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why creative problem solving is important

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What Is Creative Problem-Solving & Why Is It Important?

Business team using creative problem-solving

One of the biggest hindrances to innovation is complacency—it can be more comfortable to do what you know than venture into the unknown. Business leaders can overcome this barrier by mobilizing creative team members and providing space to innovate.

There are several tools you can use to encourage creativity in the workplace. Creative problem-solving is one of them, which facilitates the development of innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Here’s an overview of creative problem-solving and why it’s important in business.

What Is Creative Problem-Solving?

Research is necessary when solving a problem. But there are situations where a problem’s specific cause is difficult to pinpoint. This can occur when there’s not enough time to narrow down the problem’s source or there are differing opinions about its root cause.

In such cases, you can use creative problem-solving , which allows you to explore potential solutions regardless of whether a problem has been defined.

Creative problem-solving is less structured than other innovation processes and encourages exploring open-ended solutions. It also focuses on developing new perspectives and fostering creativity in the workplace . Its benefits include:

Design Thinking and Innovation | Uncover creative solutions to your business problems | Learn more

Creative problem-solving is traditionally based on the following key principles :

1. Balance Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Creative problem-solving uses two primary tools to find solutions: divergence and convergence. Divergence generates ideas in response to a problem, while convergence narrows them down to a shortlist. It balances these two practices and turns ideas into concrete solutions.

2. Reframe Problems as Questions

By framing problems as questions, you shift from focusing on obstacles to solutions. This provides the freedom to brainstorm potential ideas.

3. Defer Judgment of Ideas

When brainstorming, it can be natural to reject or accept ideas right away. Yet, immediate judgments interfere with the idea generation process. Even ideas that seem implausible can turn into outstanding innovations upon further exploration and development.

4. Focus on "Yes, And" Instead of "No, But"

Using negative words like "no" discourages creative thinking. Instead, use positive language to build and maintain an environment that fosters the development of creative and innovative ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving and Design Thinking

Whereas creative problem-solving facilitates developing innovative ideas through a less structured workflow, design thinking takes a far more organized approach.

Design thinking is a human-centered, solutions-based process that fosters the ideation and development of solutions. In the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar leverages a four-phase framework to explain design thinking.

The four stages are:

The four stages of design thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement

Creative problem-solving primarily operates in the ideate phase of design thinking but can be applied to others. This is because design thinking is an iterative process that moves between the stages as ideas are generated and pursued. This is normal and encouraged, as innovation requires exploring multiple ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving Tools

While there are many useful tools in the creative problem-solving process, here are three you should know:

Creating a Problem Story

One way to innovate is by creating a story about a problem to understand how it affects users and what solutions best fit their needs. Here are the steps you need to take to use this tool properly.

1. Identify a UDP

Create a problem story to identify the undesired phenomena (UDP). For example, consider a company that produces printers that overheat. In this case, the UDP is "our printers overheat."

2. Move Forward in Time

To move forward in time, ask: “Why is this a problem?” For example, minor damage could be one result of the machines overheating. In more extreme cases, printers may catch fire. Don't be afraid to create multiple problem stories if you think of more than one UDP.

3. Move Backward in Time

To move backward in time, ask: “What caused this UDP?” If you can't identify the root problem, think about what typically causes the UDP to occur. For the overheating printers, overuse could be a cause.

Following the three-step framework above helps illustrate a clear problem story:

You can extend the problem story in either direction if you think of additional cause-and-effect relationships.

4. Break the Chains

By this point, you’ll have multiple UDP storylines. Take two that are similar and focus on breaking the chains connecting them. This can be accomplished through inversion or neutralization.

Even if creating a problem story doesn't provide a solution, it can offer useful context to users’ problems and additional ideas to be explored. Given that divergence is one of the fundamental practices of creative problem-solving, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into each tool you use.


Brainstorming is a tool that can be highly effective when guided by the iterative qualities of the design thinking process. It involves openly discussing and debating ideas and topics in a group setting. This facilitates idea generation and exploration as different team members consider the same concept from multiple perspectives.

Hosting brainstorming sessions can result in problems, such as groupthink or social loafing. To combat this, leverage a three-step brainstorming method involving divergence and convergence :

Alternate Worlds

The alternate worlds tool is an empathetic approach to creative problem-solving. It encourages you to consider how someone in another world would approach your situation.

For example, if you’re concerned that the printers you produce overheat and catch fire, consider how a different industry would approach the problem. How would an automotive expert solve it? How would a firefighter?

Be creative as you consider and research alternate worlds. The purpose is not to nail down a solution right away but to continue the ideation process through diverging and exploring ideas.

