A group of students at the Art Institute of Chicago approached two large tables holding 27 random objects. They’d been asked to select some objects and draw a still life. Some examined just a few items, selected ones that interested them, and got right down to drawing. Others handled more of the objects, turning them over many times before selecting the ones that interested them. They rearranged their chosen objects several times and took longer to complete the assigned still life.
Two University of Chicago social scientists were watching. Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whose renowned book Flow (affiliate link) I’ve used in my grad courses over the years) then asked a panel of art experts to evaluate the resulting works without telling them the source of the drawings or anything about the study they were conducting.
The results were intriguing. The art experts judged the second group’s work as far more creative than the first group’s work. What’s more, in follow-ups about 5 years and 18 years after the study, those who’d taken the second approach were more likely to remain artists and have had success in the art world.
What differentiated the first group from the second? Csikszentmihalyi characterized the first group of students as problem solvers who were asking themselves, “How can I produce a good drawing?” He characterized the second group as problem finders who were asking themselves, “What good drawing can I produce?” Said Getzels, “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained.”
It’s true in conflict resolution, too. Creative conflict problem solving doesn’t start with the question, “How can we resolve this conflict?” It starts with the question, “How can we find a good solution together?”
It starts with questions like, “How is the way we’re framing this problem limiting the solutions available to us?” and “What are other interesting ways we can frame the problem we’re trying to resolve?” and “How can we re-frame this problem as an opportunity?”
Great conflict resolution starts with great problem finding.
[HT to Dan Pink’s book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others for the Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi story.]