Creative Problem Solving at Work

Charlene Chang


Creativity is often linked with problem-solving. Problems come in all shapes and sizes including crossword puzzles, scientific paradoxes, industrial relation conflicts, ethical issues, difficult managerial decisions, and other global questions that have annoyed many peoples of many nations and races all over the world.

A distinction can be made between 'close-ended' and 'open-ended' problems. Close-ended problems have answers that are logical consequences of the nature of the problem 'givens'. Open-ended problems do not have correct answers, because for example, they are not precisely enough defined, or because there is disagreement about the nature of the problem, with different people seeing it in different ways.


Apart from being categorized as close-ended and open-ended problems, problems can also be classified as one-right-answer problems, insight problems (or aha problems), wicked problems, vicious problems, and fuzzy problems.

(1) One-right-answer problems

The classic problems of our school days: many people continue to assume that all problems have a right answer. Such a belief will block off many opportunities for creativity, and is all too often quite wrong. Problems with one correct answer are rarer than most people imagine, as they have to be quite unambiguously defined and stable over time.

(2) Insight problems, or 'aha' problems

These problems turn out to have unexpected answers which are sometimes discovered through the classic moment of insight. The result may be a new perspective on the nature of the problem and the assumptions we have been making.

(3) Wicked problems

These problems are the ones for which the potential solution cannot be proved until the respective problems have been tackled. The test of the solution is in its execution.

(4) Vicious problems

These are a bit like wicked problems. Here the problems involve people, and they may appear to have obvious answers. However, when conventional remedies are applied they turn out to produce solutions which in turn create even bigger problems than the ones that were there originally.

(5) Fuzzy problems

This term has become popular with the growing importance of and interest in computer-aided problem-solving. Fuzzy problems have very unclear boundaries which make them difficult to resolve using logical analytical approaches, but well suited to be attacked by creative problem-solving. Wicked and vicious problems are also examples of fuzzy problems, as are most other non-trivial difficulties we would encounter in our work and personal lives from time to time.



Mindsets are personal perspectives based on past experience. They help us become sensitized to important repeated patterns of events, including potential problems. For survival the mindsets are helpful, as we can recognize dangers readily, particularly when we are having problems with incomplete information. A flashing red light sets off our alarm systems, and we become alert and ready to react. Learning from experience provides more useful mindsets. We are sensitized to patterns that remind us of successful problem-solving. So we do not have to re-invent the wheel. We can usually automatically act under the influence of our unconscious 'set'. This could involve dealing with work problems.

However, over-rigid mindsets produce 'stuckness' when things have been changed but everything looks the same as before. Since we are used to accept the similarities with the past, if we have made and incorrect assumption, we may carry on for far too long before discovering our error.

Creativity can be seen as an escape from some dominant mind set. A constructive work climate can help loosen mind set, and conversely a negative climate can strength it. One of the roles of a creative leader is to establish a constructive climate, thereby liberating the creative talents of his followers.


Creative problem-solving techniques can be seen as a series of opening up and closing down sequences. Typically, opening up involves postponing judgement, using techniques to challenge mind-sets, and accumulating a range of possibilities. Closing down involves selection, focusing, and development.

There are two important types of stuckness that are more related than they seem at first sight: -

(1) stuckness because of a shortage of options; and

(2) stuckness because there are too many options.

Stuckness often arises when we are so short of ideas that we can see no satisfactory way out of our problems. Sometimes we find we are overwhelmed with possibilities, a state which can induce feelings of stuckness arising from the difficulties in selecting the most promising one to act upon. The state of mind for effective opening up of problems or ideas is that of deferred judgement.

Goal orientation is an approach to identifying the dominant mindset in problem-solving by listing goals as 'how to' statements. It can be practiced daily and will rapidly prove its value as a means of escaping from stuckness which is due to failure to study the problem carefully enough. It can be used as a structured technique for groups or individuals. Or it can be developed into an attitude of mind that is increasingly able to challenge and go beyond initial assumptions.

'Yes and' is a method of overcoming negativity towards ideas, by treating weaknesses as opportunities for more creative problem-solving.

