Tag Archives | Problem Solving

The Goldfinches’ Guide to Creativity

A few years ago, my sister (Hi, Casey!) gave me a very cool birthday present: A bag of cotton wool in a cotton net bag, designed to hang next to the bird feeder. Why? So goldfinches (my favorite bird) could use the cotton wool in their nest building.

It worked great, too! The goldfinches loved it, and I had a blast watching them pull out tufts nearly as large as themselves and fly away with it.

The following year I went to my neighborhood bird-feeding supply store, but I couldn’t find anything similar. Hmm. I went to the local Big Box pet supply store and trolled the Wild Bird Supplies aisle. Nothing.

“Hmm,” I thought, “now what do I do?” I picked up the cat food and cat litter that were also on the list (yes, they enjoy watching the birds, too), and on the way past the Domesticated Rodent aisle, I had an idea.

“What if I could re-purpose something made for different animals?”

I went to the Domesticated Rodent (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, etc.) bedding section, and Aha! Tucked in between the bags of cedar shavings was… cotton wool! I picked up a bag of mixed cotton wool and grasses, feeling quite smug.

Until I realized it didn’t come with a mesh bag for hanging it next to the bird feeder, since it wasn’t intended for the birds. Hmm.

Suddenly my mind flashed on the suet feeder I had recently retired for the summer. It was made of coated wire mesh with openings the perfect size for little bird beaks. Aha! What if I re-purposed something that was intended for something else?

I went home and pulled out the suet feeder (which had been washed thoroughly before going into storage), filled it loosely with grass and cotton wool, and hung it next to the feeder. Success! The goldfinches loved it!

Well, they half-loved it. They used the cotton wool but not the grass. Oh well, that’s ok.

The following Spring, however, when I put out the grass/cotton mixture again, I had a pleasant surprise: The grasses were very popular with the titmice that came to the feeder, and a family of phoebes moved in and took advantage of it, too!

So my willingness to try something new, to re-purpose something, not only solved my problem for the goldfinches, it also solved another problem I didn’t even know I had: How to provide nesting materials for other birds as well.

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How often in business, and in life, are you faced with a challenge that requires some creative problem-solving? Pretty often, I’ll wager. But I’ll bet you don’t think of that as being creative.

It is.

If you are willing to apply your curiosity to something and ask a positive “What if…” the answer is probably going to be a creative solution.

Creativity isn’t necessarily about painting or composing music. And it certainly isn’t about coloring inside the lines.

Yes, you are creative, too. Or you can be. Ask, “What would happen if (fill in the blank)?” Try something new.

Sometimes “the right tool for the right job” isn’t available. But you can create new possibilities.

The goldfinches – and the titmice and the phoebes – are glad I did.

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Photo by: Qiang Wu, Dreamstime.com

Captains Curious: Curiosity, Mischief and Sending Jesus to a Different Party

Welcome to Captains Curious, a weekly series of guest posts on the subject of Curiosity. This week we have an encore performance from Captains Curious member Colin Beveridge! To learn about the other Captains Curious, please click here.

Who would you invite?

There’s a common ‘define yourself’ exercise that asks you to list the historical figures you’d invite to a dinner party. Almost everyone picks John Lennon and Jesus, perhaps so they can settle the debate once and for all, but also possibly to sort out the entertainment and the catering.

I recently rearranged the guest list for mine, unceremoniously revoking Jesus’ invitation so I could give it to Benjamin Franklin. I listened to a lecture series on his life recently and goggled at the range and depth of what he did. Plus, he seems like good company, and I imagine Jesus has other parties to go to.


I realised, though, that there’s a thread running through my long list of guests. Several threads, in fact, but the one that jumps out at me is insufferable curiosity.

Not just curiosity – they don’t let you into the world of science unless you’re curious – but there’s a difference between (say) Feynman and Einstein, or between Galileo and Leonardo, or even between John Lennon and Paul McCartney: A sense of mischief.

It’s the willingness to ask, “Why have we always done things that way?” and follow up with “That’s not a very good reason, is it?” and probably “Why don’t we do it _this_ way?”