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Whether you’re an entrepreneur, marketer, or business leader, learning the ropes of design thinking can be an effective way to build your skills and foster creativity and innovation in any setting.

If you're ready to develop your design thinking and creative problem-solving skills, explore Design Thinking and Innovation , one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses. If you aren't sure which course is the right fit, download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.

why creative problem solving is important

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PISA 2012 Creative Problem Solving

why creative problem solving is important

Results and supporting documents

PISA Innovation webpage icon - Assessment

The PISA 2012 Results (Volume V): Creative Problem Solving  results present student performance in the assessment of problem solving, including an examination of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each school system and how they are related to individual student characteristics, such as gender, immigrant background and socio-economic status. The volume also explores the role of education in fostering problem-solving skills.

  Country notes: England , Germany , Singapore , Turkey , France ( French ), Japan ( English ,  Japanese ), Spain ( English ,  Spanish ), United States

  PISA in Focus:  Are 15-year-olds creative problem-solvers?  Also available: French , German , Spanish

  Additional results

PISA Icon- Reading - Innovation webpage

 Assessment framework and instruments

The full test of Creative Problem Solving (including the national versions) is available upon request via the test delivery software used in 2012. For interested researchers: please send your request, including the goal(s) of the request, to [email protected] .

Additional resources

Supporting documents.

Past events

Articles, blog posts and podcasts

Videos and presentations

For more information, reach out to the PISA innovative assessments team at  [email protected]

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The Benefits of Creative Problem Solving

Problem solving is something that business teams have to deal with every single day. While some solutions can be helpful and leave a positive lasting impact, others can be overly generic or fall short. For this reason, creative problem solving is a key focus for those looking to enhance and innovate within the workplace.

Taking creative approaches can yield great benefits for problem solving.

Many of them are much better than tried-and-true methods , which is why we want to talk about what they offer.

1. More Innovative Solutions

When a company encourages creative problem solving, they invite more innovative solutions .

If employees know that they can think outside of the box, they will do so.

With time, they will get better at it.

Encouraging creative solutions makes it possible for even bigger innovations down the line.

Employees will feel more comfortable with their line of thought and will seek out further innovations.

More innovations can lead to significant company improvements that otherwise would have taken much longer to come by.

By chasing innovation around every corner, companies are more likely to find the future of their business processes. Even better, it will happen sooner rather than later.

2. Increased Approachability

Approachability is a major point of concern for businesses because it determines how active employees are.

Most companies want employees that are highly engaged and can find their voices in an environment.

Making an approachable environment can make that possible, and creative problem solving might just be the key.

When employees see that their creativity is to be encouraged, they are more likely to speak up.

Too often, only certain personality types are comfortable with making their voices heard.

They see the people who think similarly to leaders have their ideas supported and think that they might not have as much to offer.

When they see diverse thinking is being encouraged, they will be more likely to put in their two cents and voice their opinions.

3. Solutions with Less Bias

Supporting diverse thinking isn’t just beneficial for helping employees to feel heard.

It is also remarkably effective at providing better and more creative solutions.

Even the most creative people will carry their biases into a problem solving situation.

More often than not, this isn’t a good thing.

Supporting creativity and diverse thinking can often be the solution in a lot of cases.

Since everyone brings their own biases into a solution, you might be wondering how this will help.

When creative problem solving opens the gates to allow more employees to voice their distinct opinions, magic happens.

By presenting these kinds of spaces, you will encourage the kind of idea sharing that can slowly remove bias from the solution process.

When more employees work together, they can help to work through biases or limitations that might have been overlooked for a better overall solution.

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Diverse thinking sparks creative discussions

Our flexible idea management software removes unwanted bias from the creative brainstorming process. 


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4. Creativity BoostS Employee Engagment

Encouraging creativity can work wonders for employee engagement .

The best part is that creativity tends to build on itself.

When creative problem solving becomes more prominent in the workplace, people tend to get more creative.

They will see these other creative solutions and start to think more outside of the box.

This will encourage idea sharing by making the environment seem more approachable. Better still, it will help with how employees approach problem solving in general.

More creative employees can offer more innovative problem solving solutions, particularly when encouraged.

An environment that rewards creative solutions automatically incentivises creative thinking , which means more employees will work at it.

Ultimately, this can lead to even better solutions down the line.

5. Solutions That Work

While tried-and-true methods can be beneficial, their impact can be lost over time.

It is fairly easy for effective solutions that work today to become ‘out-of-date solutions’ tomorrow.

This is because businesses are beginning to innovate incredibly fast.

Creative problem solving solutions can often be solutions that work much more effectively.

This is true because they tend to be adapted for more modern circumstances, but also because they offer a more custom approach.

Every business is different.

While businesses can learn from one another, not every solution will work for every business.

