The creative problem solving process

Creative problem solving presents a method and techniques for approaching a problem or a challenge in an imaginative and innovative way. It is

The creative thinking process 41 generally accepted that the creative problem solving process can be broken down into six stages. These six stages are:

Objective finding - define the problem area

Fact finding - gather information

Problem finding - define the problem correctly

Idea finding - generate solutions to the problem.

Solution finding - evaluate and choose between possible solutions Acceptance findings - implement chosen ideas correctly

(See Parnes, 1992)

Each of these stages involves activities that require, first, divergent thinking, and then convergent thinking. When thinking in a divergent way, the task is to generate as many ideas and solutions as possible. There should be no limits to the ideas that are formed at this stage. Once a satisfactory level of ideas has been reached, convergent thinking must take place. The purpose of this thinking is to focus on obtaining solutions to the problem based on the ideas from the divergent thinking. These activities can be thought of as filling a funnel with ideas that go through a filter. Plenty of ideas are poured in, but only those that are useful and relevant come out. The six-stage process may be extended by the addition of further stages:

constantly analysing the environment specifying assumptions

controlling to ensure that objectives are achieved post-implementation

The techniques

One of the earliest forms of creative problem solving seems to have been brainstorming (Osborn, 1957). Its origins are somewhat obscure, but in modern times it appears to have been used as a means of focusing attention on finding new insights into problems and decisions at business meetings. A lack of structure and focus in such meetings when it came to making decisions and dealing with problems seemed to suggest that an interesting alternative approach which would evoke participant curiosity and interest might produce beneficial results. During the course of the last half-century or so many different forms of brainstorming have become popular and the idea of a structured approach to creative problem solving has spawned a large variety of techniques (e.g. Morphological Analysis, Lateral Thinking, Synectics, TRIZ, Rich Pictures Vision Building, and many others). Indeed, one has only to review the plethora of techniques that are discussed today in popular management books and on a growing number of internet websites to appreciate the breadth and depth of these techniques.

In some ways it seems to be an anomaly that approaches to structured creative thinking and problem solving should be labelled ‘creative.’ Creativity is associated with a freedom from thinking in vertical and logical ways so putting a structure onto the process seems to be the very antithesis of what the creative process is all about. Thus, to the sceptical mind it might suggest that one should take a closer look at the techniques that are becoming popular approaches to trying to stimulate the creative process.

Getting stuck in finding a way of dealing with a problem or situation, actual or potential, can lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences. It is arguably better to put aside time for creative thought than to take some arbitrary or inappropriate action which may subsequently be regretted. Creative problem solving techniques have been suggested by a number of writers in the past and summarised by other in the more recent past. Nevertheless, there are various caveats to bear in mind. While two or more heads may be better than one at generating ideas, experience has shown that getting a group of people to discuss a problem and come up with ideas in an unstructured manner often ends in chaos with no satisfactory outcome. However, the structured approach of creative problem solving techniques provides an answer to this. Indeed, techniques such as brainstorming were thought up to deal with just such a problem and most other techniques are amenable to use by groups of people as well as by individuals on their own. Unfortunately, while brainstorming in particular produces plenty of ideas, these may not necessarily be ones that lead to good insights or good solutions to problems. It has been contended that critical appraisal, debate, and differences of views are more likely to produce good results and that constructive criticism and critical thinking can be even more effective.

There may be some scepticism concerning the usefulness of creative problem solving techniques. Perhaps some teams may have tried to make use of the techniques and found them unhelpful. This chapter addresses why techniques may or may not be helpful. The position with regard to the use of such techniques is complicated because some techniques are more useful for different problems than for others. There is also the point that creative problem solving techniques may not produce a solution to the handling of a situation or a problem. They may just provide new insights into a problem, find new problems, or even nothing at all. Nevertheless, faced with an apparently difficult-to-solve problem, such techniques may offer a way of gaining insights and even finding a solution to the problem.

 
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