How to Develop Your Creative Problem Solving Skills

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April 2019
How to Develop  Your Creative Problem Solving Skills


Let’s say you are a non-creative person at all. Or less creative in your professional area rather than in your personal life. Even if you are an artist, a songwriter, or a product name writer for IKEA (or any other job requiring the highest level of creativity involved) it doesn’t mean much when we get to creative problem solving.

An unexpected, vexing, even painful issue may pop up at any moment of your life, and burn to ashes your internal steel-firm and ready-for-challenges self. “What a brilliant solution!” Is there anybody on this planet, not willing to hear such exclamation or something of the kind from the boss, colleague or a partner, depending on the life context, every time a problem shows up? “Should be a great fortune to be a person, capable of that!” – Is that what you think? Well, all you need is something called “CPS” – creative problem solving ability and, great news – it is something one can develop.

Creative Problem Solving Skills

Creativity is all about going with the flow, they say. In professional environment where you need to deliver the expected result on time, it’s not quite true: the “flow” in its traditional sense can lead you anywhere, anytime. To make your creative processes more predictable and manageable, certain skills are required. So here’s what helps us develop creativity and start finding non-trivial solutions.

  • Self-awareness

    We often think within the preset patterns and frameworks. We allow them to define our choices and opinions without realizing that, which leads us to trivial solutions and clichés. Groupthink and other common biases hold back our creative potential, making us act and think “the right way”. Being aware of these patterns and biases opens the way to creative approaches and more efficient ways to handle problems.

  • Correct framing of the problem

    The way you solve a problem is defined by how you frame it. The ability to detach yourself from the problem and look at it from outside is what helps find the correct framing. Also, asking questions on why this is a problem and what outcome would be considered best can show the way to its efficient solution.

  • Using a system to think and analyze

    This is where creativity is not about “finding the flow”: creativity doesn’t just happen – you need to provide a framework where useful ideas can appear. Systematic thinking is what guides the process of finding ideas and helps you get rid of biases, patterns and limitations. Below in this article, we’ll take a closer look at the steps that constitute the creative problem solving system.

  • Empathy

    Being empathetic means being able to understand other people’s needs, attitudes, motivations etc. without judging them. Being empathetic helps to be understood and find solutions that work for others. It also means being open to new ideas and approaches. While you don’t necessarily need to agree with other people’s points of view, you can use their vision to develop or improve solutions that you need to deliver.

  • Constant expansion of your knowledge

    Don’t allow your knowledge, skills and ideas to stagnate! Use your free time to read more on problems you deal with, communicate within your network to learn about other professionals’ experience, and invest in your basic professional skills by taking courses and attending events.

Creative Problem Solving Algorithm

Creative way to solve problems, opposed to following the beaten track, implies generating lots of possible strategies and tactics. Finding out which is the best one is the next step. So, creativity is a dynamic balance of:

  • Divergent thinking, where you create as many different options as possible, and
  • Convergent thinking, where you boil your choice down to the viable solutions and find out the perfect one.

These two processes should be separated from each other. The best way to configure the two-step algorithm where you first create a pool of ideas and then select the best one. To optimize the algorithm, follow these simple recommendations for each step:

Recommendations for divergent thinking:

  • Defer judgement. Leave it for the next step and focus on creating as many ideas as possible – even if some of them seem absurd or even insane.
  • Combine ideas and thoughts. Use existing concepts to create new ones. Take the best parts of each of them to combine and discover new ways to solve the problem.
  • Set up the number of ideas in advance. Let’s say you go for 50 new ideas – and don’t stop until you achieve that number.

Recommendations for convergent thinking:

  • Check your ideas against your objective. Always ask the question: Does that solve the problem? Does it create new issues that would also require a solution at a later step?
  • Try to improve your ideas instead of sorting them out right away. Think of what’s good in each idea, and whether and how the not-so-good part can be fixed.
  • Be open to novelty. Don’t stick to the same old paths and formulas. Instead, give novel ideas higher priority and consider possible ways to adjust them to your purpose.