Creative problem solving solutions tend to step outside of the norm and fit the specific company that they are designed for.

Rather than providing a solution that checks a few boxes, creative solutions can be a perfect custom fit. More often than not, they will yield much better results.

In order to gain the benefits of creative problem solving, a company must first begin by encouraging it.

Supporting idea sharing and offering employees a chance to have their voices heard can go a long way with groups.

It determines how creative a group will get.

To really encourage creative solutions, it is important to get the right people in the room — the more the better.

Use effective tools to make collaboration and problem solving easy, and you will reap the rewards.

A company that fosters creativity will always be one step ahead of its competitors, so start thinking more creatively today!

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why creative problem solving is important

Why Children Need Creative Problem-Solving Skills

As children grow, they quickly discover that not all problems have straightforward solutions. Whether they need to find the best solution for a project in an academic setting or navigate a situation in their personal lives, creative problem-solving (CPS) skills can help prepare kids to take on challenges that require thinking outside the box. 

Read below to learn why helping children cultivate CPS skills at a young age can prove beneficial, both now and long into the future.

Mental Health Benefits 

In addition to causing the school closures and inconsistent access to education and extracurricular activities that have led to learning losses , the COVID-19 pandemic has proven detrimental to children’s mental health across the country. Lacking the ability to easily socialize in person with their friends, many parents and educators have reported that the students in their lives are struggling with bouts of sadness and depression. 

Research has shown that teaching a child CPS skills can improve their mental health by showing them how to overcome problems that might at first seem insurmountable. For example, if your child is upset and overwhelmed because they miss interacting with their friends, consider helping them to first identify the problem and then brainstorm solutions. Are there ways to spend time together virtually? Has your child ever considered writing a letter to their friends? Is there an activity or common goal that would allow their friends to team up and work together?

Exploring many different solutions to a problem helps children realize that they have more agency than they might have thought. It can also lead them to better express issues that might be troubling them.

Future Advantages

CPS can help equip children for a future in which employees across industries will be expected to develop solutions to problems that do not yet exist. They will need to reach beyond simply having the latest technology, software or even specialized knowledge to apply these tools in a way that prioritizes discovering effective solutions. In other words, they will need to apply CPS skills to embrace the unknown and reframe nerve-wracking uncertainty as an opportunity for growth.

Especially when used in a group context, CPS can create positive experiences by encouraging input from an entire team.  Instead of worrying about personal concerns like who deserves credit for a particular idea, the solution to problems instead becomes the product of collaboration. 

This shift in mindset is one that some of the world’s most innovative and successful companies use to innovate. Here at the National Inventors Hall of Fame ® (NIHF), we know that just because a current solution or process works right now, that does not mean it can’t be improved or simplified. That’s why CPS is a crucial component of NIHF education programs. 

CPS and the Innovation Mindset 

In collaboration with our NIHF Inductees , individuals whose inventions have made significant contributions to society, we have identified nine essential skills and traits that unlock creative potential. We call this the Innovation Mindset , and it guides the development of all our education programs . 

CPS is an important part of the Innovation Mindset because it encourages children to use critical and creative thinking to develop innovative solutions. Early experience with CPS prepares children to take on both everyday problems and complex challenges with confidence. 

See More Trends in STEM 

To learn more about the latest trends in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, we invite you to visit our blog .

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How to improve your creativity and problem-solving skills.

Find out how you can harness your creativity and how it can help boost your productivity in the workplace, as well as enhance your problem-solving skills.

Improve Creativity Problem Solving

Even if your career doesn’t seem to be a particularly creative one, you’ll often find that hiring managers look for examples of creativity and innovation in their employees. Curiosity and creativity often go hand-in-hand and can lead you to flourish in your role – from solving problems, to innovation in your approach. But how do you harness this essential soft skill?

Mindfulness is one of the top tips for creativity , and it can help improve the quality of thought and mental flexibility as well, but there are other methods you can use to improve your creativity in the workplace and help your critical thinking and problem-solving. Let’s take a look at why creativity is one of the most important soft skills you can have.

Why are soft skills important?

Soft skills often refer to both character traits and to interpersonal skills – effectively meaning the ways that you can communicate and work with others in a constructive way. Effective communication and teamwork skills are essential skills to have in nearly every workplace, and employers will be on the lookout for proven examples of these.

In fact, the World Economic Forum predicted that by 2025, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity would rank among the most important soft skills to have in the workplace. Soft skills are used every day in the workplace, and developing your skillset will make you stand out to employers. Here are some of the ways that soft skills can help in the workplace:

It’s not just in the office or classroom that soft skills are important though. Outside of the workplace, soft skills are essential for creating lasting bonds with other people and communicating your needs and desires. Problem-solving and decision-making techniques can also be applied professionally and personally.

