Think back to the last time you felt underwater at work. You took on that one extra task and didn’t accurately account for time. Now the deadline is creeping up, your manager sent you a “Just checking in…” email, and you’ve been thinking about the work in front of you for so long you have tunnel vision. What did you do? Did you down a grande latte and pick up the pace?
In this information overload age we’re constantly trying to get too much done in too little time. We rush through problems, and when we hit a snag our anxiety tells us to move on to the next one. This works like compound interest: the more issues you skip and leave unresolved, the more difficult it is to solve the big picture.
A brain moving at a frantic pace can be a tremendous asset if you know how to focus it. I developed a mental framework that can be applied across varying contexts and industries, and I use it every day in my creative work, client workshops, and management. It makes complex problems easier to think through, and enables me to work smarter, not just harder. The framework is built around four corners: Context, Creativity, Relevance, and Outcomes.
Organizing Your Thoughts to Remove Your Assumptions
I’m a Venture Mentor at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, and recently I saw one of the young entrepreneurs exhibiting all the signs of being blocked. She was working on a conversion optimization plan for a website, the deadline was looming, and she was overwhelmed. I had her close her laptop and take out a pen and paper:
Write down every audience, platform, trend, and conversion that's relevant to the website, and list them all in their own columns.
Now take one item from each list, and come up with an idea right now that puts them together. In this case, her end result looked like this:
First-time buyers in the consideration stage (audience), the e-commerce website CMS (platform), and the fact that buyers of this product normally research online, but purchase in-store (behavior trend), online purchase (conversion).
I saw the fog lift. She realized she had to redefine what a conversion was, because the obvious conversion of buying online was not applicable in this context. The framework exercise separated her from her assumptions, and allowed her to look at the individual pieces in a fresh, unbiased light.
It was Context, Creativity, Relevance, and Outcomes that triggered the solution. Brainstorming all of the individual components separately prevents them from being biased by their assumed relation to each other, removing creative constraints and letting your thinking diverge. Divergent thinking bolsters creativity. By separating a few individual components out, and coming up with a creative way to make them relevant to each other on the spot, you add constraints and converge your thinking. This is similar to design thinking, and it helps you discover previously unconsidered possibilities.
Finding relationships between seemingly disparate things and combining them to create something entirely new and innovative is a strategy I live by, both in my work and daily life. But don’t take my word for it. The most groundbreaking thinkers in any industry do this whether it’s conscious or not.
Take this recent article in the L.A. Times. Scientists took inspiration from the natural human muscle structure, and combined it with the ancient art of origami. This hybrid construct enabled them to build a robotic muscle that’s capable of lifting 100x its own weight.
This is a framework that enables you to expose the core of something. Whether it’s a problem at work or a conversation with a friend who needs advice, this simple process disassociates you from the issue and reveals shades of grey in what you have been seeing as black and white.
Applying the Framework in Different Contexts
I was recently meeting with a client who is an award-winning restaurateur and competitive alternative sportsman. He was launching a new restaurant concept, and we were charged with branding and positioning a franchisable restaurant chain. For the first hour of discussion this brilliant, visionary entrepreneur was giving me nothing about his creation story, which is critical to establishing a narrative.
He was reserved, and resisted having an open discussion about this labor of love he was creating. Traditional interview tactics and gamestorming weren’t working. I dropped the professional routine and got personal with lighthearted conversation.
I asked him about his corporate and engineering backgrounds, and why he was passionate about the food industry. I asked if he did much cooking when he was younger.
Within minutes of being confronted with this unexpected familiarity, his wife started opening up on his behalf about how she watched for years as his creative passions went unfulfilled in corporate America. They started joking together and recounted stories from when they were on the road and absorbing all of the inspiration that eventually resulted in this new restaurant concept.
When he was blocking me I let the conversation diverge. This created a space for them to be vulnerable and relate specific anecdotes from their journey. Converging their thinking onto these seemingly irrelevant stories uncovered the gritty details I needed.
By introducing the framework, I expanded their options for what was relevant, exposed the human center of the story, and we got our outcome: a truly compelling narrative.
The Art of Conversation
This demonstrates how the method is just as effective in conversation as it is in problem solving. It’s not about interrogating someone or running through a linear pre-planned list of questions. Canned questions breed shallow answers.
In fact, the framework bears several similarities to Victorian-era conversational etiquette:
Don’t shy away from small talk: small talk is how you establish comfortability and rapport.
Ask lots of questions: not just questions about the issue at hand, but creative questions about their personal lives, motivations, and pain points.
Be compassionate and let the other person do the talking: finding the relevance between your own frame of reference and theirs will enhance the environment of comfortability.
When you have a specific outcome in mind, it’s easy to fall into a trap of forcing the issue. That’s not collaboration, and that’s not creative. You need to let people speak naturally and get into a rhythm. Then you take what they say, use it to define the context of the issue, and find a creative way to apply it to the intended outcome. It’s free-flow over force. Creative adaptability over linear rigidity.
But what do you do when you meet added layers of resistance?
Training Out of Corporate Fear Culture
There's one environment that almost always presents a unique challenge: the corporate boardroom.
Work environments are often competitive, not fun. This is understandable – mid-to-lower level staff are working for their livelihoods and don't want to risk sounding “stupid”. And the authority figures in the room are reluctant to let ideas flow without second guessing themselves, at the risk of losing status in the eyes of their employees. It’s critical to remember that you aren’t dealing with a company, team, or even a group. You’re dealing with individuals, each with their own goals and fears.
For this framework to be effective, everyone involved needs to get past their personal reservations and access their inner child. You need to build them an environment of psychological safety that promotes an uninhibited exchange of ideas.
Try introducing novelty into the dynamic. When people experience “newness,” it prompts the brain to fire dopamine and brings us back to being human. This is a core tenant of design thinking: attacking a problem from a new angle to inspire fresh, human-centered ideas. The increased dopamine will encourage creative, divergent thinking.
I see a lot of firms offering design thinking-inspired services, and failing in their execution. Sticky notes, sharpies, and gamestorming exercises aren’t enough, and executives are tired of consultants walking in with toy boxes and calling it innovation. Without the proper framing and execution, it’s just arts and crafts.
Corporate professionals want two things: results and experiences. Use this framework to describe the anticipated results the activities will create before you get started. This will give the activities a concrete purpose and put the participants’ fears at ease. Now they’re more open to the novelty of the exercises, less anxious about contributing, and ready to share in the experience.
Overcome Choice Paralysis Through Simplification
The framework is useful for unblocking yourself in solo work; exposing the heart of the matter in personal discussions; and breaking down rigid corporate barriers to access the human side of any company. To work properly it requires openness and collaboration. It produces its best results when you practice it to the point of being second nature, and it's allowed to live and breathe in the form of a genuine conversation.
The next time you're sweating under a deadline or trying to 10X a meeting, try focusing on the context, creativity, relevance, and outcomes. Whatever the issue is, this framework will break it down, change the way you see the pieces, and put them back together to create something completely new.