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“How to”: a simple lateral thinking technique

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Creativity at Work
This is an article by regular contributor Alan Barker.

“How to” is the simplest creative technique I know. Here’s how you use it.

State the problem as a phrase beginning with the words “How to”.

That’s it. No other rules apply.  

“How to” helps us to look at problems in new ways. In particular, it magically transforms problems from obstacles into goals. The moment you state a problem as a “How to”, you must start to look at it as an objective.

“How to” starts with two assumptions.

  • It’s your problem.
  • You’re stuck.


Many problems exist because we don’t want to take ownership of them. This is particularly true if we feel that someone else is responsible for creating the problem. If “they” created it, “they” should sort it out.

“How to” encourages us to take ownership of a problem. It’s difficult to express the problem as a “How to” statement and not take ownership of it.  

Now: why are you stuck?

Because you’re looking at the problem in only one way.

All of our thinking begins with assumptions. If we don’t challenge them, they become fixed into a mindset. It’s the mindset that makes us stuck. To become unstuck, we need to break out of the mindset.

The key is to generate as many new “How to” statements as possible.

Here’s an example from a training session for team leaders. One of the group’s most persistent and frustrating problems was the failure of their briefings. Typical comments were: “They just won’t listen”; “they’re not interested”; “they bother me with dozens of questions afterwards, even though the brief answered them all”. 

Our first “How to” was: “How to make team briefings more effective”. 

This rapidly expanded to include: 

How to make my team listen

How to present the brief more interestingly

How to make team briefings more interesting

How to stop people asking stupid questions at the end of the brief

How to handle team members’ concerns more effectively

How to change the format of the brief

How to talk with my team rather than at them

How to turn the briefing into a more meaningful meeting

How to involve the team more 

In all, we generated over seventy new statements. The result was a rich set of ideas for transforming team briefings into more interactive and productive meetings. 


“How to” as part of a structured brainstorming session 

Divide your group into the following roles.

  • facilitator: manages process; keeps time; sets target
  • problem owner: task owner; takes ownership of solution
  • thinking consultants: generate ideas as requested by problem owner and facilitator

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The problem owner chooses a “How to” and talks about it to their team for no more than a couple of minutes.

Guided by the facilitator, the thinking consultants then generate new “How to” statements. Record each one on a sticky note.

Cluster the “How to” statements on a wall or table. Cluster similar statements together. Just how you do that may take a little time to work out – and it will depend to some extent on the nature of the problem. A simple set of categories might be:

  • people
  • methods
  • information
  • equipment

Don’t reject any “How to”.

Finally, ask the problem owner to look for one “How to” that sums up the problem as vividly and exactly as possible. They will often do this very fast; sometimes, you may need to allow them a little time. They must feel happy that this statement expresses the problem as they see it, understand it and feel it.

Once you have the new definition of the problem, you can begin to brainstorm ideas for tackling it.


If you want to learn how to find more about creative thinking techniques, take a look at my eBook, Creativity at Work.


About the author: Alan Barker is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited, a training and coaching consultancy that helps people communicate and think more effectively. Alan is a member of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and the European Speechwriter Network. He’s the author of Creativity at Work and How to Write an Essay.


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