Creative thinking tools you can use by yourself to solve business problems
The number of creative thinking tools available out there can be really overwhelming. And the problem is that most of them assume you’re engaging in creative thinking with others. But what if you’re by yourself, and you want to use creative thinking for a specific purpose, say solving a business problem?
I spent a good number of days working through a mountain of resources to narrow down the set of tools to a manageable and well-defined collection. When we want to use creative thinking to solve problems, we need tools that work for business problems, and tools that we can use by ourselves. These two conditions eliminated a range of great tools with limited applicability to problem solving and that rely on group creativity (there’s nothing wrong with being creative in a group, but this isn’t something I’m focusing on – I want to know the tools I can use to think creatively by myself).
Now, there are two separate steps in creative thinking that require the use of tools: Step 3: Ideation and Step 5: Synthesis (see the whole process here). These two steps have two very different goals, and so they’ll draw on different tools. When we ideate, we need to engage in divergent thinking: generating as many ideas as possible. Synthesis requires convergent thinking, where we narrow plentiful ideas down to a few solutions.
I want to talk about tools to use in Step 3: Ideation first. Below you’ll find tools I experimented with as part of improving my creative thinking. You can see the tools for convergence, or Step 5, here.
One of the very few brainstorming techniques that you can do by yourself. You define the problem you want to solve, list all letters of the alphabet, and then write down potential solutions beginning with each letter. The fact that you have one fixed element in your idea generation – the letter – gives your creativity something to get started with. Remember, it doesn’t matter if some ideas are absurd, or if you struggle with something reasonable starting with letter X. The point is to generate as many potential solutions as possible.
6 thinking hats
This tool asks you to state the problem, and then investigate it from six different perspectives – different hats you’re putting on. Wearing the White Hat, you’re representing natural objectivity and focus on data, facts, figures and information about the problem. Red Hat is all about emotions, intuition, and feeling. The Yellow Hat perspective focuses on looking at benefits and positives underpinned by logical reasons. The Green Hat is the creative one, where you generate free flowing ideas, alternatives, possibilities and provocations. When wearing the Blue Hat, you’re all about the process: you organise and control the use of the other hats. Finally, the Black Hat is careful and cautious, drawing attention to risks and disadvantages. Although this tool was developed to facilitate creativity in groups (different team members wear different hats), I found it very useful doing the exercise by myself, changing the hats every few minutes for smaller problems, or every day for more substantial issues.
A really quick and popular tool that finds uses across a number of professions (sometimes it’s even referred to as ‘the journalistic six’ because of its usefulness in reporting). State the problem clearly, and then ask Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? For example, if you’re trying to come up with a new version of a product, all these questions can relate to the offering you’re putting together – Who’ll be using it? What is it? When will it be used? Where will it be used? Why would customers want to use it? How will they use it? And so on. It’s probably one of the quickest idea generating tools out there.
This tool turned out to be one of my favourites ever. I guess it’s because I’m a bit subversive by nature… Reverse brainstorming is all about thinking about potential solutions to a reverse problem than the one you’re actually grappling with. Do you need to come up with ideas how to sell more of your product? Instead, brainstorm ideas how to sell less of it. Do you need to find a new job and are struggling with ideas for new approaches? Think what you’d do to avoid getting hired. Are you planning an exam study session and want to make sure you have the right approach? Imagine what you’d do if you were aiming to fail as many exams as possible. You get the idea! It’s playful, it’s fun, and it’s surprisingly insightful.
Seven essential innovation questions (SEIQ)
This tool focuses on innovation, and it is a framework to support generating ideas in a structured way. Write down the problem you’re struggling with, and then ask the following seven questions:
- What could I look at in a new way?
- What could I use in a new way?
- What could I move, changing its position in time or space?
- What could I interconnect in a different way?
- What could I alter or change?
- What could I make that is truly new?
- What could I imagine to create a great experience?
Surprisingly enough, these questions work for the big ideas the framework was initially developed for as well as for small areas that need innovation in our individual responsibilities. For one, I used it to generate innovative ideas about a class I’m going to teach!
I found this tool very handy for generating new ideas for all sorts of tasks I had to face recently in my work in academia. As we were rethinking how we deliver education, I took a single class as a unit and I carried out attribute analysis on it. You use it by identifying different attributes of what you’re looking at (in the case of a class, it can be mode of delivery, length, number of students, types of exercises…), and then you list possible options that these attributes could take (e.g. mode of delivery: in-person, online via Zoom, asynchronous, and so on). Then you look at the options across attributes and mix and match them to generate various different combinations. Remember, you’re not interested in assessing their feasibility at this stage (a 2-hour long Zoom class with 1 student where they write an essay is a potential combination that I didn’t rule out at the ideation stage).
This is where we start getting to the more elaborate tools. SCAMPER, initially intended for groups, invites you to think through a problem using seven different filters associated with specific questions. Write the problem down, and work through the following areas: Substitute (What can you substitute or change in the product, problem, or process? Or what can you substitute it with?), Combine (How can you combine ideas, processes or products to create something new?), Adapt (Can you adapt an existing solution to work better?), Modify (Can you change an aspect of a situation or problem, for example by magnifying or minifying it? Does this bring any new ideas?), Put to another use (Can you use a process or solution that were intended for something else to solve this problem?), Eliminate (Can you remove something to improve your situation or solve the problem?), Reverse (Can you do things the other way around?). As you can see, SCAMPER can get pretty laborious!
I must admit that I’m including TRIZ because I find it a cool curiosity (to begin with, TRIZ is the Russian algorithm for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving). No doubt, it’s a very powerful approach to creative thinking, but it’s a definite overkill for most problems you can tackle by yourself. TRIZ is based on logic, data, and a lot of research. You start by defining the specific problem you’re facing. Then you look through the TRIZ database to find a generalized TRIZ problem that corresponds to what you’re faced with. Then you identify the generalized solution in the TRIZ database that matches the generalized problem. Finally, you adapt the generalized solution to solve your own problem. TRIZ is too complex to summarise it here, but I encourage you to explore more – especially if you’re often facing technical or engineering problems.
Have you ever used any of these creative thinking tools to solve a business problem?If you’d like to learn more, subscribe to Lessons in Thinkfulness and receive free, weekly lessons designed to help you become more thinkful at work, in business and in life.