What is creativity? 

We’ve talked about creativity being an essential soft skill – but what is creativity? Essentially, creativity is the ability to consider a task or a problem in a different way. Similarly, it’s the process of using your intuition to try and formulate new ideas. It can help you solve complex problems and find different, more interesting ways to approach various tasks.

Having this openness to innovation and mental flexibility can take some time and effort. You can find out more about how you can adopt a creative mindset and overcome resistance to innovation with our Creativity and Innovation course.

Understanding creativity is about knowing how and when you can express and use this skill in the workplace. In addition, employers will take notice of candidates who can and have used it for different ways of problem-solving .

Why is creativity important? 

Being creative is often essential to problem-solving, both in and out of the workplace. Creative problem-solving will prove you have the ability to approach an issue from every angle, rather than a simple linear, logical approach. 

With such a large number of new technologies and new ways of working appearing at a rapid pace, companies have to tap into the creative energy of their employees in order to grow. Creative problem-solving will help teams to generate innovation – from uncovering new approaches to problems, developing new products, or improving existing processes.

Examples of creativity in the workplace

So how do you go about expressing your creative energy in the workplace? And how would you demonstrate your creativity in an interview or on a job application? Let’s take a look at some examples of creativity in the workplace.

Creativity in leadership

Creativity that is inspired from the top down often leads to a much more innovative mindset. In turn, this can increase employee loyalty and workplace value. A creative team leader will inspire others to be more creative in their work processes. This, in turn, will lead to members of the team feeling more comfortable with sharing their ideas. 

Within team dynamics

Everyone expresses their creativity in different ways. Knowing, understanding, and nurturing these different strengths and weaknesses of each individual team member will lead to a more creative workflow. For some people, it creates a safe space for creative expression.

Encouraging creativity 

Many employees might feel daunted by the prospect of total creative freedom. If a psychological ‘safety net’ of sorts is implemented, such as having another team ready to ‘catch’ them if they ‘fall’, then employees will feel more comfortable with expressing their creativity. After all, one of the biggest risks of creativity is failure. With this framework in place, employees will be more open to taking risks.

Asking Questions

Diversity of viewpoint is one of the most effective ways to not only tap into your creative energy, but also encourage others to think creatively and ponder solutions. Brainstorming and getting opinions from people who might not have felt like they had a voice is a really important way of inspiring creativity and solving problems.

Creativity and innovation

Creativity and innovation are the pathways to obtain better productivity , improved processes, and internal harmony within a business. Harnessing these two soft skills can lead to higher levels of success , and one complements the other – innovation requires implementation, so put your creative energies into practice and consider the results.

As with creativity, innovation can be tricky to spot in your team. Creative and innovative ideas can come from just about anywhere – it’s all about nurturing these as they come up and managing innovation when you can. But while they both can work off each other, it’s important to give them both space to grow independently from each other.

You can learn more about how you can Build a Leading Innovation Strategy with our free online course. Here, you can find out about trends in innovation, how to lead innovation projects, and how you can implement them in your workplace. It can even help you prove your innovation skills for things like job applications and interviews.

How to improve your creativity skills 

As we’ve learned, creativity skills are really desirable for employers and can be incredibly useful in the workplace. So how do you go about improving your creative skills? Let’s go through some of the different ways that you can improve your creativity.

It’s worth remembering that many of us may express and develop our creativity in different ways. While some of these points may be useful for certain individuals, others may have different (and no less valid) ways of thinking. 

Work on your self-awareness

Becoming self-aware and acknowledging the limitations of our own thought processes when it comes to creativity is the first step to becoming more creative and innovative. Know what you’re capable of and act upon it once you have this understanding.

Practise empathy

Empathy is a key element in emotional intelligence and will allow you to understand the viewpoints of customers, clients, and co-workers. Practising creative empathy will result in more valuable, creative solutions to problems that might arise.

Expand your knowledge

Become an expert in your field and you’ll understand every angle of a problem. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to consider different ways of exploring solutions to problems. You can even end up with the skill to identify issues before they arise.

Draw on your previous experiences

Look to experiences you have had in the past, and harness your personal history to give you perspective on the situation at hand. What was the outcome of that past issue? How can you achieve similar or better results? Learn from the past and apply those lessons.

Collaborate with others

This is one of the best ways of conjuring creative solutions, as well as identifying potentially obvious solutions that may not have been tried before. Learn how to Improve your Creative Collaboration , and work out your role in your team.   

What are problem-solving skills?  

We’ve touched on using creativity to help with problem-solving, but what about out and out problem-solving skills? Problem-solving and decision-making techniques can help you to come to a swift resolution for any issue that might arise, and are key skills that employers look for when hiring.

