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Based on 60 years of study and practice in the field of creativity, we know that creative outcomes must be deliberate. We also know that the creative problem-solving (CPS) process is a universal set of four steps designed to frame a problem, find a novel solution, and formulate a plan of action. These CPS steps comprise the building blocks of innovation. First up: Clarify a problem, challenge, or opportunity.

  1. Clarify and identify the problem

Identify the problem or goal and clearly define the parameters. The purpose of this is to completely understand what the issues are; it isn’t always exactly as it seems, and breaking it down can help challenge the original interpretation to best identify strategies moving forward.

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.

EX: 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.
  • Once you are clear on the real issues behind your problem, then you can turn these issues into creative challenges.

A creative challenge is basically a simple question framed to encourage suggestions or ideas … ‘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?’ are 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 I find a more challenging job?’ and after generating ideas, you can use the criteria to identify the ideas with the greatest potential.

Understanding the CPS process is important because creative thinking is one of the most useful skills you can possess.

Nearly every problem you face in work and in life can benefit from creative solutions, lateral thinking, and innovative ideas.