There is a silent, and thus often overlooked creativity killer lurking in your work life. It's not obvious like an over-controlling manager, a nay-saying client, or a fear of failure. It's something that many people never consider, but is just as devastating to your ability to generate and execute great ideas.

It's a lack of a clear definition for the problem you're actually trying to solve. 

If you ask many people about their work, they will recite a list of projects they are accountable for or tasks that they need to accomplish, but there is often a lack of clarity of how they tie back to the core problem(s) that they or their clients or organization are actually trying to solve. As a result, it is often challenging for them to gain focus and achieve meaningful progress because they have lost sight of the ultimate objective. They make great progress on their projects, but they are unable to achieve intuitive breakthroughs.

Focus is a finite resource. Thus, how you choose to allocate your finite attention often determines your ultimate success or failure in your work and dramatically affects the kinds of ideas that your mind will allow into consideration when working on a problem. It's easy for a project to become a solution in search of a problem. For example, a project like "build a website for the client" becomes the assumed  solution rather than one option among many for achieving their goals. As Abraham Maslow remarked, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

How To Gain Clarity

One tactic I've discovered seems to work well for individuals and teams in helping them achieve better  focus is to establish challenges, which are essentially clearly defined problem statements associated with each project. Challenges help you better establish what you're really trying to do, and clarify the edges of your work so that you are not wasting time on activity that isn't contributing meaningfully to the ultimate objective.

If you feel stuck on a project, you may need to establish challenges to help you gain traction. As a starting point, list your top several projects or responsibilities, and ask the following questions for each:

  • What outcome am I/are we actually trying to achieve with this project? How can I state that as a problem to be solved rather than a project to be completed?
  • How do I/we define success for this project? How will I clearly know we've achieved it? How will I know if we've failed?
  • Is there any activity that I/we are currently engaging in that isn't really helping to accomplish the ultimate objective? What should we do about it?

There is no magic bullet for having great ideas, but establishing a clear definition of what you're actually trying to accomplish is a great step in that direction. Don't allow  assumptive behavior or a lack of clarity to rob you of your best work.