In a world that is driven by technology and innovation it is incredibly important to employers to find people that are able to keep up with this changing environment. Moreover, they want employees that can contribute to driving this change through their ability to offer innovative solutions to problems.
In other words, they need creative problem-solvers. If you catch yourself thinking, ‘I’m not very creative, I might struggle with this’ – don’t worry. Creative problem-solving is less about having an innate ability to be creative and more about adopting a certain attitude. It means pushing yourself beyond conventional ways of thinking, looking beyond what has been done before and trying out fresh perspectives to find novel solutions.
Creative problem solving was first formalized by Alex Osborn, the same person who gave us the term ‘brainstorming’, in the 1940s. According to Osborn, the key to creatively solving problems is balancing divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking describes the process of generating many different potential solutions and ideas – aka brainstorming. Convergent thinking is about evaluating options and picking the best ones. Crucially, these two types of thinking have to be done separately; Osborne found that judging ideas too quickly tends to shut down the process of idea generation. His 4-step plan for creative problem-solving looks like this:
This is where you identify your problem or challenge and collect as much information as you can about it to develop a clear understanding of it. Once you’ve done that, try to rephrase the problem as an open-ended question. This will make it much easier to come up with solutions. You may also want to set some criteria that you’ll use to evaluate potential solutions later on.
This is where your divergent thinking will take place as you try to come up with as many possible solutions to your problem. Note everything (!) down and remember to withhold judgment for now. You might want to try different brainstorming tools and techniques such as writing a mind map to organize your ideas. This is the key stage in creative problem solving so don’t limit yourself and if you’re working in a group make sure everyone’s ideas are taken into account without judgment.
Once you’ve finished generating ideas you can move on to the evaluation stage. Return to your criteria to narrow down your list: you’ll probably see several ideas fall away quite quickly. Then move on to picking the ones that have the most potential and that fit your criteria best. Also consider how these can be strengthened and tweaked to become that ultimate solution.
When you’ve identified your solution it’s time to make a plan: what actions do you need to take and when? Which resources do you need? How will you communicate your plan to your peers so that everyone understands it and knows how they’re involved in implementing the solution?
Osborne’s model for creative problem solving is based on two core assumptions, namely that everyone can be creative and that creative skills are something you can teach yourself. The key is to push yourself to come up with as many ideas as you can and keeping an open mind to any and all suggestions in that crucial exploration stage.
How you generate your ideas is completely up to you. Try out different brainstorming techniques to see what works best and also consider other circumstances that may influence your creativity: does sitting in a quiet office do nothing for you? Go somewhere else! Perhaps you need a cup of coffee, or to speak to someone who inspires you. Whatever it is, you’ll find that once you get yourself into that optimum thinking space, the ideas will start flowing in no time.
Thomas Wharton is President of LIFOCUS CAREER SERVICES an Executive Coaching and Career Coaching firm in Rhode Island, providing Career & Transition Coaching, Outplacement, Executive Coaching, and Assessments. Tom can be reached at 401.884.7959 • firstname.lastname@example.org. • www.lifocus.com •@careercoachTW