This is a series of questions that has led to a lot of burnt-down laboratories, some pretty ludicrous trials, and the White Album, but it’s also responsible for pretty much every advance ever made in the fields of science, music, technology, literature, society, and everything other part of life.

I ask those questions about exams. Franklin asked them about lightning and political structures and education. Lennon asked them about the three-chord pop song and war.

Why have we always done things that way?

How good a reason is that?

Why don’t we do it _this_ way?

From same-old-same-old to revolution

It’s a series of questions that can take you from same-old-same-old to revolutionising your world, and you can apply it to almost anythingWhy do you charge people by the hour? Why do you eat your starter before your dessert? Why do you walk that way around the park?

Sometimes you come up with a good reason. Sometimes your alternative sucks. And sometimes you come up with something so crazy that it might just work.

What areas of your life and work can you ask about?

How can you apply your mischievous curiosity and change the world?

Leave a comment below!

Image: Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Colin Beveridge (@icecolbeveridge, http://www.flyingcoloursmaths.co.uk) is a math confidence coach and author of the UK version of Basic Maths For Dummies. He helps children and adults overcome their fear of math and start to discover its beauty. He lives in Poole, England with an espresso pot and a guitar and nothing to prove.

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Would you like to submit a guest post on the subject of Curiosity? Send an email to susan {at} susanTblake {dot} com with the subject line: Captains Curious.

Captains Curious: Living the Questions

Welcome to Captains Curious, a weekly series of guest posts on the subject of Curiosity. The newest member of the Captains Curious is Tara Joyce! To learn about the series and the other Captains Curious, please click here.

To be open and asking questions is often frowned upon

We are encouraged to see the world in black and white, as an either/or proposition with a right or wrong answer, and we are expected to chose accordingly.

We are told that those who “know” things are experts, and are here to help us make the right choices. We are taught that experts are those we can trust when we have problems. And we are led to believe that, by asserting our own “knowing,” we can create evidence of our own professionalism and abilities – and be experts, too.

To not know and admit it, to be open and asking questions is often frowned upon. We are made to feel ashamed for “not knowing.” We are made to feel that we need to be certain of things — that we need to have the answers before the questions have been asked. This “knowing” is seen as an accomplishment and proof of our abilities.

Many of us build our careers around this false belief, that if we live as the expert, we will know what’s best. We fool ourselves into believing that we already have the answers, despite the fact that we do not yet know the questions that need to be asked.

We hold on to answers to questions that have not been asked, and this causes us to live in fear of our own, and others’, curiosity and wonder.

Living in Questioning

What I wonder is, what’s so bad about “not knowing?” What makes me less professional or able if I don’t have your answers? I believe my curiosity and wonder, my need to question, is my greatest gift. It allows me to think beyond the answers spoon fed by others in their attempt to assert their “knowing.” It allows me to see that there is never a right answer, only an answer that works best for me.

My openness to “not knowing” gives me permission to live in questioning. And as experts busy themselves trying to be seen as right, I, curious about the world and all that I do not know, am busy trying to see everything.

Curiosity and wonder live and thrive in the exploration of Why? Great solutions are found in the Why? Through the use of questioning, I give permission to myself, and my clients, to brush off the chains created by “knowing.” Through questioning, I dig deep to uncover the real reason behind why something “must be done this way” and help myself, and others, to move past assertions of “how things are” to find the solutions that feel true to us.

Living in Creative Tension

In Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, Senge states,

“The gap between vision and current reality is a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision. We call this gap creative tension.”

Living in creative tension is living in curiosity. Our curious Self sees, in the gap of “not knowing,” a safe place to problem-solve, to dream and to focus on living our questions.

As someone full of wonder, and as someone who helps others use curiosity to grow their business, I see the “grey area” of life, outside the “black” and “white” world, as my home. In creative tension I feel safe, as this is where I am free to be a beginner and open my eyes, heart and mind to the authentic answers within myself, and within my clients.

Your own creative tension, your own place of living the questions, is the place where curiosity lives and is the place most ripe with the solutions you need. Living without fear of “not knowing,” and ignoring those who “know” without questioning, we create our greatest possibility to close our gap between what is and what could be.

