The neuroscience of complex problem solving in systems of care: Three strategies for tapping the power of your non-conscious

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problemsolveWhat happens in our brains when we solve problems?  First, consider that there are different types of problem solving in human service system reform.  There is linear problem-solving, which includes problems that have one solution and are usually often better solved analytically.  An example of a linear problem is balancing a budget.  Complex problems, however, have more than one solution and are solved much better with a different kind of thinking.  They require non-conscious thinking.  These types of problems are sometimes referred to as insight problems.  Complex problems are nonlinear vs. linear and are different in that they don’t have obvious solutions or sequential steps to follow.  These types of problems require creativity- the ability to combine information in a whole new way.  Surprisingly to many leaders we work with, rational conscious thinking is not the best way to solve these types of problems. 

Complex problems need creative solutions that come to us in the form of insights.  What exactly is an insight?  When we have an insight, as described by Mark Jung-Beeman at Northwestern University, what is not obvious becomes obvious to us.  These are also referred to as A-Ha moments.  They involve non-conscious processing and are at the heart of innovation at the individual, team and systems level.  Insight comes to us suddenly and when we are not putting our focus on the problem.  This is why you may have noticed that some of your biggest moments of A-ha have arrived in the middle of the night, in the shower, while cooking dinner, or when you were driving.  Being able to reinterpret information in a different way and pull together remotely linked ideas to create a novel solution to long standing problems is not something our conscious brain, or prefrontal cortex, is best used for.  It can actually hinder our ability to hear insights, those quiet signals our non-conscious brain sends to us when we make new connections that lead to big ideas. 

To tap into the power of your non-conscious brain, try these three strategies:

Implications for Leadership and Organizational Performance 
The biggest problems facing system of care leaders and child and family serving organizations are complex (insight) problems that have multiple ways they can be solved.  Anxiety, perceptions, and conscious rational thinking aren’t so effective for creatively solving these types of problems.  For system of care leaders, if may be extremely beneficial to consider ways to tap non-conscious resources as a strategy for increasing innovation and creativity within their organization.  This is what neuroLeaders do.  They practice flexibility in matching the mental state to the type of problem that needs to be solved. 

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a brain-based leader, click here!

Jung-Beeman, M., Collier, A. & Kounios, J. (2008).  How insight happens in the brain: Learning from the brain.  NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 20-25.  
Schooler, J.  (December, 2010).  Insight: Getting to ‘aha.’  NeuroLeadership Summit.  Lecture conducted from Boston, MA. 

About Laurie Ellington
Laurie Ellington, MA, LPC, PCC, RCC, HMCT, brings 20 years of experience in the fields of coaching, training, consulting, and behavioral medicine- helping individuals, family systems, state and local government, and non-profit organizations change the status quo.  Combining research from contemporary neuroscience, modern physics, positive psychology, systems thinking, and intelligent energy management, Laurie helps leaders use science to dramatically improve performance, accelerate change, and transform culture.  

Laurie is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Zero Point Leadership™ and co-Founder of neuroLeader University.  She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, ICF Professional Certified Coach, Certified Brain-Based Leadership Coach, and HeartMath Certified Trainer.  Laurie is also a faculty member with the Office of Personnel Management Center for Leadership Development, where she teaches government leaders the neuroscience of leadership and the science of leadership resilience. 


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