Creative Problem Solving: from complex challenge to innovative solution

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Even if you usually excel at finding solutions, there will be times when it seems that there’s no obvious answer to a problem. It could be that you’re facing a unique challenge that you’ve never needed to overcome before. You could feel overwhelmed because of a new context in which everything seems to be foreign, or you may feel like you’re lacking the skills or tools to navigate the situation. When facing a difficult dilemma, Creative Problem Solving offers a structured method to help you find an innovative and effective solution.

The history of Creative Problem Solving

The technique of Creative Problem Solving was first formulated by Alex Osborn in the 1940’s. It was not the first time Osborn came up with a formula to support creative thinking. As a prolific creative theorist, Osborn also coined the term brainstorming to define the proactive process of generating new ideas.

With brainstorming, Osborn suggested that it’s better to bring every idea you have to the table, including the wildest ones, because with just a little modification, the outrageous ideas may later become the most plausible solutions. In his own words: “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”

Osborn worked closely with Sid Parnes, who was at the time the world’s leading expert on creativity and innovation. Together, they developed the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process. To this day, this process remains an effective way to generate solutions that break free from the status quo.

The Creative Problem Solving process, sometimes referred to as CPS, is a proven way to approach a challenge more imaginatively. By redefining problems or opportunities, it becomes possible to move in a completely new and more innovative direction.

Dr Donald Treffinger described Creative Problem Solving as an effective way to review problems, formulate opportunities, and generate varied and novel options leading to a new solution or course of action. As such, Treffinger argued that creative problem solving provides a “powerful set of tools for productive thinking”.

Creative Problem Solving can also enhance collective learning at the organisational level. Dr David Vernon and colleagues found that Creative Problem Solving can support the design of more effective training programmes.

From its invention by two creative theorists to its application at all levels of creative thinking — from personal to organisation creativity — Creative Problem Solving is an enduring method to generate innovative solutions to complex challenges.

The four principles of Creative Problem Solving

You can use Creative Problem Solving on your own or as part of a team. However, when adopted by multiple team members, it can lead to an even greater output of useful, original solutions. So, how do you put it into practice? First, you need to understand the four guiding principles behind Creative Problem Solving.

The first principle is to look at problems and reframe them into questions. While problem statements tend to not generate many responses, open questions can lead to a wealth of insights, perspectives, and helpful information — which in turn make it easier to feel inspired and to come up with potential solutions. Instead of saying “this is the problem”, ask yourself: “Why are we facing this problem? What’s currently preventing us from solving this problem? What could be some potential solutions?”

The second principle is to balance divergent and convergent thinking. During divergent thinking, all options are entertained. Throw all ideas into the ring, regardless of how far-fetched they might be. This is sometimes referred to as non-judgmental, non-rational divergent thinking. It’s based on the willingness to consider all new ideas. Convergent thinking, in contrast, is the thinking mode used to narrow down all of the possible ideas into a sensible shortlist. Balancing divergent and convergent thinking creates a steady state of creativity in which new ideas can be assessed and appraised to search for unique solutions.

Tangential to the second principle, the third principle for creative problem solving is to defer judgement. By judging solutions too early, you will risk shutting down idea generation. Take your time during the divergent thinking phase to give your mind the freedom to dream ambitious ideas. Only when engaged in convergent thinking should you start judging the ideas you generated in terms of potential, appropriateness, and feasibility.

Finally, Creative Problem Solving requires you to say “yes, and” rather than “no, but” in order to encourage generative discussions. You will only stifle your creativity by automatically saying no to ideas that seem illogical or unfeasible. Using positive language allows you to explore possibilities, leaving space for the seeds of ideas to grow into applicable solutions.

How to practice Creative Problem Solving

Now that you know the principles underlying Creative Problem Solving, you’re ready to start implementing the practical method devised by its inventors. And the good news is that you’ll only need to follow three simple steps.

  1. Generating – Formulate questions. The first step is to understand what the problem is. By turning the problem into a set of questions, you can explore the issue properly and fully grasp the situation, obstacles, and opportunities. This is also the time to gather facts and the opinions of others, if relevant to the problem at hand.
  2. Conceptualising – Explore ideas. The second step is when you can express your creativity through divergent thinking. Brainstorm new, wild and off-the-wall ideas to generate new concepts that could be the key to solving your dilemma. This can be done on your own, or as part of a brainstorming session with your team.
  3. Optimising – Develop solutions. Now is the time to switch to convergent thinking. Reflect on the ideas you came up with in step two to decide which ones could be successful. As part of optimising, you will need to decide which options might best fit your needs and logistical constraints, how you can make your concepts stronger, and finally decide which idea to move forwards with.
  4. Implementing – Formulate a plan. Figuring out how you’ll turn the selected idea into reality is the final step after deciding which of your ideas offers the best solution. Identify what you’ll need to get started, and, if appropriate, let others know of your plans. Communication is particularly important for innovative ideas that require buy-in from others, especially if you think you might initially be met with resistance. You may also need to consider whether you’ll need additional resources to ensure the success of complex solutions, and request the required support in good time.

Creative Problem Solving is a great way to generate unique ideas when there appears to be no obvious solution to a problem. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly impossible challenge, this structured approach will help you generate solutions that you might otherwise not have considered. By practising Creative Problem Solving, some of the most improbable ideas could lead to the discovery of the perfect solution.

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