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I, Tara Joyce, can be found exploring business, design, consciousness, communication and culture on my blog, Rise of the Innerpreneur or as @ElasticMind on Twitter. I can also be found working with business owners to close the gap between their business vision and their business reality through the use of design, which, of course, involves a lot of questioning!

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Would you like to submit a guest post on the subject of Curiosity? Send an email to susan {at} susanTblake {dot} com with the subject line: Captains Curious.

Gardens, Birds, Businesses, and Strategic Planning

My garden, such as it is, is currently carpeted with fallen leaves from the great Valley Oak that stands at its edge. This rust-colored carpet shines with the night’s rain and calls to me, reminding me of chores to be done. Although part of me sees a comforting blanket that protects my sleeping garden from what cold we experience here, another part of me sees the stalwart heads of a few hardy plants that peek out from beneath their covers and hears them calling, “Don’t forget about us!”

My favorite activity of a Sunday morning is to take my cup of coffee to the rocking chair next to the patio doors in my office and sit and drink my coffee and look at my garden while listening to the Acoustic Sunrise on a local radio station (you can stream it online at KFOG.com). After I finish my coffee I will often move on to a mimosa, my Sunday Morning Indulgence.

I love to sit here and watch morning come to my garden and the neighborhood around it, painting the neighborhood trees and the surrounding hills with gold. Eventually the sun peeks through and over the privacy fence around my secret garden and walks across it like the sun through the peepholes at Stonehenge.

Unless, of course, it is a grey day like today, and clouds paint the hills and kiss the trees.

I sit and observe, and contemplate. I watch the birds – house finches and Anna’s hummingbirds are regular visitors, joined by a circus train whose troupes change with the seasons. Right now we have chickadees and white crowned sparrows, but at other times we will have tufted titmice, goldfinches (they always make me smile), and the occasional ruby crowned kinglet, who does not like seeing his reflection in the mirror hanging on the fence. He puffs up his ruby crown and struts back and forth along the back of the bench before the mirror, trying to impress his rival.

I make notes – the bird feeder needs to be cleaned and refilled, the basket of nesting materials can come down, I need to make more hummingbird nectar.

I sit, and rest, and contemplate, and wonder…and plan.

I sit, and rest, and contemplate, and wonder. And consider, and plan. What task shall I tackle first? Is it time to prune roses and cut back the grasses yet? I must remember to make cuttings from the rose geranium. Should I pull out the skeleton of my beloved hardenbergia that mysteriously dropped its leaves this fall (it is normally evergreen, with glorious purple flower clusters in January, but this January it is bare), or should I wait until Spring and see if it comes back with some fertilizer and pruning? What if it doesn’t come back? With what should I fill the gap it leaves? And so on, with variations with the seasons.

I go through a similar process each week around my business when I prepare my new to-do list for the week. As with any garden, I know I can never get to everything that needs to be done, so I must prioritize. What must be done? What will wither and die if neglected too long? What do I do just for the joy of it, and what do I do because I must? Do I put the Joy items on the to-do list, validating the Joy, or steal time for them?

I think some businesses (and jobs) are like low-maintenance yards, requiring only weekly mowing and semi-annual fertilization and hedge-trimming. Maybe some weed pulling. Others are like gardens with plants that come in and out of season, crops that are planted, harvested and replaced, and projects like container plantings that are freestanding and portable. The workshop I am planning – it will initially be a potted plant, but if it thrives I will be able to propagate it and perhaps move it to a permanent spot in the garden. The e-book is like strawberries that will need the right setup and fertilization and attention to get started but will be ever bearing and low-maintenance once established.

There is a difference between making a to-do list and strategic planning.

Strategic planning is like that. But there is a difference between making a to-do list and strategic planning. I can put “pull weeds” and “transplant begonias” on the to-do list, but if I never stop to look at the big picture of how things fit together and whether these little tasks are helping me achieve my larger goals, then I will just have a pleasant mishmash. What do I want my garden to look like? It’s about having a vision, and then making a plan to make it so, and then monitoring to make sure the tasks on my to-do list – and their results – are in alignment with that plan. Strategic planning requires that I pause to observe, listen and take stock, with a realistic appraisal of resources, and with frequent reassessments. Otherwise all I can see are the trees, not the forest.