The most effective problem-solving often happens when you work as a team. With our course on Problem-Solving Techniques , you’ll explore the tools you need to work as a team to find appropriate solutions, as well as giving you the chance to experiment with design thinking. 

Problem-solving skills involve the employee quickly identifying any issues, coming up with suitable solutions for them, implementing those solutions, and reviewing how effective they were. Businesses need people who can accurately assess potential problems, and come up with solutions.   

Why is problem-solving important?

Employers will often look for good problem-solving skills in a candidate because it shows you have a variety of different attributes. These include logic, resilience, determination, imagination, and, of course, creativity. 

People with good problem-solving skills are often the ones who come up with new ideas, and consider different or better ways of completing a task. Good problem-solving skills can also help you to explain complex issues to other employees as you end up with a better, more rounded consideration of the matter at hand.

As the world of work embraces new technologies, it’s never been more important to understand how to solve problems in a creative way. There’s more scope for more moving parts to go wrong, so if you want to get more of a handle on Problem Solving in the Digital Age , join our ExpertTrack and develop your decision-making skills. 

Examples of problem-solving in the workplace

Problem-solving is seen as a soft skill rather than a hard skill, although a lot of how you approach problem-solving can be learned. What’s more, you’ve probably already gathered these essential soft skills through previous roles and experiences. 

If you’re in need of a refresher, or want to learn more about problem-solving, check out how you can use Creative Problem-Solving in your current role, from solving everyday problems all the way through to enhancing your creativity for problem-solving. Let’s take a look at some problem-solving examples, as taken from our open step on problem-solving and employability .

Define the problem

This is the first step in problem-solving. Figuring out the issue at hand will help you to understand the steps you need to take to solve the problem. If you have spent enough time teaching yourself about the intricacies of your role, you may even be able to predict the problem before it becomes a reality too.

Generate solutions

Using any relevant previous experiences, as well as communicating with other t eam members , you’ll be able to come up with a suitable solution to the problem at hand. Working with others in a seamless and constructive way is essential in problem-solving.

Evaluate the solutions

Evaluating what you and your team have come up with is another important step, and will require you to make the final decision about the next steps in solving this problem. Which one is the most effective and most efficient solution to the issue? Thinking creatively here can help you come up with something you may not have considered.

Implement the solution

The next step involves putting the best solution into action. Working as a team will mean that you can perform this in a timely manner, and if you focus on the individual skills that each team member brings to the table, you’ll hopefully end up solving the problem quickly and easily. 

Assess the solution

How effective was the solution you decided upon? Did it solve the problem in an efficient and timely manner? Consider the choices you made, and learn from both successes and failures, so you might be able to apply your knowledge in the future.

How to improve your problem-solving skills

So how do you go about improving your problem-solving skills? Honing these particular skills is a really great way to make yourself stand out from the pack when applying for jobs and attending interviews, as it will show how you can generate creative and efficient solutions to any problems that might arise, as well as recognising what needs to be done before taking action.

Improving your problem-solving skills doesn’t have to be a lengthy and difficult process, and can actually start with something as simple as rephrasing the problem. If your problem is ‘this project can’t work without having any money’, try rephrasing it into something like ‘how can this project work without any money’. Here are some other tips on improving your problem-solving skills.

Focus on the solution, not the problem

This is easier said than done. All too often, we focus on the problem at hand, and this generates negativity, which is a stumbling block to solving problems. By merely acknowledging the problem, and instead turning your focus to the solution, you’ll be able to formulate a game plan.

Define the problem as simply as possible

Often we end up overcomplicating things that are actually very simple. Consider what caused the problem, then take every detail apart and go right back to basics. By doing this, you could end up generating a really easy solution.

Brainstorms and teamwork

Once you have defined the problem, gather your team and work out as many different solutions as you can come up with. There are no wrong answers at this stage, so be sure to keep an open mind and encourage your team to tap into their creative side. There are various techniques you can try, such as the Delphi technique and the Stepladder technique .

Learn from the past

When you’re approaching a problem, consider any similarities it might have with a problem you managed to solve in a previous role. What did you do to solve this problem? Did it work? How could you improve on it? Learn from your successes and mistakes.

Final thoughts

Creativity and problem-solving skills are more important now than they’ve ever been before. Employers will be on the lookout for any potential employee who can demonstrate their creativity and innovation skills, as well as those who also have proven critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills.

Improving your knowledge and understanding in these two areas can make a huge difference to how you work, and how you collaborate with others as well. Now more than ever, teamwork is incredibly important in the modern workplace. 

With LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trend Report stating that 92% of managers believe soft skills are just as important as hard skills, there’s never been a better time to improve your creativity and problem-solving skills.

