How to solve problems with creative thinking if you’re not creative?

I’m a rational, down-to-earth person, and if I wasn’t intimidated by creative people, I’d probably simply envy them their skills. Creativity is awesome. I spent many hours consuming its products, from the most transformative art, through raw performance, to soothing music. Over the years, I also began to admire people who could just come up with interesting new ideas, be it in a recipe, a poem, or a business problem. As it turns out, you can actually solve problems with creative thinking.

It was examples in this last category that really made me think of creativity as more than just being artsy. I began to realise that creative thinking can be a powerful tool if harnessed at work, in business and in a career. Creative thinking is probably the thinking style I find the least intuitive, and the furthest away from what I know and feel comfortable with. And this is precisely why I decided to explore the power of creative thinking to solve problems.

What is creative thinking?

As any good student would, I armed myself with books, resources, and I even enrolled in a MOOC. The MOOC, “Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success” from Imperial College London, started by surprising me with a completely new angle: creativity was there to help solve problems. So… very early into my research I was thrown into deep waters and forced to reconsider my previously-held conviction that creativity was about well, essentially creating pretty things from nothing.

The MOOC introduced a few interesting definitions of creativity:

  • “Creativity is the process of change, of development, of evolution, in the organisation of subjective life (Ghiselin,1952)”
  • “Creativity is the forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet requirements or are in some way useful (Mednick, 1962)”
  • “Creativity denotes a person’s capacity to produce new or original ideas, insights, inventions, or artistic products, which are accepted by experts as being of scientific, aesthetic, social or technical value (Vernon, 1989)”
  • “Creativity is imagination with responsibility (Sae Ra Kung, 2009)”

The course leader followed with his own definition of creativity: “the ability to imagine or invent something new of value, where the value may be personal, societal, financial, or some combination of these. Creativity is not the ability to create something out of nothing, but the ability to generate new ideas by combining, changing or reapplying existing ideas.”

With a new understanding of creativity, I ventured into further research into creative thinking. After trawling through many definitions and perspectives, I arrived at this one. Creative thinking is thinking from new perspectives that results in original ideas, be it solutions to problems, novel musical compositions, or… ways to save a sinking business.

6 steps to solve problems with creative thinking

We don’t usually associate creative thinking with a structure or a specific approach – rather, it’s something that just happens. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there’s a creative thinking process – in fact, more than one version of it. Going back to 1960s and the work of Alex Osborn, there are scores and scores of various approaches to creative thinking, most of them inspired by Osborn’s initial formulation. I looked at and tried out several of these proposed processes, and I came up with my own, Osborn-based creative thinking process.

My creative thinking process is adapted specifically to the business and work context, and based on my own experience with it, it will yield results even if, like me, you don’t consider yourself creative.

Step 1: Orientation

Start your creative thinking process by clearly stating the desired outcome and formulating your problem statement as a question.

Are you trying to solve a problem? Do you have a burning question that needs an answer? Did your boss just tell you that you have to cut your next year’s budget by 20%? Do you need to come up with a theory that explains conflicting findings in your research? Ok, I do realise this last question is probably just mine, but who knows? Anyway, what you need at the start of the creative thinking process is clarity regarding the goal you’re trying to reach. Formulate it as a question, for example: How can we cut our budget by 20%? Write this question down somewhere visible and give yourself a deadline for the whole creative thinking process with time assigned to each step.

Step 2: Preparation

Gather as much data, information and inspiration as you can, and store them in an easily accessible database.

It’s helpful to keep these three different categories. Data will be all the facts regarding the problem statement you’re dealing with. Information requires some further research so you can gather additional insights into the problem that are not directly related to your situation. Inspiration is much more open ended and invites wide research to explore the options. For example, data may include the fixed and variable expenses that draw on your budget, your staffing, loss-generating projects, and main sources of revenue. Information may cover insights into other teams, or even going outside your company to include market research to see how other companies are doing. Inspiration could cover case studies or articles that discuss cost-cutting techniques, going as far as completely different industries. Create a database to keep your findings organised and easily accessible. My database for research ideas is a notebook and a bunch of flipcharts. Stick to the timeframe for this step.

Step 3: Ideation

Use as many creative thinking tools as you can to generate as many ideas as possible.

At this stage, you want to play with and try out all tools, even if you think they’re not going to work for your problem statement. Just work through all the tools you have time for, holding back all judgment or preconceived ideas. Your goal in this step is to generate ideas, going for quantity over quality, and not evaluating their feasibility or soundness. I read that in advertising, the first 60 ideas yield 4, maybe 5 good ones, then the next 20 ideas are just absurd, and the last 20 ideas are pure gold. This seems to defy logic, as you’d think you’ll be running out of good ideas over time – creativity seems to work the other way round, so you really want to spend time here just churning ideas out. Remember to have fun doing it!

Step 4: Incubation

Go away from all your ideas and the problem statement, letting them incubate and percolate.

There’s a lot in creative thinking that I find surprising, and this step is perhaps the hardest for me to intuitively ‘get’. But it’s true, I tried and tested it. Letting things rest, *not* thinking about or working on your problem statement is the best way for the creative thinking process to do its magic. So allocate plenty of time to… do nothing about your problem. Schedule some other work in. Go on a holiday. Clean your office. Get a cup of coffee. Take a nap (my favourite!). You’re letting your brain to work through all the ideas you came up with in the background, and the best way you can help the process is to just let it run without your intervention. Stick to the timeframe for this step – don’t be tempted to cut it short.

Step 5: Synthesis

Return to your ideas and the problem statement to formulate potential solutions.

At this point, you want to go back to all the ideas you generated. You’ll see that a lot of them will simply be ruled out from the get go. Some of them will become more crystalised. But the incubation process will also result in clarifying a handful of really strong ideas. Take these forward and reprocess them into potential solutions. Review them with respect to the problem statement, assessing them according to the needs, criteria, feasibility. Rework and strengthen the solutions, and formulate an implementation plan. Don’t worry if you don’t have one winning idea, but you’re torn between 2-3 solutions. You can take them all to the next step.

Step 6: Evaluation

Test the winning idea(s) through implementation and evaluation.

If you have just one idea, simply put it into practice and see how it works. If you ended up with 2-3 really strong solutions, implement as many of them as you can and compare the results. I tend to have better outcomes from the creative thinking process when I can implement and evaluate a handful of ideas, rather than implementing just one. Perhaps I feel less pressure when I know I have alternatives and I can see which one yields the best results. But apparently there are people who can successfully (and without undue pressure!) work with just one final idea. Of course, you want to evaluate your idea against the initial outcome you defined in Step 1.

So, what do you think? Are you ready to give it a go? What are you going to test the creative thinking process on?

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Marta Stelmaszak Rosa
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I'm a researcher, academic and writer dedicated to becoming a better thinker. Every day, I practise thinkfulness: consciously adopting a structured approach to thinking in order to understand and change the world. The world needs all of us to become better thinkers, so let's start a thinkfulness revolution together!

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