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Creative problem solving? Here’s an idea

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Why read this? : We share ideas on how to improve your creative problem solving. Learn about the impact of framing your problem positively. The value in asking “why” to diagnose your problem’s root cause. And how to avoid the ways most ideas typically die in businesses. Read this for ideas to improve your creative problem solving. 

In our coaching and consulting work, we spend most of our time thinking about how to solve problems for our customers. This creative problem solving means we spend a lot of time thinking about how to generate ideas. Because, ideas solve problems.

Ideas. Don’t you just love that word?

Ideas are exciting. They create goosebumps. Ideas are contagious. When you have a great idea, you want to tell people about it.

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

There’s an energy and buzz around a great idea. Great ideas make you feel great about coming into work. But how do you come up with those ideas in the first place?

We’ve been lucky enough to learn from lots of very smart people in creative problem solving over the years. We feel it’s good karma to pass on some of the lessons we’ve learned. Having a great creative problem solving process helps you find the ideas which will grow your business. 

How do you define the problem?

If ideas is a great word, then problems is clearly a less great word. No one likes problems. But how you articulate a problem is part of how you find ideas to fix it. If you articulate a problem as a positive opportunity, it gets you in the right frame of mind to find answers. But articulate it negatively, and your energy goes down. You only see the barriers and issues.  

Defining the problem is usually the first step of the creative problem solving process. Start negatively, and everything which follows is harder work.

You should articulate your problem from a ‘glass half full’ perspective. That motivates you to look for ideas. A ‘glass half empty’ perspective de-motivates you and leads to stress and worry.

I wish / How to ...

One of the best ways is to positively frame your problem as either “I wish …” or “How to …”.

So not, our “sales are falling”, but “I wish I could improve our sales”.

Not “We have a terrible image with customers”, but “How to make our image better with customers”.

Not “We’re bad at innovation”, but “I wish we could create better new products”. 

Compare how it feels seeing the problem expressed as an opportunity. Doesn’t it make you lean in? Feel more curious? More interested in solving the problem? A pessimistic view of the problem inspires no one.  Whereas an optimistic, high energy, enthusiastic view of the problem gets you off to a more positive start.

You don’t have to be ‘happy clappy’ about it. But setting your problem up as an opportunity improves the chances you’ll find a great idea.

Diagnose your real problem with “Why”?

It’s much easier to solve a problem when you’re clear what it is. Time spent diagnosing the problem helps you get to better solutions.

Alfred Einstein famously said if he had only an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend the first 55 minutes defining it.

It’s tempting to rush into solutions without understanding the root cause of the problem. You can end up with solutions which answer the wrong problem if you haven’t defined it properly.

Female doctor with stethoscope around her neck talking with a female patient

5 Whys

A common approach to use is the “Why’s” model. It’s best known as a tool Toyota used to diagnose quality problems on their production lines. But it’s now a common creative problem solving approach. (see for example, how we apply it to idea generation and e-Commerce market research).

The way we learned it, this technique comes from the way children see the world. They’re naturally curious about everything. They’ll keep asking questions until they get an answer which satisfies them. As adults, we tend to lose this insatiable curiosity. We accept the first answer that sounds OK. 

But often, if you take a basic problem and keep asking “why” – at least 5 times – you discover the problem isn’t what you thought it was.

Often, the first time you articulate the problem, you articulate the symptom of the problem, But by repeatedly asking why, you drill down to identify the root cause. 

Let’s look at a simple example. 

5 Whys Example 1

Problem – My car won’t start.

1st why – The battery is dead.

2nd why – The alternator isn’t working.

3rd why – The alternator belt isn’t working.

4th why – The alternator belt was well beyond its service life and hadn’t been replaced.

5th why – I forgot to take my car in for its scheduled maintenance service checks.

Car crash

So, the root cause of the problem is forgetfulness. You could solve that with an alert in your diary. But you’d never have got to that solution just from the first problem, that your car won’t start.

Let’s try that again, but this time with a business question.

