Promoting Creative Problem Solving

Problem Solving and Creativity

Creative individuals, whether they are employees or leaders, are different from their less creative counterparts.

  • Creative people have a wide range of knowledge and are very observant.
  • While most creative people are smart; they do not have to be extraordinarily brilliant. Their gift is the ability to generate alternative solutions to problems.
  • Creative people are usually self-confident but not arrogant.
  • Creative people tend to be persistent and are able to work alone.
  • While many creative people are nonconformists, and do not require group approval of their ideas, they also tend to enjoy and get along with other people.
  • Creative people can tolerate ambiguity.
  • Creative people also believe that they have the internal resources to solve problems.
  • Creative people have a passion for their work. They frequently enjoy a sense of flow in their work. This state includes intrinsic motivation, intense concentration and absorption in their work. A highly creative leader will often experience a sense of flow while developed a plan for the worldwide distribution of their product or service.
  • Interestingly, many creative individuals had tough childhoods. Divorce, financial problems, or other family upheavals are common in the backgrounds of many creative people. Early on their pursuit of new ideas served as a means of escape from the personal turmoil surrounding them.

It is essential to overcome rigid, traditional thinking about a problem. For example:

  • A creative person needs to be able to think about a problem outside the rigid, restrictive framework that is ordinarily utilized. This is often discussed as “thinking outside the box.”
  • Creative people need to avoid rigid categories, such as defining roles and expectations based on categories such as gender. Men can be masterful nurses and women can be accomplished neurosurgeons. Both men and women can be effective, nurturing parents and teachers.
  • Creative people are able to come up with new prototypes. For example, instead of treating business suppliers as if they are poor relations, creative organizations form respectful partnerships with suppliers to the mutual benefit of them both.
  • Creative people are able to move beyond the usual and ordinary way of looking at things and placing things into familiar categories. Creative marketing by Saturn’s salaried, no-haggling sales force kept the company with more orders than they could fill for years.
  • Creative people know that conventional wisdom and traditional mindsets are not always accurate. For example, conventional wisdom held that gamblers demand glamour and glitz and that Native Americans would be harmed by opening gambling casinos. Instead the casinos made millions and the quality of life and pride on the reservations improved.
  • Creative people recognize the value of lateral thinking. While vertical thinking which is analytical and logical can lead a thinker to a single best solution to a problem, lateral thinking spreads out the possibilities resulting in a number of possible solutions.

The creative process tends to involve several steps.

  • The first element in the creative process happens when a problem or an opportunity is recognized.
  • Once an opportunity or problem is identified the individual focuses on the problem and immerses him or herself in learning all they can about the topic.
  • Allowing time to pass is the critical next step. A person who has been immersed in information about a topic needs time for the information to incubate. Over a period of time the brain will work with the information, usually unconsciously, to rearrange it into meaningful new patterns.
  • Next, at some unexpected time, perhaps while exercising, or on the verge of falling asleep the newly arranged information will give the creative person a flash of insight as to a solution to the problem. This experience has often been described as an “Aha!” experience.
  • Once a solution has presented itself it is important that an individual verify the veracity of their insight as well as possible applications of it.

Promoting Creativity

A creative leader is a visionary who can conceive and develop new ideas or things or find new uses for previously existing things that meet current and future marketplace needs. In order for creative problem-solving to spread it is essential to establish a climate conductive to creative thinking. Under the proper circumstances an organization may foster organizational creativity resulting in the development of a useful new product, service or idea not to mention developing new solutions to problems.

The following are important factors contributing to corporate creativity:

  • The interests and actions of all employees in a company are focused on key company goals. Sharing fundamental goals makes it more likely that any individual employee will be able to recognize and respond to potentially good ideas when they come upon them.
  • An organizational environment that is flexible and fosters personally-initiated activities which are a primary contributor to corporate creativity. This allows employees to select a problem they are interested in and which they think they may be able to solve. Intrinsic motivation is much higher if employees can choose a problem which interests them rather than simply being given an assignment to fulfill.
  • Creative activity is often unofficial which shields it from resistance by a company because the idea is novel or different from the usual and customary way of doing things.
  • Serendipity is very frequently a major element in new discoveries. Serendipity involves discoveries being made by accident. Something unexpected happens that an insightful person recognizes as having potential benefits.
  • The opportunity to receive or experience diverse information. One never knows when a bit of information or an observation will spark an insight for a person who is pursuing an unrelated problem.
  • Communication among employees about the diverse information they have received and the possibilities that the information suggests to them is critical.
  • Within-company communication facilitates creativity. While this is more easily accomplished in smaller companies, creative potential expands with the size of the organization provided that there are systems in place to encourage the sharing of information. One never knows when some employee in the production line or in customer service might come up with an insightful idea that would never occur to those in planning and development because of the special input these employees have through their jobs.