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Problem-Solving with Creative Thinking

Creative problem-solving is a type of problem-solving. It involves searching for new and novel solutions to problems. Unlike critical thinking, which scrutinizes assumptions and uses reasoning, creative thinking is about generating alternative ideas—practices and solutions that are unique and effective. It’s about facing sometimes muddy and unclear problems and seeing how things can be done differently—how new solutions can be imagined. [1]

You have to remain open-minded, focus on your organizational skills, and learn to communicate your ideas well when you are using creative thinking to solve problems. If an employee at a café you own suggests serving breakfast in addition to the already-served lunch and dinner, keeping an open mind means thinking through the benefits of this new plan (e.g., potential new customers and increased profits) instead of merely focusing on the possible drawbacks (e.g., possible scheduling problems, added start-up costs, loss of lunch business). Implementing this plan would mean a new structure for buying, workers’ schedules and pay, and advertising, so you would have to organize all these component areas. And finally, you would need to communicate your ideas on how to make this new plan work not only to the staff who will work the new shift, but also to the public who frequent your café and the others you want to encourage to try your new hours.

We need creative solutions throughout the workplace—whether board room, emergency room, or classroom. It was no fluke that the 2001 revised Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy, originally developed in 1948, placed a new word at the apex— creating . That  creating is the highest level of thinking skills.

A diagram illustrates the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy by showing a comparison between “The Old Version” versus “The New Version.”

Bloom’s Taxonomy is an important learning theory used by psychologists, cognitive scientists, and educators to demonstrate levels of thinking. Many assessments and lessons you’ve seen during your schooling have likely been arranged with Bloom’s in mind. Researchers recently revised it to place creativity—invention—as the highest level

“Because we’ve always done it that way” is not a valid reason to not try a new approach. It may very well be that the old process is a very good way to do things, but it also may just be that the old, comfortable routine is not as effective and efficient as a new process could be.

The good news is that we can always improve upon our problem-solving and creative-thinking skills—even if we don’t consider ourselves to be artists or creative. The following information may surprise and encourage you!

Is this you? Even if you don’t yet see yourself as a competent creative thinker or problem-solver, you can learn solid skills and techniques to help you become one.

Creative Problem-Solving: Fiction and Facts

As you continue to develop your creative thinking skills, be alert to perceptions about creative thinking that could slow down progress. Remember that creative thinking and problem-solving are ways to transcend the limitations of a problem and see past barriers. It’s a way to think outside the box.

creative problem-solving: a practice that seeks new and novel solutions to problems, often by using imagination rather than linear reason


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The Basics of Creative Problem Solving – CPS

why creative problem solving is important

By: Jeffrey Baumgartner

Creative problem solving isn’t just brainstorming, although that’s what many people may associate it with. It’s actually a well-defined process that can help you from problem definition to implementing solutions, according to Jeffrey Baumgartner.

Creative ideas do not suddenly appear in people’s minds for no apparent reason. Rather, they are the result of trying to solve a specific problem or to achieve a particular goal. Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity were not sudden inspirations. Rather they were the result of a huge amount of mental problem solving trying to close a discrepancy between the laws of physics and the laws of electromagnetism as they were understood at the time.

Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison and other creative geniuses have always worked in the same way. They do not wait for creative ideas to strike them. Rather they focus on trying to solve a clearly stated, at least in their minds, problem. This is just like important TED talks to ideate for business innovation specifically discussed to get a better solution for existing problems.

This approach has been formalized as Creative Problem Solving (CPS). CPS is a simple process that involves breaking down a problem to understand it, generating ideas to solve the problem and evaluating those ideas to find the most effective solutions. Highly creative people tend to follow this process in their heads, without thinking about it. Less naturally creative people simply have to learn to use this very simple process.

A 7-step CPS framework

Although creative problem solving has been around as long as humans have been thinking creatively and solving problems, it was first formalised as a process by Alex Osborn, who invented traditional brainstorming, and Sidney Parnes. Their Creative Problem Solving Process (CPSP) has been taught at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo College in Buffalo, New York since the 1950s.

However, there are numerous different approaches to CPS. Mine is more focused on innovation (that is the implementation of the most promising ideas). It involves seven straightforward steps.

How to Turn Crowdsourced Ideas Into Business Proposals

In October 2020, Pact launched AfrIdea, a regional innovation program supported by the U.S. Department of State. This was geared towards unlocking the potential of West African entrepreneurs, social activists, and developers in uncovering solutions to post-COVID challenges. Through a contest, training, idea-a-thon and follow-on funding, they sought to activate a network of young entrepreneurs and innovators from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and Togo to source and grow innovative solutions. Learn their seven-stage process in the AfrIdea case study.

