Before we look at the various techniques we can use to stimulate our ability to solve problems and devise creative solutions we need to spend a little time understanding how we think.

Marvellous Pattern Matching

God has made our brains marvellously. Think for a moment about how you can recognise one face in a crowd when you see it. Unless there was some really distinctive characteristic, like a scar or a birth mark, you would find it very hard to describe a face to someone so they could recognise the person. Your description would fit a lot of people. Show the other person a photograph, however, and most times they would be successful in recognising the person for whom you are looking.

Take a Moment

  • Think about how you would describe a face in general terms and write down the rules that you think of. (This is not how to identify a specific individual but simply how to recognise that a face is a face).
    • You will need to describe the features of a face. (e.g. how would you describe a nose or an eye for instance.)
    • Having written down some rules remember the exceptions too. g. hair is on top of the head and the chin has no hair except when the person is bald and has a beard and so on.)

It’s not so easy to write down rules that help to recognise that a face is a face.

You can not only recognise what a face is but you can recognise who that face belongs to. Just think of how many people you recognise: Family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and people you see on TV or at the cinema or in photographs in magazines and newspapers. People you see now and people you used to see in the past.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people.

Facial recognition software finds the task of recognising individual faces very difficult. We can match real people to 2 dimensional photos but facial recognition systems find this too difficult to be reliable. The best systems use 3 dimensional models and then also analyse the surface texture of the skin. But they can be defeated by a range of factors such as light reflection from eye glasses.  God made us with competent facial recognition as standard.

Basically our brains work by building and matching patterns. We store the patterns of all those faces in our memories and can then pick out and identify one or more individuals we know from a crowd. We do this without thinking and without rules because our brains match patterns. What is so simple and straightforward for us is very, very difficult for computers

Our pattern matching processes are not confined to visual images but determine how our brains handle all the information we receive and process. So, when abstract information is presented to us we attempt to associate it with other information in some form of pattern. This leads to difficulties which limit how well we can solve problems.

One issue with pattern matching is that when our brains receive information concerning new, or slightly, but significantly different situations they force fit that information to previously formed patterns. This artefact of our brain processes means that we can miss new patterns and important differences.

Building patterns in our minds

Let’s look at this with this simple illustration using shapes.

We are going to receive information represented by a series of triangles. We take these and associate them into some kind of pattern which we then use to process subsequent triangles. We do this because it’s the easiest thing for our brains to do and for this reason it’s been said that we have “lazy brains”.

So here we go, the first triangle appears.

The next one appears and we see that we can associate the triangles in a way that makes a square.

A third triangle appears. We recognise this now in line with pattern we have built. It’s the first half of a square.

The fourth triangle is easy. It’s the next part of that unfinished square.

So now we have set up the pattern that recognises the association between squares and triangles. It looks good and it works.

  • Take a Moment
    • What observations do you have about the pattern we have just made and the associations it implies?


The patterns we make are dependent upon how we receive the information; that is the volume and order in which we receive it.

  • Take a Moment
    • If all four triangles arrived at the same time what patterns would we make?


There are many different patterns we can construct from 4 right-angle triangles. Even the patterns I have illustrated are limited in the ways that the shapes are assembled.  It’s interesting that when I first drew them it never occurred to me that there were other legitimate ways I could assemble them.

  • Take a Moment
    • In what other ways can you make patterns from the triangles?


Here are some more ways we can assemble them into patterns.

Force fitting patterns

Now back to the squares.

  • Take a Moment
    • What happens when we receive triangles of a different type and shape? For instance isosceles triangles?
      • Following the original pattern how would you fit them together?

Following the path of least resistance we would fit them together in a similar way to the right-angle triangles. We see they are triangles, identify our well proven triangle patterns and make a skewed square, a parallelogram.

However, whilst this is a legitimate pattern it’s not the natural pattern for isosceles triangles. With more triangles they readily form a hexagon and hexagons fit together very neatly.

Growing well-trodden pathways

This pattern building process is rather like the way that footpaths naturally arise across an area of grass.  First one person takes the natural route, then another and another. Each time the grass is flattened some more. More and more people use the emerging path because it’s the easiest route so the grass wears out and the path hollows out, giving the landscape a memory. We may not travel that way for a while but when we do the well-trodden path is still there to follow.

Similarly, the patterns we build in the way we think become well-trodden pathways and we continue to use them even though they limit our ability to process information and respond to situations appropriately. In fact they can lead us to wrong conclusions and actions. When we come across a problem, a challenge or an opportunity our lazy brains tend to force fit the facts to a previous pattern. That pattern includes a solution, one that may have been right last time but is not right this time. The result is that we think we have solved the problem but it keeps coming back.

Another metaphor for this process is how flowing water on seemingly flat land begins to follow a path.  As more water flows those paths become rivulets, small at first but soon they become channels, then streams, then rivers, then great arteries in the landscape governing the movement of water, people and commerce.

Similarly, like a river cutting a channel our thoughts form patterns and as they flow these patterns are reinforced. They become ingrained, determining our perspectives and outlooks, directing the way we think now and in the future. They determine the way we analyse situations and constrain the repertoire of strategies with which we respond.

We are trained to think, or are we?

Take a look at this image.  What do you see?

