Why Seeing Is Your Number One Creative Problem Solving Skill

I have a friend who is a hunter. One of the biggest differences between him and me is that, when I walk through a forest with him, he sees more than I do. It’s not that he has better eyes. He knows what to look for. And he knows what things mean. He understands what causes certain markings. If you know what to look for, a forest is full of signs of the creatures that inhabit it. You can see what animals passed trough a specific place, what they were doing, when they were doing it, how they were behaving etc. But in order to read the signs, you must have knowledge and experience. You have to understand the systems that create the signs. Just like a doctor reads the symptoms of a disease to understand what is going on inside your bodily systems, a hunter reads the markings in nature to understand what’s happening inside the ecosystem of the forest. He does so for a purpose. He needs to understand the system and see if it’s in balance. If it’s not balanced, he needs to find and kill the animals that cause the disbalance. Or if a certain group of animals is causing damage, he has to track and kill the perpetrators. The hunter is a manager that has one goal: a well-balanced, healthy ecosystem.

A whole new world

The thing is that, when we walk through the forest together and he points out what he sees and what the signs mean, I start to see more as well. My eyes are the same, but the knowledge expands my ability to see. I’m not in the forest to track and kill animals, but what happens is that the added knowledge increases my experience of the forest. It deepens it. Because I see more, I enjoy more. It’s like I have a new pair of glasses with a different filter that allows me so see more. The experience becomes richer. A whole new world is opening itself up to me. When you learn new things, things that are outside your comfort zone, it gives you a new pair of lenses to see more of the world.

Seeing and solving

See the problem

Apart from the joy of a richer experience, a deeper view of the world, the ability to see more also has a more functional goal. Any craft requires you to learn things, so you can see things. A hunter has a different view of the world than a doctor or an architect. They all wear different glasses. To solve the problems of their craft, they have to see the things that are important. They have to see the problems and they have to see the solutions. That is one of the reasons why you consult and expert: because he can see what the problem is. Seeing the real problem is crucial to solving a problem.

“Once you have the right question, the answer is relatively simple.” — Elon Musk

Solve the problem

Next to identifying, seeing also plays a crucial role in solving. Learning a craft also involves studying a lot of possible solutions. Having seen many possible solutions creates a database from which you can draw elements of solutions. Seeing is how these solutions get into your brain and when you are solving, this is where you go to look. That is why, when you understand and solve a problem, you say: “Now I see!”. That is why it’s a good idea to create a large database with solutions, also from other fields than your own. The more dots you have to connect, the greater the opportunity for creative problem solving, for seeing new connection between the dots. Solving a problem is seeing the solution.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” — Steve Jobs

Seeing and empathy

When we think about Design Leadership, one of the challenges is to bridge the gap between design and business. The transfer of mindset, skillset and toolset from design to other fields like business and technology is crucial. It’s also the most difficult part. To operate within a strategic business setting as a designer, you have to speak the language of business. But that is not enough. You have to learn their craft, access their knowledge in order to see what they see. Seeing is at the core of empathy. Wikipedia says about empathy:

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

If you really want to understand what another person is experiencing, you have to see what they see, look through their frame. Only when you start to see what business people see will their world open up to you.

Seeing and curiosity

One of the most powerful drivers of learning to see in different ways is curiosity. If you are not curious, you have no strong desire to learn. If you don’t learn, you will not see. If you cannot see, you cannot solve.

Source: Google

Seeing and agility

Agility, the ability to move quickly and easily, is quintessential in today’s fast moving business world. This depends deeply on your ability to change frames, to change glasses, to look at things in a new perspective. The more ways in which you are able to look at a problem, the more agile you become. The toolbox of a problem solver should be filled with as many pairs of glasses as possible, so he has access to as many ways of looking at things as possible and he can switch quickly if a new perspective is required.

Seeing and complexity

Another aspect of seeing that is crucial to solving problems, especially complex problems, is speed. When you gain experience looking through a certain pair of glasses, you pick up speed. You are able to process information quicker. You start to recognize patterns, build mental models and automate tasks. Knowledge and mental models allow you to see deeper because it allows you to see quicker. This is why you pay a senior consultant more then a junior: because he can see the problem and the solution quicker. The more complex a situation becomes, the more crucial the ability to see what matters is.

Seeing and Lean Startup

Learning is learning to see. When you look at the build-measure-learn cycle of the Lean Startup approach, the learning is crucial. Building something and measuring is easy, learning is the hard part. That’s because you have to see: see your own assumptions, see how you can test them, but most of all see what happens. When you receive feedback, what do you see? How do you interpret what you see?

Seeing and drawing

Seeing is something that you must learn. Letting the light enter into your eyes is not enough, you have to learn to see. One of the areas where this is most apparent is in drawing. When I was in Art School learning to draw still lives, I quickly learned that learning to see is crucial to drawing. When I first started to draw, I drew what I thought I saw. But the drawings were not accurate. Then I started to look more closely. Then I learned to really look, to actually see what is in front of me. But looking really closely only gets you so far. That is why Michelangelo started cutting open dead bodies: to learn how a human body is built up. More knowledge makes you see better.

“Drawing is not really very difficult. Seeing is the problem. ” — Betty Edwards

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into subjects around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.