Get the Case Study

Let us look at each step more closely:

1. Clarify and identify the problem

Arguably the single most important step of CPS is identifying your real problem or goal. This may seem easy, but very often, what we believe to be the problem is not the real problem or goal. For instance, you may feel you need a new job. However, if you break down your problem and analyse what you are really looking for, it may transpire that the actual issue is that your income does not cover your costs of living. In this case, the solution may be a new job, but it might also be to re-arrange your expenses or to seek a pay rise from your existing employer.

Five whys: A powerful problem-definition technique

The best way to clarify the problem and understand the underlying issues is to ask yourself – or better still, ask a friend or family member to ask you – a series of questions about your problem in order to clarify the true issues behind the problem. The first question to ask is simply: “why is this a problem?” or “why do I wish to achieve this goal?” Once you have answered that, ask yourself “why else?” four more times.

For instance, you might feel you want to overcome your shyness. So, you ask yourself why and you answer: “because I am lonely”. Then ask yourself “Why else?” four times. You answer: “Because I do not know many people in this new city where I live”, “Because I find it hard to meet people”, “Because I am doing many activities alone” and “Because I would like to do activities with other people who share my interests”. This last “why else” is clearly more of the issue than reducing shyness. Indeed, if you had focused your creative energy on solving your shyness issue, you would not have actually solved the real problem. On the other hand, if you focused your creative energy on finding people with whom to share activities, you would be happier without ever having to address the shyness issue.

More questions you can ask to help clearly define the problem

In addition, you can further clarify your problem by asking questions like: “What do I really wish to accomplish?”, “What is preventing me from solving this problem/achieving the goal?”, “How do I envision myself in six months/one year/five years [choose most relevant time span] as a result of solving this problem?” and “Are my friends dealing with similar problems? If so, how are they coping?”

By the time you have answered all these questions, you should have a very clear idea of what your problem or real goal is.

Set criteria for judging potential solutions

The final step is to decide what criteria you will eventually use to evaluate or judge the ideas. Are there budget limitations, timeframe or other restrictions that will affect whether or not you can go ahead with an idea? What will you want to have accomplished with the ideas? What do you wish to avoid when you implement these ideas? Think about it and make a list of three to five evaluation criteria. Then put the list aside. You will not need it for a while.

2. Research the problem

The next step in CPS is to research the problem in order to get a better understanding of it. Depending on the nature of the problem, you may need to do a great deal of research or very little. The best place to start these days is with your favourite search engine. But do not neglect good old fashioned sources of information and opinion. Libraries are fantastic for in-depth information that is easier to read than computer screens. Friends, colleagues and family can also provide thoughts on many issues. Fora on sites like LinkedIn and elsewhere are ideal for asking questions. There’s nothing an expert enjoys more than imparting her knowledge. Take advantage of that. But always try to get feedback from several people to ensure you get well-rounded information.

3. Formulate one or more creative challenges

By now, you should be clear on the real issues behind your problems or goals. The next step is to turn these issues into creative challenges. A creative challenge is basically a simple question framed to encourage suggestions or ideas. In English, a challenge typically starts with “In what ways might I [or we]…?” or “How might I…?” or “How could I…?”

Creative challenges should be simple, concise and focus on a single issue. For example: “How might I improve my Chinese language skills and find a job in Shanghai?” is two completely separate challenges. Trying to generate ideas that solve both challenges will be difficult and, as a result, will stifle idea generation. So separate these into two challenges: “How might I improve my Chinese language skills?” and “How might I find a job in Shanghai?” Then attack each challenge individually. Once you have ideas for both, you may find a logical approach to solving both problems in a coordinated way. Or you might find that there is not a coordinated way and each problem must be tackled separately.

Creative challenges should not include evaluation criteria. For example: “How might I find a more challenging job that is better paying and situated close to my home?” If you put criteria in the challenge, you will limit your creative thinking. So simply ask: “How might a I find a more challenging job?” and after generating ideas, you can use the criteria to identify the ideas with the greatest potential.

4. Generate ideas

Finally, we come to the part most people associate with brainstorming and creative problem solving: idea generation. And you probably know how this works. Take only one creative challenge. Give yourself some quiet time and try to generate at least 50 ideas that may or may not solve the challenge. You can do this alone or you can invite some friends or family members to help you.

Irrespective of your idea generation approach, write your ideas on a document. You can simply write them down in linear fashion, write them down on a mind map, enter them onto a computer document (such as Microsoft Word or OpenOffice) or use a specialized software for idea generation. The method you use is not so important. What is important is that you follow these rules:

Write down every idea that comes to mind. Even if the idea is ludicrous, stupid or fails to solve the challenge, write it down. Most people are their own worst critics and by squelching their own ideas, make themselves less creative. So write everything down. NO EXCEPTIONS!