Steps of a creative problem solving process

CPS training is quite demanded, especially in the world of business. Currently, there are different methodologies and courses, aimed to help with your CPS. Top universities and scientific communities have accomplished a huge lap of researches. Most of these stem from the work of Alex Osborne, who suggested a revolutionary idea of ‘brainstorming’ in 1940, and then developed it in the assistance of Dr. Sidney J. Parnes into a doctrine of CPS and described a 6-Step Problem Solving Method. Lately, this method has become a subject of Yale’s University research, which resulted in a highly popular system adopted by thousands of companies all over the world.

In a nutshell, it’s purpose is to provide a clear sequence of actions to take in a critical situation of problem solving necessity. CRS is vital to prevent panic and a sense of complete helplessness in case of emergency or when you feel you are out of our depth. CRS will guide you and let you have your feet on the ground. All you need to do is the following step-by-step instruction:

Step 1. Understanding the situation in its unbiased truth and in the fullness of its context.

It’s not a big secret that self-preservation instinct tends to force our conscious to ignore intentionally some of the facts of the utmost potential danger. The trick will not pass. You will have to keep your eyes wide open, being aware of all the details, even if the worst comes to the worst. No panic. Remember, we’ve got a plan. Try to pay as much attention as possible to the logical connections between different events, or events and someone’s behavior, and the influence one has on the other.

Step 2. Exploring the problem.

There is a powerful technique of 5 Whys: ask yourself: “why is this a problem?”, or “why do I (my company) want to achieve this result?” As soon as you find an answer, ask yourself “why else?” for four more times. Very often we are trying to solve a wrong problem. Understanding of a cornerstone problem will help you to find a cause of this problem, which in turn, can be a step to find a possible remedy.

Step 3. Generating ideas.

You should meet a goal of 50 ideas minimum to write it all down. There is absolutely no difference whether you do it in old-fashioned handwriting or you use a voice recognition app on your smartphone instead. Finally, there should be a visible list of all the ideas, with no exceptions, that are coming to your mind. The best is to do it in a group of two and more (quantity remains the same for each participant). Exchange your ideas. Talk it over. What are the pros and cons of each approach? If there is nobody you could share it with, try to imagine this conversation with somebody that you know very well. It is OK if more ideas arise, that is actually where magic is. Just add them to the list. Sort out superior ideas.

Step 4. Evaluation and selecting.

Take a break before entering this phase. Ideally, sleep on it, and there is nothing to do with your grandma’s advice. Psychologists say that our unconscious mind will proceed the work in the direction given while we are asleep, being activated by the previous day exercises. (Has the grandma been acquainted with this theory??) If such a delay is unaffordable, let it be an hour at least, but try to switch off your thinking process. If possible, take a walk to unwind, go to the gym for a work-out, meditate, etc.

Determine which effect will each of the sorted solutions have on all the stakeholders and the situation in general. Which of these scenarios is the desired one or an optimal one?

Step 5. Implementing the solution preparing.

Once the decision is chosen, the only thing left to do is to draw a plan of carrying it out. Let it be in a step-by-step one, pointing out all the fundamental actions, leading to the goal achievement. Mark urgency. Indicate supplementary actions.

Step 6. Follow your plan!

Sounds like it’s all under control now, doesn’t it? Well, to be perfectly honest, sometimes you need to feed the flame of your creativity in the field of problem solution finding with a pinch of hand-wringing. Spare some time to practice this step-by-step CPS technique on some everyday issues to improve this process by yourself, in preparation for real life challenges to come. Very often the way, that you choose to solve a problem in a dead-end situation, as it seems to be, and the swiftness of your actions determines whether you win or lose not only in this particular round, but probably in the battle of your entire life, where the grand prize is that unsteady thing that we normally call ‘success’.

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