5 Whys Example 2

Problem – Sales in my shop are declining.

1st why – Less visitors are coming through the door.

2nd why – Customers don’t like our customer service.

3rd why – They complain our staff aren’t helpful or friendly.

4th why – We hire our staff for their technical knowledge, not their customer service skills.

5th why – That’s how we’ve always done it.

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

So, in this case the root cause is in your culture and HR practices. (and culture plays a huge role in how to be a more creative company). 

You need to hire new staff with better customer service skills, or re-train existing staff. But you only get to that solution because you diagnosed the root cause.

This technique works well diagnosing customer experience problems. Whether that’s a physical store or your own website or online store.

A couple of things to be aware of when you use this technique. It’s not always 5 why’s. Sometimes it’s a little less, sometimes a little more. And it’s worth doing the exercise a few times with different people. Because different people bring different perspectives, and you may actually have more than one root cause to tackle.

Avoid killing ideas too early

Often ideas which come up in idea generation sound too outrageous or difficult to achieve. But these early stage ideas often spark other better ideas, or lead to real breakthrough thinking. But businesses often kill off these ideas too early.

In our business writing that stands out article, for example, we share how Pixar see early stage ideas as like “ugly babies” they need to protect

They prevent any idea getting killed too early until it’s had a chance to grow and develop. 

Toy doll Woody from Toy Story lying on the floor

But they’re the exception, rather than the rule. Most businesses kill off ideas early. 

One of the innovation agencies we worked with in the past used to have a great summary they called ‘How to kill an idea’.

They worked with many large organisations, and found when trying to get ideas through a business, they keep hearing the same objections. (The most common barrier areas are in marketing innovation, creative approval and e-Commerce). Most ideas in bigger businesses never make it to launch. 

Often idea screening (see our marketing innovation guide) is set up to whittle down ideas. Like a marketing version of Highlander or Survivor, only the “best” ideas make it through.

But by the time an idea’s made it through 5 levels of screening, and been validated by lawyers, accountants, supply chain, sales and the MD’s wife, it’s often an overworked, and uninspired pale version of where it started. Or it’s completely dead. 

From memory, here’s some of the things people say and do to kill ideas.

How to kill an idea

  • Ignore it – hard to deal with unless you’re very persistent. 
  • Laugh – diminishes the idea and hard to combat without looking like you’ve no sense of humour. 
  • We already tried that – works especially well on new people as they don’t know the company history. 
  • Drown it in barriers – lack of staff or expertise, too many intangible risks, a good theory but not practical.
  • Stall it – we’re not ready for it yet. Give it a couple of months until x happens. Let’s wait until the new organisation settles in. All momentum killers. All designed to make sure that idea never happens.
  • Appoint a committee – this sounds like it’d be helpful. But a committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and quietly strangled.
  • Ask the originator to be more specificSounds helpful. Never is. Never. 

Ideas are the raw material which goes into creative problem solving. You need creative thinking approaches like brainstorming or Six Hats to get a lot of ideas out. Then you sculpt them and work with them to turn them into solutions.

Conclusion - Creative problem solving

There are many ways to navigate your idea through the business and into the outside world.

Creative problem solving is a challenge, but it’s hugely important to grow your business.

For us, creativity isn’t an isolated skill. You need to encourage creativity in everyone who works on your business. 

Ideas are what make marketing, creative and e-commerce such a fun and interesting place to work. 

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

Start by articulating your problem in a positive way. Then, spend time diagnosing the root cause. And of course, make sure to protect the idea from obvious idea killers. These are key ideas to help you find the best solutions to your business problems. 

Check out our creative thinking guide or our articles on easy creative ideas and ways to build creative thinking ideas to find out more. Or get in touch, if you need help with creative thinking in your business.

Photo credits

Idea Bulb Post it : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Doctor in consultation : Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

Question Mark on Tree : Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Toy Story Woody doll : Photo by Melanie THESE on Unsplash

Person holding light bulb : Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash

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