Each of us can – must – assess where we are and what we are doing.

It doesn’t matter whether you are even a manager or a business owner: Each of us can – must – assess where we are and what we are doing. There are things we can control, even if we cannot control the weather or the seasons.

Strategic planning is that simple, but it can be bewildering if you’re new to it or feeling stuck. Don’t worry – even the best gardeners consult with someone else at times.

Have a thought on the subject? Please leave a comment!

Need help? Email me at susan@susanTblake.com. I can help.

What Do I Do? I’m Glad You Asked That…

This post comes to you in response to a challenge from blogger and IttyBiz marketing guru, Naomi Dunford. (You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to her read Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go.)

In her most recent blog post (which you can read here), Naomi challenged readers to answer a very scary question: What do you actually do? Although I do try to answer that on my About and Services tabs, here it is with a slightly different twist – with the questions provided by Naomi:

What’s your game? What do you do?

I wonder. No, really, not about what I do. That is what I do. I notice how things work, how people think and act, and how human systems work (or don’t work). I ask questions that make people think.

That’s a practice that could be extremely irritating if not used wisely. But I ask questions that give people ideas. And I create a safe space for them to answer those questions.

I apply that in a variety of ways:

  • I rock at facilitating group discussions and meetings, especially when it involves getting people’s creative juices flowing.
  • I write and analyze surveys, drive strategy planning projects, develop and present training, and provide individual and group coaching.
  • I write about these and other things that make me wonder and that I hope will inspire you.
  • Oh, and I’m a photographer on the side.

Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?

I do it for a lot of reasons. I do love it; I’m naturally curious about – even fascinated by – people, nature, why things are the way they are. I want to share that wonder, and I believe it can open many doors.

And I do have a knack for usually asking the right question.

Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?

Maybe I have a big head, but I think everybody needs what I offer.

Have you ever thought,

  • “Now what do I do?”
  • “I should get this, but it just isn’t coming.”
  • “It’s right on the tip of my tongue…”
  • “I wish I had someone to bounce this off of…”
  • “I’m pretty sure I know what they think, but maybe I should check. How do I ask?”
  • “I’m stuck,” “I’m trapped,” “I’m bored,” “I’m in a rut,” or…

Then I can help.

If you need someone to…

  • Come in and ask the questions that need to be asked, or
  • Help you to formulate the questions that will help you get useful answers, or
  • Maybe you want to have a team event that you can participate in without having to lead it…

Then I’m the one you want.

What’s your marketing USP (Unique Selling Proposition)? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?


  • I ask great questions that give people ideas.
  • I will tell you the truth.
  • I’ve been around, and survived a few things, and I know you can too.
  • I have a lot of tools in my toolkit, not just a hammer.
  • People say my meetings are fun.
  • I know the difference between being a Consultant and an Insultant.

What’s next for you? What’s the Big Plan?

In addition to helping more and more people build their curiosity muscles,

  • I’m developing a series of workshops on Asking Powerful Questions in both personal relations and business interactions.
  • I’m updating my ebook, “Remember to Look Up: 35 Tips for Making a Comeback.” The new version will include exercises to help you with some of the tips, and it will be ready by the end of November.

So there you have it. If any of this appeals to you and you’d like to talk to me about helping YOU out, click here. Or give me a call at (925) 580-6922. (I’m on Pacific Time.) You may also leave a comment if you have something to say but aren’t ready for us to work together.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

Creativity, Problem Solving and Apple Pie with Cheddar Cheese

I don’t like salads with apples in them.

I just don’t. It’s a quirk, I admit it. I love apples, though, and the handy-dandy apple slicer that you place over your apple and push down to core and slice your apple in one easy motion changed my eating habits forever. (That and my salad spinner.)

So why would I even think about, much less LOVE, a grilled steak and cheese sandwich with sliced apples in it?