Metaphoric thinking is a particularly powerful way of tricking the left brain in order to release suppressed ideas. Working on disguised problems can reduce the internal censorship, assist deferment of judgement, and lead to new and valuable ideas.

Dominant problem-solving strategies are habitual ways of tackling problems which reflect personal mindsets. A more flexible style can follow deliberate attempts to practice strategies that are less congenial. For example, if we prefer a left-brain strategy we could practice the right-brain approaches such as metaphor as a fallback in problem-solving.

Another way of broadening one's range of problem-solving strategies is to become more receptive to people with opposing problem-solving styles.


In creative problem-solving some people have been put off by the difficulties in 'closing down' and are deterred from searching processes that would throw up more than a few options. It is important to know that there are excellent methods of closing down, and in order to get access to them it would be unwise for us to restrict our creative idea-generation.

The gut feel technique appeals to those who favour a more right-brain mode of decision making. It is particularly appropriate when relevant information is unclear and difficult to obtain. Voting is a good way of establishing consensus, although care must be taken to avoid its manipulative uses, which restrict outcomes to a few politically acceptable ones.

Clustering reveals important patterns within sets of information and is of particular use when understanding of these patterns is more important than finding winners from a set of ideas. Hurdles are means of sorting out ideas which arrive over a period of time. It can act as a course filter for ideas of different kinds, e.g. with different amounts of information available about them.

Weighting is a technique which appeals to those who favour a more left-brain mode of decision making. It is particularly appropriate if the items being weighted are similar, and comparable.

These simple rules will provide guidelines regarding 'which technique where', but there will often be a need to experiment with more than one technique, to develop a greater understanding of their scopes and limitations.


Creative analysis is a conscious attempt to understand and analyze creative behaviours, particularly those associated with some conscious strategy for being creative, with the goal of providing new and modified approaches for future attempts to stimulate creativity.

We get ideas by discovering meaning in the matters of personal significance. We are blocked from getting ideas by unhelpful mindsets and thought habits. Creativity techniques provide a 'set to break set', thus liberating fresh ideas. However, with repeated use techniques themselves become ritualized habits, and lose their ability to help participants break out of their unhelpful mind sets.

Creative analysis is an approach for maintaining the power of creativity techniques through modifying them after experiments and analysis. It can be assisted by good planning, keeping creative and analytical stages apart; reviewing and recording creativity exercises; and by experimenting with modifications which suggest themselves over time.


Blockbusting techniques are deliberate attempts to help individuals or groups to escape from mental blocks. The best known individual methods internationally are the various versions of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is a process and a set of techniques that would demystify the creative process by providing thinking tools and conceptual framework.

Intermediate impossible’ idea is an idea which would be rejected by logical conventions of either/or thinking. However, when we are learning to use lateral thinking it is useful to have a label such as 'intermediate impossible' to remind us that we are not operating in our normal yes/no thinking mode. An impossible idea is impossible only because it has been predetermined by the assumptions of our mindsets. In this way we can treat such an idea as a stepping stone from one view of reality to a new one.

Random juxtaposition breaks out of mind sets by bringing together current thinking and an unexpected and random additional focus or concept. It becomes possible to find connections that are remote from our habitual thought combinations. Instead of waiting for rare new experiences to happen we create them deliberately and attempt to link them to our past experiences.

Concept challenge operates by challenging what is usually taken for granted. If progress is deliberately blocked off temporarily in one direction it becomes easier to find an alternative direction or a lateral leap. Once again, the important first step to convert the principle into a deliberate thinking aid is recognition of the need for challenging concepts.

Reversals is a technique for producing a switch away from a blocking viewpoint to a different one, so that a perceived threat reveals an unnoticed opportunity. Bunches of bananas is a technique related to random juxtaposition. It is often an intervention to provide 'a whack on the head' and break people loose from a dominant mind set.

Wishful thinking induces more right-brain efforts, and challenges reality assumptions. It is related to the intermediate impossible technique. Knight's Move thinking jumps over obstacles and especially helps escape from unpleasant either/or dilemmas, thus turning close-ended views of problems into more open-ended ones.

