Creative problem solving? Here’s an idea ..

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

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Snapshot : Ideas are contagious. But most ideas in business never make it. Find out where to start with creative problem solving. Learn why framing your problem positively changes the dynamic of the solution. Then, find out why, asking “why” to diagnose your problem can help you get to the root cause. And lastly, learn some of the ways that businesses tend to kill ideas, and how to avoid this. 

Since we moved over into coaching and consulting, we now spend most of our time thinking about how to solve problems for our customers. And this creative problem solving means we spend a lot of time focussed on 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 that makes ideas feel like why you come into work.

But how do you generate ideas?

We’ve been lucky enough to learn from lots of very skilled people in creative problem solving over the years. We feel it’s good karma to pass on some of the learnings we’ve seen that have generated the best ideas.

Because having a great creative problem solving process helps you generate ideas to grow your business. 

How do you define the problem?

If ideas is a great word, then problems, maybe not such a great word. But it is usually when you articulate a problem that creates the great idea.

It’s the first step of the creative problem solving process. And if you get it wrong, everything afterwards becomes so much more difficult.

So if you have a problem in your marketing, creative or e-commerce area, you really need that problem as a ‘glass half full’ that can lead on to a great idea rather than a ‘glass half empty’ that is going to cause you stress and worry.

I wish / How to …

One of the best ways we’ve seen is to frame your problem with 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 are bad at creating new products”, but “I wish we could create better new products”. 

Compare how each of those articulations feels. In your body language. In your desire to take part in solving the problem.

A pessimistic, low energy, stressful view of the problem doesn’t inspire you or your team to find a solution.  Whereas, an optimistic, high energy, enthusiastic view of the problem gets you off to a much more positive start.

You don’t have to be ‘happy clappy’ about it, but set your problem up as an opportunity to get to a great idea.

Diagnose your real problem with “Why”?

It’s much easier to solve a problem when you know what it is. Time spend diagnosing the problem will help you get to faster and better solutions.

Alfred Einstein famously said that if he had only an hour to solve a problem, he’d spent the first 55 minutes defining what the problem is.

There is often a temptation to rush into solutions without really understanding the root of the problem. You can end up with solutions that 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 technique used is the “5 why’s”.

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

But often, if you take a basic problem and keep asking “why” – at least 5 times – you can actually discover the problem is not 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 can drill down to identify the root cause. 

Let’s use a simple non-business example to show how this works.

Problem – my car won’t start.

1st why – the battery is dead.

2nd why – the alternator is not working.

3rd why – the alternator belt is not working.

4th why – the alternator belt was well beyond its service life and had not been replaced.

5th why – I haven’t been taking my car in for its scheduled maintenance service checks.

Car crash

So, the root cause of the problem is actual laziness or forgetfulness to maintain your car and could be solved by setting an alert in your diary.

But you’d never have got to that solution just from the first articulation of the problem.

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

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). 

Prioritising the hiring of new staff with customer service skills, and training existing staff with better customer service skills is a solution that’s only reached because you went through the diagnosis problem to understand what the actual issue was.

This sort of technique works well in the world of customer experience whether that is 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 levels. 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 that come up in idea generation sound too outrageous or difficult to achieve. But these early stage ideas often spark other better ideas that could more achievable. But businesses often kill off the ideas too early.

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

They forbid any idea to get killed off 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 our favourite innovation agencies we work with in the past shared with us a great summary that 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 barriers and objections to new ideas.

(The most common barrier areas are in marketing innovation, creative approval and e-Commerce).

So, most ideas, particularly in bigger businesses never make it to launch. 

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

But by the time an idea has made it through five levels of innovation screening, and been business cased and validated by lawyers, accountants, supply chain, sales, the MD’s wife and whoever else gets to throw in their ten cent worth, it’s often an overworked, and uninspired pale version of where it started out.

So look out for these types of behaviours in your business that kills ideas.

How to kill an idea

  • Ignore the idea – silence intimidates all but the most enthusiastic.
  • Laugh it off – yeah, that’s a good one, mate, what have you been smoking?
  • We already tried that – this works particularly well in killing off the enthusiasm of any new people in your business. 
  • Drown it in cold water – we don’t have the staff. The intangible risks are too great, that’s great in theory but in real life.
  • Stalling tactics – we’re not ready for it yet. Give it a couple of months until something else happens. Let’s wait until the new organisation settles in. All momentum killers. All destined to make sure that idea never happens.
  • Appoint a committee – this sounds like it would be helpful, but a committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and quiet strangled.
  • Ask the originator to be more specific – Sounds helpful, Never is. Never. 

Creative problem solving. Start nurturing your ideas

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 solving problems in 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

But if you can articulate your problem in a positive way, spend some time diagnosing the root cause of the problem, and then protect the idea from the obvious traps that lie ahead in most businesses, then you are onto a good way to grow your business. 

Check out our full guide to creative thinking or our articles on easy creative ideas and ways to build creative thinking ideas to find out more. Or contact us, 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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