What happens when ideas just won’t come?

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Luminous Idea
Luminous Idea (Photo credit: Tiago Daniel)

I’ve got a problem I just can’t seem to solve. I have been at it for some time but there is no clear-cut solution. Nothing seems to work. I’ve used various idea-generation techniques (attribute listing, mind maps or think bubbles, the 20-Idea Method) but alas no simple solution. I’ve discussed the challenge with people and researched the Internet but I’m still waiting to connect the dots.

I don’t think it’s because the idea-generation techniques in themselves are not working. I’ve just come up against a massive challenge that has no easy solution. It’s not as bad as something like Rittel’s wicked problems because I can at least find that but it’s wickedly difficult to solve.

Horst Willhelm Jakob Rittel was a design theorist and university professor best known for coining the term “wicked problem”. A wicked problem refers to a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. Some of the defining characteristics of a wicked problem is that the problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution, solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation” and every wicked problem is essentially unique.

The difficulty that I’m having is that there appears to be only a limited number of solutions to the challenge that I’m facing. Yes, I’ve had some breakthrough insights but there isn’t one clear and simple solution. I think I have to give more time to the problem to better fully understand the challenge. The unconscious cannot be switched on and off like a tap. The unconscious needs time to “perculate” information, data and problems before you receive little sparks of inspiration and insights that lead to new or uncharted patterns of thought.

What happens when you come up against a difficult problem and the solution just won’t come? What can you do? Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time to find an optimum solution.

Here’s an example that I came across recently that got me really excited. A young sailor I know had a problem at a port in a foreign country. He needed to get into the dockyard to market his personal services as a deckhand but was unable to do so because of the tight security. You wracked his brains and eventually came up with a solution. He got his first job within about 72 hours of implementing his idea. This one idea made the difference between been able to stay in the country or having to leave.

Isn’t it often like this? You’re faced with a desperate or difficult situation and it’s make or break time. The mind seems to focus wonderfully. It cuts out the extraneous and fanciful and let’s you hone in on what matters most. Sometimes the solution appears so simple to you that it’s almost laughable but in all seriousness thousands of others just don’t seem to see what you are seeing.

Ideas are necessary for survival. Unlike birds who can put food on their table merely through their sharp eyes we’ve got to rely on our wits and ideas to find our food or we’ll go hungry. Many times we can’t wait for the “perfect” idea to magically appear. When it doesn’t come and you need an idea in a hurry, it’s often best to settle for what you think will work.

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