The Human Side: Creative problem solving

The “old ways” didn’t work any longer, and they didn’t know what to do.

A few years ago, I was consulting — or attempting to consult — with chartered accounting firms in the southeast part of England. The government that directed them was changing methods.

They had become accustomed to a system in which every business was required, by law, to use a chartered accountant to do an audit at the end of each accounting year. They were moving to a system that no longer required the chartered accountant.

Everyone knew many of the smaller companies, not constrained by this requirement, were going to go to the year-end using only the bookkeeper who did their usual accounts. The problem was that nobody knew how many of them would stop using chartered accountants.

In the face of an unknown business loss that would mean fewer clients and departure of staff, which meant their business would lose money and become smaller, they had the option of facing the problem directly. Instead, they became paralyzed and did nothing.

I tried to see the problem from their point of view, but could not understand what seemed to me to be deliberate blindness. Consequently, I was unable to persuade them to change their direction.

Understanding finally came to me, but it was long after I was gone from their boardrooms. They had become so accustomed to the old system that they were paralyzed when it went away. They didn’t know what to do. Even though a new system had been created, they had never done business that way. The “old ways” didn’t work any longer, and they didn’t know what to do.

We are more like those English accountants than we are different from them. It’s one of the difficulties facing us now. We often find ourselves with a loss of direction in life, or in business, and don’t know what to do. Whether it’s the loss of an outside voice we come to depend on, as it was with them, or the destruction of a way of life, we often become paralyzed, just as they did.

Now, here’s the contradiction. We are also incredibly creative “doers” — creative problem-solvers — when we choose to be. We can do this in innovative ways, picking from an infinite possible number of options and solving problems in ways nobody ever thought of before. There are just a few things we need before this happens.

We need to be completely convinced the old ways don’t work, including lots of proof of that failure, and we can be incredibly stubborn and difficult to convince.

We also need a new vision of what the future might look like.

We need to believe we can succeed where others have not.

And, finally, we need motivation to do a new thing.

We can be innovative and creative when we need to be. Clear-eyed and clear-headed, we can be as well; and responsive to change, we must be.

There are always good reasons to be afraid and paralyzed.

In the end, though, we are creative problem-solvers. And that’s our future.

Fred Elford is a retired international organization development consultant, living in Invermere, where he spends his time with bonsai trees. He can be reached at fredelford@