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Creative problem solving: 6 steps to improve yours

Creative problem solving, sometimes called CPS, is a proven method for approaching a problem or a challenge in an imaginative and innovative way. It helps you redefine the problems and opportunities you face, come up with new, innovative responses and solutions, and then take action. The creative problem solving approach comes from the work of Alex Osborn in the 1940s, which was then subsequently nurtured at Buffalo State University. It's one of the most tangible problem solving approaches out there today; you can view it almost as a mix of creative thinking and critical thinking.

Ted Bauer

Creative problem solving begins with two core tenets: (1) is that everyone is creative in some way, and (2) is that creative skills can be both learned and enhanced. You can think of creative problem solving along two more lines designed to foster creativity:

Divergent thinking: Brainstorming is often misunderstood as the entire Creative Problem Solving process. Brainstorming is the divergent thinking phase of the CPS process. It is not simply a group of people in a meeting coming up with ideas in a disorganized fashion. Brainstorming at its core is generating lots of ideas. Divergence allows us to state and move beyond obvious ideas to breakthrough ideas.

Convergent thinking: Convergent thinking applies criteria to brainstormed ideas so that those ideas can become actionable innovations.  Divergence provides the raw material that pushes beyond every day thinking, and convergence tools help us screen, select, evaluate, and refine ideas, while retaining novelty and newness.

A simple application you hear from devotees of creative problem solving is that divergent thinking is the "gas" in a car analogy, and convergent thinking is the "brake." You need them both to drive successfully; one is about going and one is about stopping.

What are the core processes and steps in creative problem solving?

The basic idea is comprised of four stages, with six overall process steps.

The first step of creative problem solving, and the step where you do the most work, is referred to as "Clarify." This is where the legwork comes in to get you to the right solution.

The "Clarify" stage begins with "Explore the vision," whereby you identify the goal, wish, or challenge -- and try to figure out the best potential solution. Brainstorming can come into play here. List out everything you know about the problem you're trying to solve, and point your thinking towards what you think is the right solution.

The second step in the "Clarify" stage is to gather data. We supposedly live in a very data-driven time, but if you've worked within some companies, you know the concept of being "data-driven" is in name only. In this step, you need to figure out what information you need to move towards a solution and bolster creativity. For example, let's say you're working on a project about the effectiveness of a city's entrepreneur program. You might need to pull data about the number of new business licenses applied for in the city, but then you need to get data on other cities, and ten to standardize the data, you would need to take the license number and divide it by population to get a comparable number for your city vs. other cities. This is about finding creative ideas within the gathering of data.

The third step in the "Clarify" stage is to formulate challenges. This is where you understand the big idea of the problem at hand, and you look for questions (more on that in a second) to help you define, refine, and ultimately solve for the problem at hand. This step is about finding the idea that helps you focus on the end problem.

This leads into the second stage, "Ideate," where you explore different ideas and attempt to figure out the best problem solving model across those ideas. This is also a brainstorming type process. You think of an idea, or a potential solution, and you call it out. Everything gets listed. This is about a creative problem approach -- idea after idea should be listed so that the team has a huge chunk of information and concepts to work with.

The third stage is then "Develop," where you take each different idea and begin moving towards your ultimate solution. The technique here is to run through each different idea, and think of how effective said idea could be in creating the ultimate solution to the problem at hand. Use some creativity here as well. Are there any ideas that seem dumb, but could work in the right situation? When you're in the "Develop" stage, consider some advice from Stanford University:

Geniuses make mistakes. Einstein’s work, for example, contained arithmetic errors; Bob Dylan doesn’t always hit the right note, argues Barnett. But their genius is recognized. It’s easy to overlook genius when an idea seems outside the norm. “In the search for genius, if you want genius, look for systems that create foolishness,” he says.
By foolishness, Barnett really means ideas that fall out of the consensus view. If a company only approves ideas that are within the norm, it is likely missing the unconventional but potentially groundbreaking ideas, Barnett says.

Don't ignore the foolish idea as you develop the creative problem solving model. The whole model's embrace of creativity is often rooted in finding the foolish idea that can become the solution.

Finally, the last stage is "Implement," where the plan and solution (hopefully the creative solution!) come into frame and action steps are commenced. This is where the idea becomes the reality. This is where creative problem solving reaches its own self-actualization level. This is creativity.

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Some of the core principles of creative problem solving

  • Everyone is creative.
  • Creative problem solving approaches can be both learned and enhanced.
  • Divergent and convergent Thinking must ultimately be balanced. Keys to creativity are learning ways to identify and balance expanding and contracting thinking (done separately), and knowing when to practice them
  • Frame problems as questions. The solution is more readily invited and developed when challenges and problems are restated as open-ended questions with multiple possibilities. This is a better solving process because such questions generate lots of rich information, while closed-ended questions tend to elicit confirmation bias or outright denial. Statements tend to generate limited or no response at all.
  • Reduce judgement to find additional creativity. As Osborn learned in his early work on brainstorming, the instantaneous judgment in response to an idea shuts down idea generation. There is an appropriate and necessary time to apply judgement when converging.
  • Focus on "Yes, and" rather than "No, but." When generating information and ideas, language matters. “Yes, and…” allows continuation and expansion, which is necessary in certain stages of the problem solving approach. The use of the word “but” – preceded by “yes” or “no” – closes down conversation, negating everything that has come before it.

In sum, then: be open-minded, don't shut down conversation, and find different ideas to get at the croot of the problem which needs to be solved. Creativity comes from a mass of ideas being whittled down to the ideas that will solve the problem in the most tangible, long-term manner.

Don't be a problem solver in your career. Be a problem anticipator.

This can sound a little gloomy. Who wants to be a "problem anticipator" and always looking out for the next problem? In reality, though, it might be a good way to think about your career:

Don't just be a problem solver ... try to anticipate issues and problems. Those people who become very good at not just overcoming obstacles but anticipating what could go wrong and put plans in place to mitigate it stand out.

This is somewhat akin to the idea of "blocking and tackling" or managing up, where the main thing you focus on is clearing obstacles from your boss. If you can manage the main problem your boss is facing at a given time, you'll consistently be an office superstar.

Collective creativity and a creative problem approach

Collective creativity is an approach driven by Linda Hill, and largely detailed in this video. The idea is that most companies operate off a strict hierarchy, where the people at the top are expected to show creativity and that creativity will then filter down to how the rest of the organization completes tasks. Instead, Hill argues that creativity should be held by all, and it should filter up instead of down, which upsets the conventional idea of how a hierarchy works. This is a creative problem approach, and Hill has been lauded for it. Now, the obvious concern with this otherwise innovative solution is that people with power generally do not like to give up power, so a kind of collective innovation process might not sit well with executives. It's still worth a try, though; it's an important technique for getting the best ideas, from the most people, out into the open.

How does Fingerprint for Success help with innovation and creative problem solving?

We have features including AI and human coaching, as well as culture mapping -- which can provide you innovative ideas about how to best use your people. We also have use cases around team performance, resolving conflict, and entrepreneurial skills. All of these use cases, coaching approaches, and features can help you find new, creative solutions to the problems in your org -- and even your personal life!

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