I've consulted companies like Microsoft and Coca-Cola on the right way to problem solve. Here are the actual skills needed to think creatively and take on leadership roles.

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    Virtual RealityReuters/Yves Herman

    • Peter Mulford is the chief innovation officer at global consulting firm BTS who has worked with companies like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and AT&T.
    •  He has helped clients navigate crises and shares how you can bring yourself through the coronavirus pandemic.
    • Trying harder and faster will only wear you out, but changing your approach to problem-solving will help you find new ways to handle today’s pressing issues.
    • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

    In this time of global crisis, it’s more important than ever to be creative and nimble in our professional lives. We’ll be facing new business problems, and we won’t be able to solve them with old approaches. Even in more regular times, there is no “business as usual.”

    Peter MulfordPeter Mulford

    For more than 25 years, I’ve worked as a consultant with BTS, helping people around the world when their companies are undergoing major transitions or facing times of tremendous uncertainty. In that time, I’ve seen over and over again that trying harder and faster will only exhaust you and your team, and it won’t achieve the results you need.

    If you can change how you solve problems, you will emerge stronger from this crisis and more ready to take on leadership roles. Here are five skills you must develop to innovate and create success:

    1. Challenge everything you know about the problem

    I once worked with a group of 400 leaders in a large tech company that had gotten stuck in a rut reusing the same strategy. Their mission for that year was to become more innovative. So I started asking them questions to jar them out of old ways of thinking: What would Walt Disney do? What would William Shatner do? How about the Incredible Hulk?

    Some thoughts and assumptions are so deeply ingrained that they’re like deep rivers running a set course in your brain. You need a way to find them and force them in new directions. Questions like the ones I used for those leaders are designed to do that — to provoke you to reexamine those assumptions and even put them on hold long enough to explore new and crazy ideas.

    Next time you tackle a problem, list everything you know to be true about it. Then, challenge everything on the list. To be truly innovative, you have to learn to challenge established norms and reimagine accepted approaches.

    2. Put people at the center of your innovation

    After a series of mergers and acquisitions, one of my clients was stuck wondering how to sell its newly acquired products and services to customers. So I directed my client to think about those customers’ problems so it could consider how its new capabilities could solve them.

    This is the essence of design thinking: centering innovation around human users. Start by looking at the who, what, and why behind every product or solution you develop. In my own work, I think about who we’re creating a solution for, what need they have that this is going to fulfill, and why they would care about what we have to offer.

    When you’re properly focused on the user, you have more clarity when asking the important business questions: Is this desirable? Is it profitable? Is it possible? In other words, is it something that will advance your business? Asking these questions allows you to nurture the creative process without abandoning common sense.

    3. Test ideas confidently, but not recklessly

    A client of mine was getting ready to make a pitch to a department head for a fundamental change that would cost $5 million to implement. My client’s low-margin business made this a major risk, so we broke it down into 10 assumptions of what has to be true for it to work.

    Instead of presenting the whole package, my client presented the first assumption for testing. And he got his proposal down from $5 million to $7,000, which allowed it to get approved and him to take one step toward executing the plan. Think about how you can take similar steps in your business.

    Even the best ideas hold a degree of uncertainty. And, unfortunately, much of conventional business wisdom focuses on minimizing uncertainty. Instead of minimizing or avoiding the unknown, however, you need techniques for testing your ideas.

    Confronting uncertainty doesn’t mean taking reckless risks. It means stepping forward systematically — and with confidence — to test an idea. You have to shift from planning and waiting to testing and learning. Ultimately, you’re asking, “What has to be true for this to work?”

    4. Think ahead and work backward

    If we’ve learned anything since the beginning of this pandemic, it’s that we never know where the next enormous disruption will come from. I vividly remember learning this business lesson a decade ago when my company was trying to forecast a few years out from 2009.

    The iPhone was still new. The iPad hadn’t even been invented yet. There were technological disruptions everywhere. So the further we stretched from 2009 in our forecasts, the fuzzier everything got.

    Instead, we jumped ahead to 2020 and imagined what the world might be like. All of a sudden, it was easy to imagine what general trends could look like a decade later and then work backward to the present and make our plans. Anything was possible.

    Your frame of reference provides helpful boundaries for dealing with present realities. But it becomes a trap when you’re planning for the future. Let your imagination loose and see where it takes you.

    Traditional business planning goes like this: Look at what you did last year, add or reduce 3% next year, and keep extrapolating the future based on the past. But it doesn’t work. There is too much static interfering with your view of the future. Even the sharpest people can miss future opportunities — and threats — if they can’t see beyond their frame of reference. To break out of this mindset, jump far into the future and work back to the present.

    5. Focus on the impact — not the details — of digital technologies

    I once worked with a client who was trying to sell a company full of nontechnical executives on the wisdom of adopting artificial intelligence and machine learning.

    She wasn’t getting anywhere, and it was because she was basically trying to turn executives into computer programmers. What worked far better was giving executives just enough background on AI for them to imagine the potential impact of these technologies on their workflows.

    This kind of digital literacy is an essential business skill. That doesn’t mean you need to be able to code in Python. Instead, it means you think about the results you’ve always wanted to achieve and reimagine how to get there by harnessing the power of new digital technologies.

    It comes back to breaking out of those rivers of thinking, the assumptions born in an era of analog technology. There are constraints we’ve lived with for years — the way things have always been done.

    What if you throw away those boundaries and start fresh? What problems could you solve using digital technologies? Shifting to a digital mindset dramatically broadens the possibilities because it lets you get stuff done that used to be financially impractical — or even physically impossible. We tend to be held back by our current technologies and our analog mindsets. Set yourself free of both and anything becomes possible.

    Even at the best of times, innovation requires a mindset shift. In times of crisis, these five skills are more essential than ever. Putting people first, working backward from the future, and questioning your assumptions will help you face these new challenges — and whatever comes after. It’s either that or keep running faster and farther for fewer rewards.

    Peter Mulford is the chief innovation officer at BTS, a management consulting and professional services firm focused on working with leaders at all levels. With a passion for learning, teaching, and innovating solutions to difficult problems, Peter works with exceptional leaders bringing innovation and strategy to life all around the world.