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Creative problem solving? Here’s an idea

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Why read this? : We share ways to improve how you do creative problem solving. Learn why framing your problem positively makes a difference. Learn why asking “why” helps you diagnose the root cause of your problem. And learn the ways many businesses kill ideas, and how to avoid that happening. Read this for ideas on improve your creative problem solving. 

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.


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 lessons we’ve learned from them. 

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 is maybe not such a great word. But how you articulate a problem is part of how you come up with ideas to fix it. If you articulate a problem as a positive opportunity, it gets you in the right mood 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. Do it badly and, everything which follows is harder work.

You need to articulate your problem from a ‘glass half full’ perspective. That will help you look for ideas. A ‘glass half empty’ perspective leads to stress and worry.

I wish / How to ...

One of the best ways we’ve seen to do this is to 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 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 anyone to find answers.  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 to get to a great idea makes it more likely you’ll find a better answer.

Diagnose your real problem with “Why”?

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

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

There’s often a temptation to rush into solutions without really understanding the root 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 technique to use is the “Why’s” model. It’s most famously used by Toyota to diagnose quality problems on their production lines. But it’s a common creative problem solving approach.

The way we learned it, this technique comes from the way children see the world. They’re 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. 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 problems in customer experience. 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 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 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 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 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 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 5 levels of screening, and been business cased and 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 out. Or it’s completely dead. 

From memory, here’s some of the things you hear that people use 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 have 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 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 specificSounds helpful. Never is. Never. 

Ideas are the raw material you then shape though 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 to your problem.

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 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 creative thinking guide 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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