The following are some organizational methods to enhance creative problem solving:

  • An executive decision to establish a requirement for idea generation. While most of the ideas generated may not be useful, it is likely that a few good ones will emerge.
  • Brainstorming is the best known method of improving creativity. Brainstorming involves a group of individuals offering ideas, no matter how far-fetched, that might solve a problem. Then other group members suggest ways which might make the original ideas work. Careful notes are kept by an appointed note taker so that no vital ideas are lost.
  • Another form of brainstorming involves employees presenting personal pet peeves or customer complaints. This is most effective if the complaints are presented in a humorous, exaggerated manner. For example from the personal department, “Potential employees think our job is to randomly shred resumes without looking at them.”
  • Another common technique to release creativity is to insist that individuals or groups solve a problem by making associations between properties of two objects. For example, a word is selected from the dictionary and the group is required to list the properties and characteristics of the word. Group members then must use the named properties and characteristics describing the sample word to the problem at hand. If the word apple was randomly selected from the dictionary and the group named its characteristics as sweet, tart, tasty, red, yellow, green, round and reasonably priced. From this list the group selects two attributes that they think might be useful in solving their problem. For example if swimsuits designs were being considered for next season, green or green prints might be a good color to offer, especially if they were reasonably priced.
  • A takeoff on the forced-relationship method involves the group having to make word associations that relate to the problem at hand. If the leader felt that the company needed to find a way to increase exposure of a product the group would be asked free associate with the word exposure. Some possible associations might be “revealing,” “displaying,” “bringing to light,” “introducing,” “experiencing,” “spotlighting,” “publicizing,” etc. These words would then be used to come up with ideas for promoting the specific product that would broaden its exposure to a larger potential customer base.
  • Businesses need to develop creativity rooms to help people loosen up intellectually and emotionally in order to be more creative. Some of these rooms contain items such as Frisbees, stuffed animals, wastepaper basketball goals as well as DVDs, VCRs and multimedia computers. More important that the items in the room is the existence of a communal meeting place where people can get together to think creatively. Disney had its own version of the Gong Show. Several times a year any employee who thought they had a good idea could present it live, in-person to management. The worst thing that could happen was that the gong might sound; on the other hand the idea might be found to be viable.

Research tends to support the idea that training in divergent (lateral) thinking is more successful when it is applied within a work group than training single individuals because group training fosters greater support for and acceptance of lateral thinking. As a supervisor you can help facilitate creativity among team members by avoiding behaviors and attitudes that thwart creativity. For example, an extremely authoritarian stance, one that is rigid and close-minded, discourages creativity. On the other hand, an environment that encourages employees to think freely can enhance problem-solving. Once offered ideas must withstand a plethora of evaluations and judgments. Great creative ideas have the potential to bring substantial rewards to a company. However, if these innovative ideas are never brought up because of a highly restrictive workplace environment, potential benefits to the company are lost.

Leaders can establish a climate to encourage creative thinking by doing the following:

  • Try to match people with the right assignment. Employees should be offered a challenging goal but not an overwhelming one for them.
  • Employees should be able to choose how they can best work on a project. Creative people should be given flexibility and a minimal amount of structure.
  • Creative groups need to be adequately funded and timeframes should be realistic. While the goal of getting a man to the moon and back in ten years was a challenge, it was a reasonable goal because of the competition from the Soviet Union and the intense desire for the US to be the first nation to accomplish such a mission. False or impossibly tight deadlines can zap energy, reduce creativity and cause burnout.
  • Be sure that creative people have the tools and resources to allow their work to really shine. If you want high-quality output you usually need to invest in high-quality input, such as state-of-the-art equipment.
  • Select creative people to manage other creative employees.
  • Work groups should be encouraged to be mutually supportive and should be drawn from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Experience and intuition are vital tools for a supervisor when establishing the right chemistry within a work group.
  • The organization should recognize the benefits of creative endeavors and support them.

Developing Creativity

One of the keys to becoming more adept at solving problems creatively is to practice strategies that encourage mental flexibility. The goal is to learn how to tap into intuitive processes and mental flexibility is a valuable tool towards that goal.

Some suggestions of ways to enhance your creativity include:

  • Practicing creativity-enhancing activities such as working crossword puzzles
  • Making it a habit to stay alert for opportunities. Don’t you wish you had noticed the need of consumers for overnight mail/package delivery, bottled water, organized closets, or gourmet coffee?
  • Use all your senses when you are looking for solutions to problems. For example, what kind of look and feel should a display have? Would the addition of scents further the reception of your product? Should dealers be able to try out a product to get a kinesthetic sense of what the customer would experience?
  • Keeping an enthusiastic outlook. Creativity is enhanced by a positive, hopeful attitude; a critical, judgmental attitude limits creative alternatives.
  • Talking with lead users of your product or service whenever possible. A person who is on the leading edge of an industry is called a lead user. Lead users are continually making improvements in products so that products are tailored to meet new opportunities. At the very minimum attend professional conventions and trade meetings and talk with others who also work in your business.
  • Making it a habit of carrying an idea notebook to jot down ideas whenever you think of them. How many great ideas have been designed on napkins in a restaurant or jotted on paper in the middle of the night? The important thing is to systematically record your creative ideas and to be able to do so at home or work—even if that requires more than one notebook or computer folder.
  • Try to look at information from different points of view. It is very useful to talk with individuals in related fields. Such talks may expose you to innovative ideas or strategies that could benefit your group or project. Also try to stretch your imagination by spending a little time every day asking yourself what-if questions. What happens if xyz happens? Once the ideas have been formulated you can judge their feasibility. Finally, play the role of an advocate and try to come up with ideas that would help you in negotiating and implementing your ideas.
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