Understanding creative problem solving (and how it leads to success)

Published on January 3, 2021
creative problem solving

Why is creative problem solving important? Because it is such a valuable skill for every knowledge worker out there.

But it takes years to develop the right frame of mind in order to come up with creative solutions to complex problems that don't have obvious resolutions.

After all, brilliant thinking doesn't appear out of thin air. It is the result of deeply understanding your field of work and thinking toward the solution of well-defined problems.

Here Office Topics will take a closer look at this valuable skill that can drive business and innovation forward. We will also break down the process into actionable steps that you can use within your organization in order to tackle the challenges ahead of you.

Creative problem solving definition

what is the definition of creative problem solving

Creative problem solving is a process of solving complex problems with innovative solutions. CPS is a planned process that consists of three main stages:

  1. Problem definition.
  2. Idea generation.
  3. Applying solutions.

Creative problem solving has built some of the biggest companies we admire today. But Elon Musk did not come up with his brilliant ideas overnight. Steve Jobs didn't build Apple on a whim. It is all the result of years of research, trial and error, and innovation.

If you are a naturally creative person, then you have probably been using this sequence of problem solving without even realizing it. However, we are going to break down these stages even further to make the entire concept a lot clearer. Here is a framework that you can try.

Creative problem solving steps

A solution to a problem is not simply discovered out of nowhere. Creative problem solving takes time and careful planning. To make the process a little bit simpler, you can break it down into actionable steps that force you to think creatively and analyze your situation.

Below you will find a template of steps and methodologies that you can follow in your creative problem solving endeavors. Keep in mind that some of these steps may not apply to your line of work and the type of your organization.

Problem identification

This is a vital step of the process. Doubly so when you are dealing with elusive problems.

For instance, you might be trying to reduce the expenses of your company when it would actually make more sense to grow it and increase your profits.

Figuring out the root cause (creative problem solving questions)

how to find the cause of the problem

There is a saying that the word why is always an accusation. So, let's use it sparingly when we talk to our colleagues and replace it with "what are the reasons" for this and that. So, ask yourself "what is the reason" for solving the problem you are dealing with?

Write down the answer and ask yourself again what makes this the problem?

Repeat this at least five times. This way you will paint a clear picture of the situation and might come to the realization that you need to shift your focus.

There is no need to limit yourself. You can also ask additional questions such as:

  • What do you want to accomplish in the next six months?
  • What are your current limitations?
  • Has anyone else dealt with this problem and how have they solved it.
  • Which kind of brings us to the next point.

Research the problem (How to enhance creative problem solving skills through research)

Improving creative problem solving skills takes dedication and focus. In order to grasp the entirety of the problem you are trying to solve, you need to direct your efforts toward researching it. This may entail a comprehensive investigation or just a little digging around.

So, how do you approach all this?

Sure, firing up the trusty old search engine is one way to start but consider the possibility of visiting one of those modern state-of-the-art libraries where each subject has its own dedicated book written by experts in the respective field.

Of course, you can consult with colleagues in the office who may know a thing or two about what you are trying to achieve. And of course, you can utilize the power of social media. Surely you will find some relevant Facebook groups.

It is all about approaching the problem at hand from multiple angles to see the bigger picture.

State the challenges

Now, in order to come up with a creative solution for your problem, you need to clearly state the challenge ahead of you. For example, "getting richer" might be your problem but "finding a better paying job" or "starting your own business" would be the proper challenges to overcome as part of creative problem-solving techniques in entrepreneurship.

The key notion here is to keep your statements simple and straightforward. Also, do not alter them with criteria because those would be limiting factors.
For example, "how do I start my own business with minimal risk" is a challenge that includes criteria so your creativity might be limited.

Brainstorming and Ideation

creative problem solving through brainstorming

Thus, our journey to achieve creative problem solving reaches its most exciting point.

Let your creative juices flow and enrich the bubbling dish of innovation. Or whatever it is that you are trying to achieve

You can just sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and write down a few ideas. Or you can gather your team, fire up a few screens and a multimedia projector, and spend the day brainstorming.

And if you'd like to check a few alternative ways to brainstorm, then you can take a look at this useful amalgamation of methods that you can try later.

But when it comes to idea generation, just make sure to write everything down.

Even the ideas that sound bad or ridiculous.

Keep in mind that you can be your very own worse criticizing voice so don't limit yourself.

Or, in case you are generating ideas with your colleagues in the office, clearly state at the beginning of the session that all ideas are welcome, and no objections will be stated. Even the slightest sign of disapproval can silence those shy voices who might have great ideas at the end of the day.

Set a target of at least 50 ideas and get to work. Make that think pudding work and urge those around you to keep talking. Oh, and by the way, brainstorming can happen pretty much anywhere so don't limit yourself to the office space.

You can walk or go to a local coffee shop. Or a pub. After all, brilliant ideas can strike us anywhere, even under the shower.

Idea evaluation

Okay, now that the fun part is over, it's time to get to work. It's time you face that scary list of ideas and kill your darlings. Ideally, do this the next morning. Let your brain sleep on it. Our brains can quietly work on creative solutions in the background while we sleep. So when you finally read the list of 50 ideas, try to generate a few more. Take advantage of the creative thinking second wind. It's a thing.

Besides, you are free to do anything you want. You can combine ideas and remix them. You can come up with entirely new concepts. You can discover entirely new modalities of thinking. This way you will come up with your final list of ideas.

Now, formulate a bundle of criteria. This is where you need to face the hard reality of limitations. But surely some apply to you. Then criteria check each idea and mark those that fit.

Keep in mind that criteria are your moral compass. You will find that you favor some ideas more than others but ultimately you should consider those that fit your criteria best. Now that you have your final list of usable ideas, you might be tempted to jump straight into implementation. However, it would be best to evaluate the more complex ideas and maybe even seek the opinion of an expert.

Formulate an action plan

how to formulate an action plan to solve a problem

Now that you have your arsenal of well-researched ideas, it's time to face the challenges head-on. Break down every challenge into small actionable steps that you need to take. Big work projects can be intimidating, that is why it is a good way to break them down into steps and stages.

This will help you approach them with some sense of order. On the other hand, if you feel a little unmotivated to begin working, then you should check our piece on procrastination.

Innovation and creative problem solving

As we established, creative problem solving is a planned process. It does not occur spontaneously. The same applies to innovation as well. Therefore, a framework that does not utilize creative problem solving the right way is not likely to bring forth any sort of innovation within a certain field.

Also, you have to remember that there is a difference between innovation and invention. Innovating is a process that builds an existing body of work while inventing entails the creation of an entirely new entity.

Key takeaways

  • Creative problem solving is, just like innovation and invention, a planned process that requires a deep understanding of certain fields.
  • The creative problem-solving process can be broken down into actionable steps and incorporated into every framework.
  • CPS is a valuable skill for every knowledge worker and entrepreneur.
  • Additional productivity techniques such as brainstorming and various modes of thinking can enhance the CPS process.
Written by:
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Alex Alexiev
co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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