When You Need Creative Problem-Solving
I presented a session last fall at the state of Washington’s annual improvement conference titled Quick and Easy Creativity Techniques to Get Unstuck. The participants were from public agencies and other organizations in need of creative problem-solving methods to work through sticky improvement projects.
But, guess what? Creative problem-solving methods can help in our home lives as well. I am constantly moving ideas and techniques back and forth between home, work and my writing life. So, this post is for you if you’re feeling stuck with an everyday problem or even creative project.
Recognize You’re Stuck
Often, we’re doing the same thing over and over, maybe with little tweaks to our approach, and expecting different results. Going around and around with little progress is the most obvious clue that we’re stuck. But there are other clues:
- Maybe you do have a solution but it’s still proving inadequate.
- Maybe you, your friends or family are skeptical anything can change.
- Or maybe you’re falling behind on a goal and it’s eating away at you.
Think about it – what clues you in that you’re stuck?
Clarify the Problem
Try to get clear about what the problem really is. What are you trying to accomplish? This helps us broaden our thinking about possible solutions. For example, do you need a car (one solution) that reliably works? Or is the problem really about reliable transportation (broader possibilities)?
Once you have that clarity, write it out as “I need creative thinking about ______.”
How about your problem – are you able to find the deeper issue and frame the problem more broadly?
Recognize Autopilot Beliefs
Many people have heard the over-used phrase, thinking outside the box. Well, the first step is to know what box you’re in.
Creativity researcher Edward de Bono called this mental valleys. We have autopilot assumptions and ways of thinking, based on our language and experiences. This is very helpful for navigating everyday communications and life. But . . . it is not helpful when we’re feeling stuck and need to think creatively.
We have to recognize we’re going on autopilot for a particular issue, stop before we start down that path and be willing to make some leaps. In my October presentation, I did a quick exercise about libraries as an example.
In my work life, a common autopilot way of thinking is that more staff are needed to solve a particular challenge. Sure, this is sometimes true. But often there is so much waste in the processes that could be eliminated first to free up existing staff’s time. Or the processes could be redesigned to improve the situation. But the default words out of someone’s mouth often include creating a new staff position as the solution.
How about your sticky problem – what autopilot ways do you have of thinking about the situation and solutions?
Experiment with Creativity Techniques
Next, we need to give our minds permission to think differently to challenge those autopilot assumptions. Sometimes this happens without much prompting. Sometimes, using specific creative problem-solving techniques help.
Here are just a few methods I find useful. There are many techniques in the world. Find ones you enjoy. I’ve added some resource links below.
- Imitate to innovate. Pay attention or deliberately search for ideas from other people, places and settings. This is how much creativity occurs in the world. Ideas are plucked from one context and applied in a new way.
- Provoke yourself to think differently. For example, take away a “must have” and see how you’d cope. Impose a ridiculous constraint or exaggerate the situation. Ask what if? questions and look for alternatives.
- Think impossibly, because impossible isn’t always as impossible as we believe. Ask yourself what solutions you’d try if there were zero barriers and why that solution is appealing. Then ask why it’s impossible and keep chipping away at just how impossible it really is. Do some research to see if there are solutions, even partial ones, that could help. Remember, the world is constantly innovating.
- Take what you have on hand and mash it up in new ways. This is fun for problems involving supplies, materials and space. Much innovation in the world involves combining items or functions that used to be separate. Just look at that smart phone in your hand. You’re my generation if you can remember when a phone was a phone, a camera was a camera, a music player was a music player, a calculator was a calculator . . . you get the picture. This is the fun of creating life hacks and browsing Pinterest!
A Few Tips
- It’s important to not limit your ideas to only ones that seem immediately practical. Doing creativity exercises with others can help because you get diverse thinking and can challenge each other against self-editing.
- Volume is good. One method is to generate at least seven ideas, more if you can. This pushes you beyond the usual solutions.
- Ideas that get a reaction are typically the most creative. It could be laughter, cringing or curiosity, but it’s “out of the box” if it perks you up.
