Solving problems by identifying similar situations

An inflatable bicycle helmet, a sleep robot that mimics human breathing and a hospital that offers valet parking as if patients are arriving at a luxurious hotel… Many innovations are inspired by solutions and insights from elsewhere. Solving problems therefore often requires looking for inspiration in other areas. 

Your problem might seem unique, but chances are that someone else has already found a clever solution. People tend to look for solutions in obvious places. Within the organisation, within their area of expertise or within the same city or country. However, the most brilliant solutions often can be found in unusual places. In areas that, at first glance, seem unrelated to whatever you’re dealing with. Don’t ignore this incredible source of insights.

How do you identify solutions in unusual places? Let’s look at the steps.

Solving problems by looking in other areas – a step-by-step approach:

Step 1. Identify the essence of your problem
Phrase your challenge as a generic, universal problem. Keep it short and sweet.


Teacher shortage is a serious problem. One of the causes is that not enough people consider a teaching job. Imagine you’re looking for a solution to the challenge ‘Getting more people to apply for teacher training’.  Some ways to phrase this particular question as a universal challenge are:

– How might we …attract new applicants?
– How might we …increase the number of participants?
– How might we …get people interested in our service?
– How might we …promote our service?

Step 2. List people and organisations who face the same challenge.
Who else might have the same problem? List a variety of situations where the same challenge occurs. Is there a similar problem in nature? In politics? In war? What about in factories, in the entertainment industry, in healthcare or in aviation? Write down analogies: ‘problem X is like problem Y‘.

Example: ‘Attracting new applicants’ is like: 

– Recruiting new soldiers for the army
– Finding witnesses for the police after a robbery
– Attracting new followers for your social media channel
– Finding people to take place in a talk show audience
– Recruiting top talent for a Silicon Valley startup
– Getting people to buy tickets for a festival
– Convincing people to vote for your party at the elections
– etc.

Step 3. Research the other (similar) problem
Look at the list of situations you’ve created. Pick the challenge that inspires you most. Look into solutions for this challenge. In what ways do organisations solve this problem? What can you find about these approaches?

Are the solutions people have tried in this area ineffective or can’t you find any? Use creative thinking techniques to generate creative solutions to this particular challenge yourself. How would you tackle this problem? Generate as many ideas as you can. The mere fact that this challenge, while similar, occurs in a different situation makes it easier to come up with solutions. This effect is called ‘psychological distance‘.

Step 4. Apply the solution to your own challenge
Look at the solutions you’ve found and/or generated. How might you apply these solutions in your own situation? Does any of the solutions help you solve the problem you started this exercise with?

If you still don’t see a useful approach, try again with one of the other problems that are similar to your challenge or rephrase your challenge slightly differently. After all, most problems can be phrased in more than one way.

Some innovative examples of clever solutions that are inspired by a solution to a similar problem:

Eastgate Centre: the shopping centre that stays as cool as a termite mound

In 1991, architect Mick Pearce was faced with a seemingly impossible challenge: design the largest office and retail building in Zimbabwe WITHOUT air conditioning. He decided to study how termites solve a similar challenge…

Evert_45: A teenage boy vlogs about his life during WW2

One of the challenges of history teachers is finding ways to make historical events, like the second world war, relatable to youngsters. So why not learn from the best when it comes to engaging teenagers? How would influencers grab teenagers’ attention?

Foldable shipping containers

How do you store an empty shipping container? The same way you store a plastic crate, it turns out…

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How to get original ideas - do the oppositevoorbeelden van sociale innovatie - de couveuse / social innovation examples