How to avoid ‘Satisficing’

Matthew E. May has written an inspiring piece for OPEN Forum about a great technique to encourage you and your team to think more creatively when problem-solving. Read it in context by clicking here, or scroll down.


I spend a good part of my professional life coaching and facilitating teams through ideation sessions, and in each one the dreaded stall point always happens. People look at the whiteboard and see nothing but unoriginal solutions, tired ideas, and boring designs. The creative tension is palpable. If the group is less than diligent, and perhaps low on coffee, it may settle for “satisficing.”

This isn’t good. It means that people haven’t expended their best thinking, so ho-hum ideas loom large and obvious. Ho-hum ideas typically don’t lead to success.

The word “satisfice” combines “satisfy” and “suffice” that Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon coined over fifty years ago in his book Models of Man to describe the default decision-making process by which we generally accept the first option that offers an acceptable payoff and stop looking for the best way to solve the problem. While satisficing helps us make it through the day, it’s deadly when you’re trying to design a compelling solution.

Here’s how satisficing works. Imagine that the Roman numberals below are sticks. Leaving the plus and equals signs where they are, what is the least number of sticks you need to move to turn the equation into a correct one?

XI + I = X

Most people get to the answer of “one” almost immediately. They jump in and start moving things around right away, seeing X + I = XI or IX + I = X as good answers, and stop at that point. But these are satisficing answers.

If you stop and think about the optimal answer to the question of “least number of sticks moved,” you’d realize that the answer ideally would be “zero.” But is that possible? Yes. Look at the equation upside down for a moment, or look at it in a mirror. You don’t need to move a single stick. If you stop for a moment, think about the question a bit more deeply and look at the problem from another perspective, the elegant solution appears.

Going back to our brainstorming effort, how do you breathe new perspective into a problem? You need to go off-road a bit with your thinking. Of all the techniques I’ve used, a fifteen-minute diversion called non-linear thinking almost always sparks something.

Let’s say your team owns a kitchen appliance company, and the problem is marketing the new refrigerator in the Arctic.

  1. Go to the dictionary, open it to any page, and pick the first noun on the page—for example: fish.
  2. Now brainstorm as many characteristics, concepts, and ideas that relate to “fish.”—for example: swim, ocean, fin, frozen, catch, boat, scale, sushi, and flop.
  3. Pick one or two of those associations and relate them back to your problem. Use them to spark creativity and new ways of thinking about refrigerators. This will help you get off the normal path of ideas associated with appliances—for example, the word “frozen” might spur the idea of selling refrigerators to Eskimos to prevent fish from freezing! Okay, so that’s a stretch, but you get the point.
  4. Now use this technique with the real problem that you’re trying solve.

The point is to get out of the satisficing box and think bigger, bolder, and different. Breakthrough thinking requires you to break through creative tension. Then, by going off-road, you can get back on track.

Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.


What do you think? How do you think? Do you have any other creative thinking tips? Share them with us here!

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