Where Science Meets Muse

Using Distance to Increase Creativity

Posted by Plish on July 27, 2009

creativityatadistance michaelplishka2009

A company was manufacturing pens and a key automated assembly machine was causing problems, slowing production down to a crawl. In fact, inventory was dwindling perilously low.  The president of the company, an imaginative and creative problem solver was stumped.  He called together everyone that had worked on the machine before and they went to work troubleshooting,  all to no avail.  After two and half days of fits and starts, early Saturday morning the president had his best idea.

“Cover it.”


He pointed to a large black tarp in the corner.

“Cover the machine.”

“What? we’ll go into back order!”

“We’re not getting anywhere anyway – cover it. I don’t want anyone to touch the machine or think about the machine until Monday.”

The machine was covered – out of sight, distant in mind -for the next day and half.

Monday came and everyone reconvened at the foot of the machine.  The tarp was unceremoniously pulled off and the team went to work.  Within half a day the machine was up and running, efficiently and smoothly.

So what was the solution?


Although the best minds were throwing everything they had at the problem, it wasn’t getting solved because everyone had gotten too close to the problem, had started to take the challenge personally and they could no longer see the problem as it was. 

Researchers would say that the problem solvers were thinking about the problem too acutely, too locally, and thus their creative capabilities were stunted.

What finally enabled the solution was the physical barrier put in place.  This in turn put distance between the machine and the minds of the people. 

The problem got solved. 

In addition to physical distance, there are other types of distance that help push our minds into more creative modes. 

1. Distance in mind –  You can use your mind to create virtual locations where the problem is far away (see #3 below). You can also push the problem as far away as possible, i.e. don’t even think about it for a while.

2. Distance in time –  Think about solving the problem in the future (or past) – research shows this stimulates creative thought.  Also, if you don’t think about something for awhile, or only think about it after spending some quality time not  thinking about it, your mind has had time to abstractivize the problem which encourages creative thought.

3. Distance in space –   Imagine the problem is in another place, another country, pn another planet.  This again, researchers say, encourages creative thought.  You can also move your body physically away from the problem for a while.

4. Distance in gender – Approach the problem as a member of the opposite sex.

5. Distance in age – Approach the problem as one older or younger.

6.  Distance in likeliness– Re-frame the situation using unlikely aspects/scenarios and re-look at the problem.  Unlikely scenarios stimulate creative thought over likely scenarios.

7.  Any combination of the above will stimulate and kick our brains into a more creative mode.

Using the above mental constructs may seem a strange and almost childish way of solving problems, after all, how can just imagining a problem is distant in some way, change our capabilities to solve it? 

Try it.

If not you, then pretend you’re an elderly member of the opposite sex; if not now, then in the future, in a different country where the laws of gravity are different, because you’re only doing it for fun and not because you want to be paid for it.



One Response to “Using Distance to Increase Creativity”

  1. […] way to come up with creative solutions is to create some distance from a problem (I blogged on it here).  In other words, if you frame the problem so it’s distant in some way, geographically, […]

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