The process of revitalizing an motivating goal is an empowering experience for any group. Reexperiencing the importance of this mission allowed the hook tenders to approach management with a creative attitude rather
than approaching them with blame or panic.

7. At this point, if it is needed, Creative Problem Solving processes like brainstorming can be used to develop new approaches. The hook tenders didn't need this step in the example because they had an empowerment breakthrough.

8. Act. The steps above led to a transformation of feelings in the group. Action came directly from the sense of empowerment and mission that the men developed from the choice-creating conversation. 

In the logger story above, the group was aided by a facilitator who helped them through the thinking stages and achieve a creative choice. Ironically, their solution was to ask management for new radios, the same idea they started with. However it was also different. They asked from a more powerful stance, in a way that helped their management understand and grow as well.

These stories and the steps of the choice-creating process remind us that the potential for solving problems exists not only in our rational mind and traditional "creative" techniques, but also in a change of heart.

The approach recommended here, choice-creating, is richer than what is normally meant by decision-making, problem-solving, or even "Creative Problem Solving." Using choice-creating, not only can we solve impossible to solve issues, but we also introduce the possibility of transforming our feelings about such problems. Choice-creating transforms us and the situation. It changes the problem, empowers the person, and can transform the organization, as well.

The sentiment, "Don't spend time on something you can't do anything about" is not supported here. If we have the courage to "stop the car" then we have the power to begin the choice-creating process. We have creative resources. We just need to use them.

Jim Rough is a consultant, speaker, seminar leader and author. Since 1990, he has presented four-day seminars in Dynamic Facilitation Skills, where people from around the world are facilitated to engage different ideas creatively, address societal issues, and achieve breakthrough insights. He is a long-time faculty member of annual Creative Problem Solving Institutes and an ongoing explorer in the field of Jungian psychology. Visit his website at


Take a look at a problem that has been considered impossible to solve and apply this approach to it. I'd love to hear what happens for you. Please email me your comments.

Cover of Society's Breakthrough, a book by Jim Rough

ociety's Breakthrough,
Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue
in All the People, by Jim Rough

Great news! There is a Breakthrough answer to today's most crucial issues, such as racism, the lop-sided distribution of wealth, the corporate takeover of democracy, the environmental crisis, excessive materialism, spiritual decay and the threat of terrorism.

Society's Breakthrough! proposes a simple, risk-free addition to the underpinnings of our system that will facilitate deep change in all of us, individually and collectively. It will release hidden creativity, intelligence, and virtue, and establish a way for us to form a wise and responsible "We the People." It's an innovation in the spirit of trust and democracy, essential to a healthy society.

This book is engaging and exciting to read. Read the sample chapters and see for yourself. The author uses stories, anecdotes, experiments and reflections to illustrate different ways of thinking, different models of change, and how global transformation can really happen.

More good news! This innovation has already solved "impossible" problems in organizations. It transforms corporations, schools, government agencies, municipalities, non-profits, and more. You cannot afford to miss out on Society's Breakthrough!

cartoon image of a talking man.

Reader Survey 

What are your favorite team-building exercises?

This week, we're asking you share
any exercises you use and find effective in building teams. Those types of exercises that help groups break through barriers, solve conflicts, get to know each others' strengths/weaknesses in a non-threatening way, etc. that contribute directly to them working together more effectively.

Please email me your exercises. I'll send the entire collection to those who contribute.

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About the Author
Steve Davis is a Facilitator's Coach helping leaders enhance their effectiveness through the application and perspective of facilitation. Please email or call me at 805-489-4130 to schedule a Free exploratory session, or to share your suggestions and ideas for the journal. I'd love to hear from you. If you find this newsletter helpful, please forward it to your friends. Thanks for reading!

In the Spotlight



Thank you for reading this issue of the Master Facilitator Journal.  Look for your next issue on October 22, 2002.   

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