If other people are also involved, insure that no one criticizes anyone else’s ideas in any way. This is called squelching, because even the tiniest amount of criticism can discourage everyone in the group for sharing their more creative ideas. Even a sigh or the rolling of eyes can be critical. Squelching must be avoided!

If you are working alone, don’t stop until you’ve reached your target of 50 (or more) ideas. If you are working with other people, set a time limit like 15 or 20 minutes. Once you have reached this time limit, compare ideas and make a grand list that includes them all. Then ask everyone if the have some new ideas. Most likely people will be inspired by others’ ideas and add more to the list.

If you find you are not generating sufficient ideas, give yourself some inspiration. A classic trick is to open a book or dictionary and pick out a random word. Then generate ideas that somehow incorporate this word. You might also ask yourself what other people whom you know; such as your grandmother, your partner, a friend or a character on you favourite TV show, might suggest.

Brainstorming does not need to occur at your desk. Take a trip somewhere for new inspiration. Find a nice place in a beautiful park. Sit down in a coffee shop on a crowded street corner. You can even walk and generate ideas.

In addition, if you browse the web for brainstorming and idea generation, you will find lots of creative ideas on how to generate creative ideas!

One last note: If you are not in a hurry, wait until the next day and then try to generate another 25 ideas; ideally do this in the morning. Research has shown that our minds work on creative challenges while we sleep. Your initial idea generation session has been good exercise and has certainly generated some great ideas. But it will probably also inspire your unconscious mind to generate some ideas while you sleep. Don’t lose them!

5. Combine and evaluate ideas

After you have written down all of your ideas, take a break. It might just be an hour. It might be a day or more. Then go through the ideas. Related ideas can be combined together to form big ideas (or idea clusters).

Then, using the criteria you devised earlier, choose all of the ideas that broadly meet those criteria. This is important. If you focus only on the “best” ideas or your favorite ideas, the chances are you will choose the less creative ones! Nevertheless, feel free to include your favorite ideas in the initial list of ideas.

Now get out that list of criteria you made earlier and go through each idea more carefully. Consider how well it meets each criterion and give it a rating of 0 to 5 points, with five indicating a perfect match. If an idea falls short of a criterion, think about why this is so. Is there a way that it can be improved in order to increase its score? If so, make a note. Once you are finished, all of the ideas will have an evaluation score. Those ideas with the highest score best meet your criteria. They may not be your best ideas or your favorite ideas, but they are most likely to best solve your problem or enable you to achieve your goal.

Depending on the nature of the challenge and the winning ideas, you may be ready to jump right in and implement your ideas. In other cases, ideas may need to be developed further. With complex ideas, a simple evaluation may not be enough. You may need to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis or discuss the idea with others who will be affected by it. If the idea is business related, you may need to do a business case, market research, build a prototype or a combination of all of these.

Also, keep in mind that you do not need to limit yourself to one winning idea. Often you can implement several ideas in order to solve your challenge.

6. Draw up an action plan

At this point, you have some great ideas. However, a lot of people have trouble motivating themselves to take the next step. Creative ideas may mean big changes or taking risks. Some of us love change and risk. Others are scared by it. Draw up an action plan with the simple steps you need to take in order to implement your ideas. Ideas that involve a lot work to implement can be particularly intimidating. Breaking their implementation down into a series of readily accomplished tasks makes these ideas easier to cope with and implement.

This is the simplest step of all. Take your action plan and implement your idea. And if the situation veers away from your action plan steps, don’t worry. Rewrite your action plan!

CPS and innovation

Any effective innovation initiative or process will use CPS at the front end. Our innovation process does so. TRIZ  also uses elements of CPS. Any effective and sustainable idea management system or ideation activity will be based on CPS.

Systems  and methods that do not use CPS or use it badly, on the other hand, tend not to be sustainable and fail early on. Suggestion schemes in which employees or the public are invited to submit any idea whatsoever are effectively asking users of the system to determine a problem and then offer a solution. This will result not only in many ideas, but many different problems, most of which will not be relevant to your strategic needs. Worse, having to evaluate every idea in the context of its implied problem – which may not be clear – is a nightmare from a resource point of view.

Systems and methods which are based on CPS, but in which creative challenges are poorly defined, also deliver poor results either because users do not understand the challenge or the problem is poorly understood and the resulting challenge stimulates ideas which in themselves are good, but which are not actually solutions to the true problem.

That said, CPS is a conceptually simple process – but critical to any innovation process. If you do not use it already, familiarize yourself with the process and start using it. You will find it does wonders for your innovativeness.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

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why creative problem solving is important

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