Creative Thinking Puzzle
Teaches the Art of Questioning

I stumbled across this creative thinking puzzle, the Charlie Problem in Kevin Ashton’s book How to Fly a Horse: “Dan comes home one night after work, as usual. He opens the door and steps into the living room. On the floor he sees Charlie lying dead. There is water on the floor, as well as some pieces of glass. Tom is also in the room. Dan takes one quick glance at the scene and immediately knows what happened. How did Charlie die?

Creative Thinking Puzzle (continued)

I struggled to find the solution and continued reading, a simple piece of insight brought everything into perspective and the solution became obvious. Why had I not seen this before? Determined to see if my mind was slowing down with age or if most people think exactly like I do, I posed the question to my family and their extensions who happened to be visiting. How did Charlie die? Obvious answers sprung to the fore, but however obvious the solution may be no one could jump to the right conclusion without a slight bit of prodding in the right direction.

Why could none of us stumble across the answer? Have we been conditioned to think in a certain way? Is it at all possible to change the way we think or at least attempt to teach ourselves how to do this?

Karl Duncker’s masterwork On Problem Solving was published in 1935. His thinking led to the “cognitive revolution”, a transformation in the science of brain and mind that laid foundations for reasoning in the field of how people create. Duncker’s approach was actually remarkably simple. He gave people problems to solve and asked them to think out loud as they tackled them. In doing so he documented the structure of thought.

Kevin Ashton makes a profound statement: “Thinking is finding a way to achieve a goal that cannot be attained by an obvious action.” How did Charlie die? We want to solve this problem, but before we can blurt out the obvious answer we need to think. Exactly how do we do this? How do we think? Or as Duncker expressed it: “In what way can a meaningful solution be found?”

As my small family experiment proved, we think the same, following the same structures in the problem solving process. The problem solving team consisted of my husband, a headmaster, a scholar and students in the education, engineering and accounting faculties respectively. Despite these vastly different backgrounds, Charlie’s death remained a mystery.

As Kevin Ashton points out, there is no physical thing like “creative thinking” that can magically solve the process for us. Creation is simply the place where thinking leads us. To create we must think.

One of the conclusions Duncker drew in his experiments: “If a situation is introduced in a certain perceptual structure, thinking achieves a contrary structure only against the resistance of the former structure.” For those of us that find the eloquent academic language quite challenging Ashton translates “old ideas obstruct new ones”.

Is Charlie human? This is what psychologists like to refer to as an insight. A simple nudge or push in the right direction. As soon as the Charlie Problem is perceived differently the problem is solved.

Charlie is not human. Charlie is a fish. Tom is not human. Tom is a cat. Tom bumped the fish bowl over, the water ran out and Charlie died an obvious solution.

Duncker jointly published a paper with Isadore Krechevsky On Solution Achievement which was published in the Psychological Review. In this paper both men agreed that in order to solve a problem many intermediate steps are necessary.

Creative thinking does not bring sudden shifts of perception or flash moments of inspiration. It is the process of thinking that leads to creation. We need to channel our minds into structured processes and learn how to observe, evaluate and iterate possible scenarios. Old ideas obstruct new ones, challenge conventional thinking and start looking at things from a fresh perspective.

How exactly do we do this? Start by questioning everything. Never accept what seems obvious. The right questions have the capability of sparking creative insight in new directions. Albert Einstein believed this and often repeated the words, “If only I had the right question…If only I had the right question…” Formulating the right question is the most important part in finding solutions. The process of piecing together exactly the right questions requires thinkers to stretch the imagination to new limits, sending the mind into realms of undiscovered possibilities.

The process of questioning is such an important part of creative thinking that Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen dedicated an entire chapter to it in their bestselling book The Innovator’s DNA. There is a lot of useful information that one can draw from this chapter but an extremely useful tool they have developed is a process called QuestionStorming. We are all familiar with the process of brainstorming; QuestionStorming is a similar concept except instead of brainstorming possible solutions to problems at hand you brainstorm questions. Start off by identifying a particular challenge or problem that needs solving and then proceed to record at least fifty questions relating to it. Focus on asking what is, what caused, why, why not and what if questions during the process. No side tracking is allowed as possible answers come to the surface, thinking is focused around the creation of questions only.

Richard Branson is known to keep notebooks full of questions. This process is extremely beneficial in the process of creative thinking.  Take time to record your daily questions in a notebook of some kind and make a habit of questioning everything, page through your notebooks every now and then, adding new thoughts and ideas to existing questions, and link seemingly unrelated ideas together.

Practicing the daily habit of asking questions will develop and improve your creative thinking skills. Perhaps when we are more trained in the art of questioning we might not be stumped by a simple creative thinking puzzle like the Charlie Problem above in future.

Article written by: Debra Langley| Professional Speaker| Innovative Thinker| Creativity Coach| Author|


How to Fly a Horse, Kevin Ashton, ISBN: 9780434022915, Penguin Random House UK, 2015

The Innovator’s DNA, Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton M. Christensen, ISBN: 978-1-4221-3481-8, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2011

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