Well, I was making lunch the other day and looking for inspiration in the refrigerator. I found the remains of a piece of steak, some cheddar cheese, and some good bread. Sounded like a good sandwich to me. I wanted to put something green in it to give it a little zip, though, and I didn’t have any greens. (OK, I did, but they weren’t green any more and they were in the garbage.) But I did have some apples (Granny Smiths, to be exact).

What made me think about slicing an apple ever so thinly and putting some slices in my sandwich? I don’t know, aside from the fact that I hadn’t eaten an apple in a while and I didn’t want to have a plain bread-and-meat-and-cheese sandwich. I wanted something just a little healthier. I thought about the apples in the fridge, and at first I thought, “Eeeew.” But then I thought about apple pie with cheddar cheese on it, and I thought about a nice grilled sandwich, and I decided to give it a try.

That was a darn good sandwich! Everything was nicely warmed through and the cheese was nice and gooey and the apples weren’t hard and cold and edgy; they were warm but still crisp and apple-y. In fact, it was so good that I made it again the next day and it was good the second time, too.

It’s not about my food habits and quirky tastes. It’s about creativity.

You might be wondering why I’m telling you this. It’s not about my food habits and quirky tastes. It’s about creativity. And about being willing to try something new.

I learned something important about creativity and problem solving from this: Although sometimes the best solution is something completely new and disruptive, sometimes the best solution is something that works in another context but hasn’t yet been tried in this context.

When was the last time you were stuck for ideas, and the only idea you had was so far-fetched that you didn’t think anyone would try it? Or it was so far-fetched that you wouldn’t even try it?

The next time you – or your client – is stuck between a rock and a hard place, think up a crazy idea and ask yourself, “Is there a connection to something else here that makes this reasonable?” (Like apple pie with cheddar cheese.) Or, ask yourself, “What can I do to the old solution to change it just a couple of notches so that it works here?”

I’d love to hear from you about a time you came up with a solution to a problem by thinking of a connection that made sense in another context.

Bobby Fischer Teaches Systems Thinking

Yes, Systems Thinking. Disguised as chess.

One of the great challenges that faces small business people – and big business people – is tunnel vision. Ever wondered how it can be dangerous, and how you can overcome it? Consider the following…

I’m reading “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.” No, I’m not a brainiac. I’m just a person who has taken up chess again after more than 30 years and I’m tired of getting my pants beaten off. So my chess partner recommended this book, and after a few more humiliating defeats I went out and bought it.

I go to bed with Bobby Fischer. I ride the train with Bobby Fischer. And I have to say, this is a great book. It’s very simple, consisting of picture after picture of scenarios where you’re asked to identify whether or how one side could either checkmate the other or escape checkmate. You’re given the answer on the next page.

Like I said, very simple. My six year old niece could probably absorb this very quickly and then she could beat my pants off, too.

Well, I’ve been reading the book, and one of the key lessons that are being pounded into my head is to remember to Watch The Entire Board. Brilliant strategies fail miserably when you overlook the one thing in that corner over there and a Bishop zooms in and takes your Queen. Ouch!

I was struck by another important lesson the other day. Bobby and I were taking the train into the city, and I was getting a lot of the answers right – more than half, anyway. There was one scenario where I was pretty sure the answer was, “No, White can not checkmate” Black in this scenario. I turned the page and…. Doh! Wrong again! What? Surely not! Oh. Again I was looking at the board with tunnel vision, thinking about the possibilities only in certain ways, and I completely forgot that a Queen can move diagonally as well as forward and backward. Doh! That’s pretty basic.

And so I would have missed an opportunity to solve a situation quickly because I forgot about the capabilities of one of my pieces.

Which made me think: How often do we in organizations fail to utilize all of the talents of the people on our teams because we overlook their ability to move diagonally as well as up and down? How often do we limit ourselves by forgetting our own capabilities? How often do we miss opportunities because we don’t even see the opening in that corner? Or we see it, but think, “Oh, I can’t do that” or “I don’t know anyone who can help.”

If you’re feeling stuck or at a loss for ideas, I highly recommend that you spend $7.99 on “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” – and that you read it. Not so you can obliterate your opponent, or even avoid getting shellacked by your opponent. But it may change the way you look at situations and people – including yourself.

And you’ll look like a brainiac on the train.

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