Was it just black shapes or did you see something else? Take a look at the next version of the image.  The problem is that we naturally look at the strong images and when we were taught to read we were taught that the important stuff was in the black marks on the page.

So we can see the way we have been taught affects the way we look at things and the way we think. Edward de Bono calls this vertical thinking and it applies to other areas too. Think about mathematics for instance. We have generally been taught to solve mathematical problems in a procedural way.

  • Take a Moment
    • There is a knock-out soccer competition in which 255 teams are entered.
      • How many matches are needed to find the competition champions? Have a go, but don’t pause the video but come up with answer in the 10 seconds before we move on.

What was your answer?

You probably haven’t completed it yet. Pause the video and see where you get to.

Most people start with the model of the classic competition tree structure in your mind’s eye. The ladder with teams paired off and the winners moving on to the next round and so on. You were probably confused by the odd number as it means that were would have been a bye in the first round at least. Then it gets confusing. You would be trying to calculate how many matches in each round.

Those of you who were familiar with another pattern, that of binary numbers, may have quickly got to 255 matches less one (256 is a binary value.) But you probably did not get there within the ten seconds or so of the pause. You were using a short cut to complete the same “How many matches in a round” calculation. But that short cut would only work where the number of teams was close to an obvious a binary number. It wouldn’t easily work with 223, for instance. But you would have been looking for another way of doing the calculation. (If you want to understand binary numbers then see what you can find on the internet.)

Both of those approaches focused on the number of match winners at each stage of the competition. Both used procedural methods that we have been taught.

There is another approach which considers the losers.

  • How many losers will there be in the competition? 254
  • How many losers are there in a match? 1
  • Therefore there must be 254

This approach is quite different than the way we have normally been taught to think and it would work for any number of teams in a knock out competition.

So, from each of these illustrations, the triangles, the black shapes and the football competition, we can see that if we look at things from a different perspective we can find different approaches to the problems, challenges and opportunities that we face. Otherwise our ability to find solutions to the challenges we face is limited, perhaps even blocked by the way we think, how we have been educated and trained.

Switching Tracks

Using another metaphor, the way we think is like running along railway tracks, we are constrained by how we think just as a train is constrained by the tracks.

Henry Ford is attributed with these words:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Albert Einstein is attributed with this insight:

“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The essence of both quotes is that if we desire to see a different outcome to that with which are familiar, we need to do things differently.

The problem is enabling ourselves to think differently. We need to switch tracks, gain a different perspective and, through different thinking, find new, different, innovative solutions. Switching tracks breaks the patterns of our thinking and allows us to reassemble the information we have in ways different to our regular patterns of thought.

Edward de Bono calls this change in perspective “Lateral Thinking” and the process of switching tracks he calls “provocation”. That is provoking different perspectives and different ways of thinking (Lateral Thinking, Penguin). Roger von Oech likens it to a “Whack on the Side of The Head” (Warner Books).

Such an ability to think in new ways allows us to gain new insights and devise creative solutions to the challenges we face; to innovate. In our context we will define creativity as “the generation of novel and useful ideas” (David Hall, The Ideas Centre). This what we seek to do with creative thinking; to generate ideas which, when put into practice, do things in new and different ways. Not for the sake of being new and different but because the outcomes are better.

There are many tools we can use to help us switch tracks and gain the advantage of these different perspectives. We will look at some of these approaches in this lesson. The books referred to in the Bibliography provide the details of many different tools which can stimulate creative thinking.

The benefits of thinking creatively

The benefits of addressing these issues with our thinking include:

Resolving resilient problems

We find that some problems seem to defy solution – they are resilient, they won’t go away. There is no way we can find to resolve them. There are some problems (often called “wicked” problems) that do indeed defy solution. All we can do is respond as best we can. However, sometimes the problem does not defy a solution, it’s just that we cannot find the solution. When this happens we are probably constrained by our habitual ways of thinking. We need new perspectives to allow new and creative thinking to find the solution.

Resolving recurrent problems

These are those problems that we think we have fixed but they keep coming back. When this happens we have probably forced the situation to fit a similar pattern to one we encountered before and applied the solution belonging to that pattern. We have been unable to see the issue as it really is, forcing it to be the same as another issue we had already solved. The result is that the solution we apply is at best only partial. Thus the problem seems to be fixed but re-emerges some time later.

Successfully Addressing Opportunities

Opportunities are really special types of problem. Nothing is going wrong but there is an opportunity to gain some kind of advantage. So, in order to avoid turning this opportunity into a recurrent problem we need to find the best, appropriate approach. Creative thinking helps us look at it from various perspectives and enables us to find innovative ways of successfully exploiting the opportunity.

Finding new and better ways of doing things

In The Effective Practices of a Servant Leader we saw one leadership practice that was called “Challenging the Process”. This was about finding ways to do things better so that our team can be more effective. Creative thinking allows us to meet this challenge. It also allows us to see opportunities we never knew were there and find ways to develop new services and solutions in our ministry.

Keeping in Step with God

As we apply our God given faculties we need to do so prayerfully and carefully in order to ensure that we are going God’s way.

We need to ask for God’s wisdom, guidance and insight as we seek to understand the issues, gain different perspectives and determine a solution.

When we asses our ideas and choose a solution to the challenge we need to engage with God in prayer that his guidance might be included in the assessments process.