Force-fitting implies deliberate attempts to merge two ideas to get an unexpected and valuable result. The process is a vital part of effective use of the other blockbusting techniques, such as intermediate impossible, random juxtaposition, bunches of bananas, and the climate setting 'yes and' approach.

Practicing the techniques by using a trigger phrase can assist the process of acquiring a wider set of creative responses to stuckness.


Brainstorming today is an effective tool for idea generation usually operated in small team. The team members are generally allowed to throw out ideas freely though very ofter are required to observe some guidelines or instructions given by the team leader to facilitate postponement of judgement during the idea generation stage. The brainstorming process is in fact a large family of related techniques including synectics which is really a powerful, well-researched approach for improving group interactions, and for deliberately seeking novel ideas through metaphors and other structures that encourage more right-brain thinking.

Nominal groups are versions of brainstorming in which the group members do not interact directly. Ideas are generated and collected, often with anonymous voting to deal with possible status problems. The methods are particularly sound for consensus seeking on complex social and organizational issues.

Successful brainstorming requires considerable planning including establishment of suitability of the problem, motivation and delegation of power to the person requesting or conducting the brainstorming, and selection and briefing of the team members. Location should be also carefully considered to give a positive climate. Leading a brainstorming well requires practice and sensitivity to small group behaviours for establishing a climate of judgement deferment.

Brainstorming is a good method collection of set of ideas, or beliefs rapidly. More complex strategies have to be incorporated to increase the chances of producing particularly novel ideas. Much remains to be done to find ways of increasing right-brain thinking during brainstorming so that the technique overcomes a tendency to produce left-brain and verbal outputs.


Structuring techniques are methods of structuring complex systems to enable effective examination of relationship. Structuring devices play a part in creative problem-solving when there is a need to examine complicated and connected systems of ideas for deeper understanding, e.g. revision of textbooks for examination, preparation of technical report, considering design options, restructuring organizations, etc.

Mind maps such as Buzan Diagrams and relevance trees have been widely used in assembling information for writing reports, summarizing lectures, and preparing notes for a public presentation. Morphological systems have to be applied to a range of graphical representations of data. Many new product ideas have emerged from two-dimensional grids and three-dimensional boxes by systematic and creative searching of the combinations displayed.

Creativity-spurring checklists help us widen our search area for ideas and serve to move us on from blinkers imposed by mind sets. The techniques demonstrate that creativity requires both freedom and structure for new and valuable ideas to flourish.


The five basic strategies used by people at work for getting ideas into action are: persisting until you succeed; modifying the idea; influencing key people to gain their acceptance and support; taking more personal control over the actions required; and developing a systems approach.

Most people would have a dominant or preferred strategy from among the five, and few people consider all five before seeking to implement ideas. When a dominant strategy is recognizably causing problems it is advisable to consider one of the others that has not been considered so seriously in the particular exercise.


If we have a single preferred strategy, it can become a mind set. We become sensitized to opportunities to deploy it, and less aware of the need to switch to other strategies. Developing sensitivity to stuckness will help us retain the balance between persisting in a strategy and trying something new.

The following list of tips has been assembled both from practical experience, and through relating the simple innovation strategies to relevant principles of creative problem-solving and human motivation theory.

The eye buys - Do not try to sell an abstract concept if it is at all possible to back up the idea with a visual demonstration. Car salesmen know that even when a customer has made up his or her mind to buy a particular model there are psychological resistances to making the buying decision. An early critical step is to invite the prospect to try out the car. The psychology is the same with ideas. People find it easier to accept what they can see and touch.

Vision getting and giving - There will be times when the influencing process requires acceptance of an idea or concept in non-tangible form. Then it becomes important to provide an evocative image for the inner eye to buy without an immediately visible external object. So the idea has to be presented in a way which captures the imagination and triggers off right-brain images. Skillful speakers know that one way to make this happen is through personalizing the message.

