Creative Problem Solving

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

How to solve problems creatively in the workplace.

According to the adage, the only certainties in life are death and taxes. But in today’s busy world, you should probably add a third: problems. While we often think we have too many problems, the world would be pretty dull of there were none. Nevertheless, it would be nice to be more efficient, more creative, and generally better at handling the problems that come our way.

Why aren’t we better problem solvers? Is this something only bright, experienced people do well? Do you have to be born with the ability? Relax, we are all creative, innovative, and good at solving problems. It’s more a case of our having forgotten how to be creative, not wanting to solve the problem or being afraid to try, rather than not being able.

“What?” you say, “I haven’t had a bright idea in years. I’m just not like that.” Nonsense! You were a child once, and you have never met a child who wasn’t creative, imaginative, and full of curiosity. Just one example of this is what happens when you give a four-year-old a toy tool set.

Usually these sets contain hammers and saws made from plastic so they can’t do much damage. This is because everything the child sees now becomes something that must be fixed by being hit or cut. This is natural imagination at work.

How do we lose this ability to use our imagination and be creative? Unfortunately the culprits are educational systems and business, the organizations that need creative problem solving the most. Our creativity is extinguished in school because it is seldom valued. We experience years of classes in which we are taught that there is only one right answer to a question. Psychologists call this convergent thinking. The teacher knows the one correct answer and we must find it. We would be better off if we taught divergent thinking, the idea that there may be one problem but that there are many correct or workable solutions.

The business world works in the same manner; we tend to reward people for doing the same things the same way and not rocking the boat with questions about why we do it this way or suggestions for change. Often we simply get stuck doing something the same way and neglect to think up ways of doing it differently.

This happened to George a friend of mine who moved to the country and started raising a few chickens as a hobby. He soon found himself with more eggs than he needed. George figured he could solve this problem easily by putting an “Eggs For Sale” sign at the gate. Three weeks went by and no one had come to buy any eggs. That evening his wife found him making a second sign just like the first one. “George,” she said, “why are you making another sign?” “Because,” he explained, “the first one isn’t working.” George needed a new solution to his problem, not just more of the same old approach.

People who are uncomfortable solving problems believe that if they complain about something often and loudly enough, somebody else will fit it for them. This is really self-defeating and the coward’s way out. One of Murphy’s laws is, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Most people can think up good solutions to their problems, but they never bother. What’s worse, when someone else solves the problem, they just complain about the new solution.

People like this may be reluctant to tackle problem solving because they are afraid of making changes, looking foolish, being criticized, disturbing traditions, losing the support of the group, or making a mistake. Often people suffer from mental blocks that prevent them from being creative. Mindlessly listening to people who admonish you to be logical, follow the rules, be practical, or avoid ambiguity will stifle your creative efforts.

Similarly, believing that playing with ideas is frivolous or that you are not creative can interfere with the development of new ideas. And others around you often hamper your creative efforts by making critical comments: “That’s dumb” or “We’ve never done it that way” or “It’ll never work.”

The most progressive businesses not only allow creative problem solving to take place in their organizations, but they also encourage it, reward it, and teach people how to do it. They know the company that wants to be in business tomorrow can’t rely on today’s methods alone. New and innovative approaches are essential to gaining and maintaining a competitive edge.

Most people are creative and everyone can learn to be more creative. There are many books, programs, and seminars that can help you develop your creativity. Some of the most forward-looking companies go to great lengths to train their employees in creative problem solving. Often this is coupled with an incentive or reward system that shares the benefits with the employee or team that came up with the new idea.

People generally enjoy learning how to unleash their creative abilities. Most workshops emphasize teamwork, brainstorming and an approach to problems that encourages innovative and unusual solutions. Here are two puzzles you might try to see if you can be creative.

1. Make a 6 out of the following symbol by adding only one line: IX

2. Join all nine dots on the following diagram with four straight lines. You may not lift your pencil or go over any line twice.

X X X
X X X
X X X

Creativity is necessary at all levels of business: on the shop floor, in the office, in the salesroom, and especially at the management level. One of the most underused resources we have is our people and their brains. A small investment in developing creative problem solvers can pay great dividends for any firm wanting to tap the huge reserves of ideas just waiting to be unleashed.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.