Creative problem-solving is defined as a way to find solutions when conventional thinking has failed to come up with useful options. It encourages you to think about problems in new ways, or from different perspectives. It also allows you to think about solutions without necessarily fully defining the problem—an essential step in conventional problem-solving approaches.
It is therefore particularly helpful for big, intractable or complex problems, or times when you may get ‘stuck’ in definitions. However, techniques from creative problem-solving can also be useful in other circumstances. This page provides some information about the background and principles of creative problem-solving, and suggests some techniques you might try.
What Is Creative Problem-Solving?
Creative problem-solving is a term used for a model of problem-solving that does not follow a conventional approach.
Our page on Problem-Solving outlines the conventional approach, including identifying and structuring the problem, looking for possible solutions, making a decision, implementing it, and then seeking feedback.
Creative problem-solving takes a different approach. It does not require the problem to be precisely defined and structured before solutions can be identified. Instead, you simply need to understand the basic causes and issues that you are trying to address. This may be particularly helpful for large and complex problems, where groups can get bogged down in definitions, and never move onto ideas and solutions.
The origins of creative problem-solving
The concept of creative problem-solving was first developed by Alex Osborn in the 1940s.
Interestingly, Osborn was also allegedly the person who coined the term ‘brainstorming’. He and Sid Parnes developed the Osborn–Parnes Creative Problem-Solving Model. This is a relatively simple model, and other academics have developed it further more recently. The basic model is still widely used despite its age because of its sheer applicability.
Principles of Creative Problem-Solving
Most models of creative problem-solving use four key principles:
1. Balancing Divergent and Convergent Thinking
The key to creative problem-solving is understanding two key types of thinking: divergent and convergent thinking.
Divergent thinking is generating ideas, the more the better
It uses techniques such as brainstorming. It also involves looking at issues from different perspectives as a way to shake up your thinking.
You can find out more about divergent thinking in our page on Problem-solving: Investigating Ideas and Solutions. You may also find it helpful to visit our page on Brainstorming Techniques for some useful ways to generate ideas.
Convergent thinking is narrowing down those ideas to find a suitable solution.
It involves analysing and assessing ideas to see which ones may be most useful or suitable, or which may be most easily implemented. It may also require some testing of ideas through approaches such as prototyping or customer focus groups.
There is more about convergent thinking in our pages on the Creative Process and Idea Validation.
Good creative problem-solving needs both divergent and convergent thinking.
You need first to have lots of ideas, and then you need to evaluate them, and narrow them down, so that you can turn your ideas into a shortlist of genuinely practical possible solutions. It is certainly no good stopping at the first idea—but it is also unhelpful if you never implement any of your ideas because you simply don’t know where to start.
2. Reframe Problems as Questions
The second principle is to reframe problems as questions (see box).
Examples of Reframing
Some examples of reframing problems include:
“Nobody wants to buy our products” becomes “How can we persuade customers to buy our products?”
“Staff don’t want to work here” becomes “How can we attract staff to this location?”
“Nobody wants to attend our events” becomes “How can we develop events that people will want to attend?”
In carrying out this process of reframing, you shift your focus away from barriers, towards how to address those obstacles.
This makes it easier to come up with ideas to solve the issues, and get past the barriers. All the issues in the box look much less tricky when framed as ‘How can we...?’ Effectively, this technique forces you to see everything as a solvable, and nothing as intractable.
3. Defer Judgement of Ideas
This is a key rule in any brainstorming session: defer judgement.
In other words, don’t be tempted to start to analyse your possible solutions immediately—either positively or negatively. Instead, keep going on the idea generation. This is because moving to judge and analyse uses a different part of your brain. You want to keep the creative side going for longer, and then apply logic later.
Balancing convergence and divergence?
This ‘suspending judgement’ process is a key example of balancing convergent and divergent thinking. Idea generation is divergent. Analysis and judgement is convergent. There is a time and place for both—but you cannot do them at the same time, and you need sufficient time to do each one in turn.
4. Use Positive Language and Thinking
The classic example of this is to ban the use of the phrase ‘No, but...’, and focus instead on ‘Yes, and...’
Why does this matter? Because using ‘Yes, and...’ encourages people to build on each other’s contributions, rather than rushing to judgement. There is also some evidence that using negative words (like ‘no’ and ‘but’) discourages creative thinking. Using more positive language encourages it.
Models of Creative Problem-Solving
Broadly speaking, most models of creative problem-solving have several phases, which usually include:
Clarifying the problem, which may need techniques like the ‘five whys’, an approach based on root cause analysis (you can find out more about this technique in our page on Brainstorming Techniques).
Coming up with ideas to solve the problem, for example, by using brainstorming techniques, or other creative thinking techniques.
Developing those ideas into a solution, which includes narrowing down your full list of ideas into a shortlist, and carrying out some prototyping and other testing (our pages on Design Thinking and Idea Validation explain more about this part of the process).
Implementing the solution, which includes consideration of who will be responsible for this part of the process, and the practical steps that need to be taken. You may find our pages on Project Planning and Project Management are helpful here.
The original creative problem-solving model of Osborn and Parnes, and some of its later adaptations, used the terms ‘clarify, ideate, develop, implement’. The Center for Creative Learning uses a three-phase approach of ‘understanding the challenge, generating ideas, and preparing for action’. This therefore combines ‘developing the ideas’ and ‘implementing the solution’ into a single ‘preparing for action’.
A Final Thought: Does the Precise Model Matter?
In creative problem-solving, the issue is probably not the precise terms that you use to describe each phase.
Instead, it is about finding a process that will help you to understand your problem better, come up with ideas, and then narrow down those ideas and find a way of implementing your chosen solution. Separating convergent and divergent thinking (also known as ‘not rushing to judge’) is probably the most important part of this because it allows sufficient time for the creative process to occur.