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Creative problem-solving? Here’s an idea

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Why read this? : We explore quick and easy ways to improve your creative problem-solving. Learn about positive problem framing. The value of asking “why” to diagnose problems. And how to avoid killing ideas too early. Read this for ideas on how to get better at creative problem-solving. 

Our coaching and consulting work involves a lot of time thinking about how to solve problems for our customers. This creative problem-solving is driven by generating lots of ideas because you need ideas to solve problems.

Ideas. Don’t you love that word?

Ideas are exciting. They create goosebumps. They’re 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 to work. But how do you come up with those ideas in the first place?

We’ve been lucky to learn from many smart people in creative problem-solving over the years. It’s good karma to pass on some of those lessons. Having a great creative problem-solving process helps you find the ideas which grow your business. (For example, see our creative thinking benefits article which covers how to use it to differentiate your brand, drive your customer experience and develop brand assets). 

How do you define the problem?

Idea is a great word. But problem, not so much. No one likes problems. But how you articulate a problem is part of how you find ideas to fix it. Articulating it as a positive opportunity gets you in the right frame of mind to find answers. But articulate it negatively and you lose energy. 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 only 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 to see the problem expressed as a positive. 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 draws people in.

You don’t have to be ‘happy clappy’ about it. But setting your problem up as a positive makes it more likely that you’ll find a great idea.

Diagnose your real problem with “Why”?

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

It’s loosely based on how children see the world. They’re naturally curious about everything. They’ll keep asking questions until they get a satisfactory answer. Adults 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 into the root cause. 

Here’s an 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 should’ve been replaced.

5th why – I forgot to take my car for its scheduled 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 your car not starting.

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

5 Whys Example 2

Problem – Sales in my shop are declining.

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

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

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

4th why – We hire 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 HR culture. (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 in diagnosing customer experience problems. Whether that’s a physical store or your own website or online store.

A few things to be aware of with this technique. It’s not always 5 whys. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more. And it’s worth doing the exercise a few times with different people. Because different people bring different perspectives, and you may 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. Most businesses kill off these ideas, but they do this too early. These ideas often spark other better ideas or lead to real breakthrough thinking

For example, our business writing that stands out article shares how Pixar see early ideas as “ugly babies” they need to nurture

They prevent any idea from 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. One of the innovation agencies we worked with in the past had 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 kept 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. 

Here are some examples of what 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 fight 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 few 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 how you make marketing, creative and e-commerce fun and interesting. 

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

Start by articulating your problem positively. Then diagnose its root cause. And of course, make sure you protect the idea from obvious idea killers. These ideas help you find more creative solutions. 

Check out our creative thinking guide or our easy creative ideas and building creative thinking ideas articles to learn 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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