Getting started and maintaining momentum - Sometimes there are blocks to implementing a strategy because we do not have a clear goal. It may be possible to convert the goal into a visual image which, even when put 'out of mind', continues to work for us. But even the most powerful goal can lose its motivating force, if there are repeated failures with no sense of progress. So a tip for keeping motivation going is to set up much smaller subgoals. Reaching each target is a signal of progress, and an opportunity to feel good and reward ourselves.

Empathy - It is the gift of showing we understand and care for someone else's position. It is often a crucial factor in implementation strategies. In many implementation problems it is important to understand and respect other person's viewpoint, i.e. get into his or her mind set and out of ours. Practice, and testing our hunches, both help improve performance. One salutary exercise is to take a report we have written, and rewrite it, trying to make it fit into our understanding of the needs and beliefs of the intended audience. If there is a wide audience, concentrate on a typical recipient, or an influential recipient. In time we will find it becoming automatic to think about this aspect of impact when writing anything for public scrutiny.

Thinking implementation earlier in problem-solving - The simple model of implementation assumed by many people is to discover an idea and to do whatever is necessary to implement the idea. Whenever possible work closely with the key people, identifying their most important needs, until it becomes second nature to link our ideas and goals with the needs of those individuals critical for success of the project. There is a creative logic to this strategy. In negative organizational climates the pressures are for individuals to develop ideas in secret, delaying interaction with others for as long as possible, to avoid feared attacks on the idea 'before it is ready'. The trouble with such a strategy is that the deepest resistance to change can only be discovered through testing out the idea with those would-be idea killers. So we have every incentive to seek out participation, in order to defuse feelings of exclusion and build in acceptance-seeking aspects for new ideas.

Watching and testing for vicious problem-solving - Do not imagine that vicious problem-solving is a rare phenomenon. The impulse is there in everyday behaviours, when we become fixated on one view or strategy that ignores some vital dimensions of the situation, especially the human ones. Many managerial actions during industrial disputes accidentally make things worse in this way. The chances of vicious consequences can be reduced by becoming more sensitive to other approaches, and by exploring the various factors that might influence the impact of any idea, i.e. through taking a system view.

Reducing the blocking forces - One technique which helps us take a system approach is known as force field analysis. It is another methods which can serve as an extensive group approach, or as a back-of-the-envelope aid to innovation planning. We can imagine any human system such as an organization as being in a position of dynamic equilibrium at any time. This position gives it stability, and for this we have to assume the existence of a series of forces balancing each other out. Without balancing forces the system will be destroyed. A simple mechanical analogy is a ping-pong ball suspended on a jet of water at a fairground sideshow. The pull of gravity on the ball is balanced by the equal and opposing force of the water jet. In organizations the forces are more complex, but the principle is the same, and consideration of force field theory gives us very practical implementation advice.

Respecting comfort zones - Comfort zones are influenced by personal mind sets. Each individual is inclined to react positively to stimuli that fit within the mind set, and negatively to stimuli falling outside the mind set. Remember that mind sets are not always bad, but serve as mechanisms for coping with routine tasks, and for avoiding being overwhelmed with data. Unless there is clear evidence of a mind set having a malignant influence it should be respected and attended to when we are making a presentation. However, if there are signs of a rogue mind set, blocking an implementation strategy that deserves closer attention, there are mechanisms for change. It has been our contention that in order to challenge mindsets there is a need for consciousness-changing tricks, to bring about 'a whack on the head'.


Creativity is an escape from old beliefs and assumptions, particularly as a means of solving problems. Different problem types require different treatments, although creative problem-solving involves a repeated pattern of preparation, incubation, insight and validation.

In the preparation stage a conscious attempt is made to understand and deal with some personal need. This is rarely sufficient to resolve the need, and a fallow period follows. This is the time when we may sleep on a problem, or leave it for some other task, i.e. the second or incubation stage. Then, in a moment of enlightenment or insight, we break through to a new understanding. Finally, the discovery seems to give us the energy to realize our creative idea, i.e. the validation or implementation stage.


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  5. Problem Solving in Groups by Mike Robson, Second Edition, Gower, 1993