What do you think? Maybe you’ve already been coming up with creative ideas more than you realize.
Try Out Some Ideas
How will you know what is most likely to work? You won’t until you test something. In the process improvement world, we focus on small-scale, rapid tests of change. That means trying an idea one time, or one day, or with one customer and so on. Then you evaluate how it worked and decide whether to adopt, adapt or abandon. You might have an obvious keeper. Or you might need to tweak and try it a few more times before knowing. Or you might decide to abandon the idea and take what you learned to the next idea.
Another benefit of testing ideas: it means you haven’t committed to them yet, which can feel daunting. You’re just trying ideas on and seeing which ones fit.
I’d be remiss to not point out examples of creative problem-solving and innovation born out of the pandemic. It will take time to develop detailed case studies, but consider:
- Restaurants that were able to successfully flip their service approaches to survive. Menu QR codes, gourmet takeout, outdoor dining pods . . . many assumptions and autopilot ways of doing things have been rewritten.
- Manufacturers that figured out how to retool to produce public health-related products. A local distillery, for example, began pumping out hand sanitizer to address that shortage early on.
- Families that figured out ways to adapt to remote schooling. I remember seeing a photo of a mom with multiple kids who bought cubicle dividers and transformed their living room into office-like study spaces so her kids could concentrate better.
- Neighbors who have found ways to help each other. I read about communities in Malaysia using white flags hung from windows to signal that a resident needs assistance such as food.
- Mask making, mask designs, mask storage . . . . oh my, the creativity in masks!
- Healthcare organizations addressing the strain on staffing levels by redeploying non-clinical staff, leveraging medical residents and nursing students in new ways, and bringing skilled talent out of retirement.
I don’t always recognize when I or my family is stuck and in need of creative problem-solving, or at least recognize it as fast as I’d like. Sometimes we’re just too close to a situation. But here are a few examples of how I use these methods personally:
- In my children’s writing, I often take pen to Post-it note and use 7 ways to flesh out stories. Maybe a character is feeling anxious. What are at least 7 ways that could show up in their behavior and dialogue? What are at least 7 book title ideas? And so on. I also use provocations and what if? questions quite a bit.
- Around our home, I try to repurpose existing materials and do mash-ups when fixing things or trying to be crafty and creative. One of my favorite supplies I think is under-appreciated in this world: large binder clips! (I even found this Instructables page about binder clip uses.)
- Medication management is an example of how innovation in the world is slowly opening up new possibilities. We must manage all aspects of medication for one family member. This limits her desired independence with this activity of daily living. But recently, an article appeared in my news feed about a new product that secures medications and dispenses them at pre-programmed times. This doesn’t totally solve our need because we need reassurance meds are actually being ingested as planned. But it gave me hope and reminded me that product innovations are happening every day. The ability for her to safely manage her own meds could be in her future thanks to someone else’s creativity and engineering skills. Impossible today, maybe not tomorrow.
Right now, I’m tackling a new problem. I’m being pulled in so many directions managing my home and work life that I feel the quality of my writing is suffering. I’m writing but I’m thinking about my task list. I solved the time-to-write challenge last year. But now I need to ensure I can immerse myself distraction-free. I will be working on solutions first part of this year and will report back on how I worked through the steps!
A Few Resources
- My October 2021 Quick and Easy Creativity Techniques to Get Unstuck: 1-hour recording, presentation handout and resources handout with lots of links
- Creativity handouts on my website
- Articles about the assumption reversal technique: Stuck in Old Ways of Thinking? Try This Simple Innovation Technique and Turn Your Assumptions Upside Down
- Ignite Your Everyday Creativity course through Coursera – you can take for free in audit mode or pay $49 to receive a certificate if you want to apply this to professional development goals; 4 weeks online, approx. 19 hours to complete
Congratulations, you’re now a creative improvement specialist taking charge of sticky life problems! I love to hear about what people try and how it works. Or help brainstorm on use of methods. So, post below or send me a message if you want to share.