Evan Polman of New York University and Kyle Emich of Cornell University posed a problem to 137 undergraduate research subjects: “In a tower is a prisoner who desperately wants to escape. One day he discovers a rope in his cell. Trouble is, the rope is only half the length necessary to allow him to reach the ground safely. How does he escape?

To solve this, they asked half the participants to imagine themselves as the prisoner. They asked the other half to imagine someone else as the prisoner. What was the result? Fewer than half of the participants in the first group figured out the problem. But in the second group, 66% found a solution.

Polman and Emich conducted two similar experiments, and derived that people were faster and more creative when they tackled the problem on behalf of others rather than for themselves.  When we think of situations or individuals that are distant—in space, time, or social connection—we think of them in the abstract, and that enhances creative thinking.

Popular author and organizational change expert Daniel Pink applied the results of this research study to the workplace. Being a big proponent of flipping our practices to do something different, he wanted leaders and employees to widen their world view, instead of intensifying it. He came up with the following ideas:

  • Rethink the structure of your firm. Perhaps groups of distantly connected people—think Wikipedia or a Hollywood film—can produce more creative products and services than fixed rosters of employees in traditional arrangements. For example, instead of having fixed teams tackle projects, propose projects to all employees, and have them choose the projects they want to work on. Assign project leaders beforehand.
  • Harness the power of peers. The day-to-day work routine pushes leaders closer to their challenges rather than giving them the distance that social scientists say can be more valuable. A way to counter that is to assemble a small group of peers—maybe from different fields of work—and to periodically exchange ideas from new perspectives. Inter-team brainstorming meetings are a great place to start as well.
  • Find a problem-swapping partner. If regular meetings aren’t your thing, try finding a friend or colleague with whom you can occasionally swap problems. When you feel saturated, give your problem to him or her. In exchange, when he or she is stuck, they can share their dilemma with you. Solve it, and see what emerges. The idea here is to flip calcified thinking.

With co-working and crowdsourcing practices, the work force is slowly starting to engage with Polman and Emich’s insights. It would be impactful to weave it into the organizational culture, as one of the tools for collaboration and innovation.

And as for the prisoner, he split the rope lengthwise, tied the two halves together and slid away to freedom!

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