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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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4.6 What makes problem solving ‘creative’?

There are many ways of problem solving creatively; it is an approach that entails addressing the issue in a way that is somehow new or different, yet still appropriate – or seeking a solution that is creative, innovative or unexpected.

Creative problem solving tends to be characterised by a mental orientation that

  • questions and challenges
  • investigates deeply, widely and from a range of perspectives
  • is prepared to generate many ideas, or ones that are not obvious or usual.

This creative orientation may be manifest in part or all of the process of problem solving, and does not preclude a rational, analytic approach. Indeed, rigorous analysis or a structured method is central in much creative problem solving. However, there is great variety, from quick and easy techniques, to long and complicated multi-staged methods, and approaches that are more like philosophies or personal development tools.

Creative problem solving is normally a continuous enquiry and learning process, in which understanding evolves on several fronts in parallel, to the point where you finally know what to do about the situation that faces you. Different techniques may be more or less useful at different phases of the process. For instance, in the early stages it is usually more helpful to focus on exploring the situation, and less on generating ideas or negotiating with stakeholders, though this may happen too.

The notion of problem solving taking place in identifiable stages is a common one. Creative problem solving often works by splitting the thinking about an issue into a series of stages. Many authorities talk in terms of three main stages:

  • an initial exploratory phase where one identifies the problem to work on and considers it from different angles
  • a second phase where one considers alternative ways of dealing with the problem
  • a third phase where one works out the detailed implementation of a chosen way forward.

Within each of these three phases it is common to encourage a divergent, imaginative phase where different acts and possibilities are considered, followed by a more convergent, evaluative phase where these possibilities are considered and a way forward is chosen. Since the whole process is itself an expansive opening out of new actions, it needs its own overall evaluation phase as well – in effect a fourth stage.

So you can think of the problem-solving process as follows.

Table Stages of creative problem solving
StageOpen up (diverge)Close down (converge)
Stage 1: Explore problemExplore different actionsSelect key problem
Stage 2: Generate ideas and plansConsider alternative ideasSelect preferred option
Stage 3: Implement planPlan supporting actionUndertake action
Stage 4: EvaluateMonitor progressAdapt action

How much time you spend on each phase depends on the nature of the problem; a problem you were unclear about probably warrants more time in the exploration stage, whereas something more straightforward may merit more time in the idea generation stage. If the issue is likely to generate conflict, then the implementation stage is likely to be worth considerable attention.

Set out this way, the procedure seems very rigid; in practice it is much more relaxed and iterative. If, for example, during the idea generation stage you suddenly realise that some other problem is really the one you should be addressing, go back to an earlier stage for another round of clarifying and exploring the nature of this problem; then return to generate and consider possible courses of action for this reformulated problem.

Problem solving should be very practical and end up with a plan that feels appropriate and that the problem owner is willing to implement. If, after selecting a plan of action, you realise that in fact you are not prepared to implement it, then treat that as a useful insight and go back and consider other plans until you find the best one, which you are willing to implement.

One reason for problems is that people often think too narrowly, in ‘mental tramlines’ (habits worn into the brain’s patterns of thought over time). If you attempt to consider the problem, solution or plan of action from various different perspectives before a convergent (narrowing thinking, closing down) phase, you force the mind to go beyond its usual habits and assumptions. From these different vantage points it may jump to a new and more appropriate response to the problem. The divergent (opening up) phase in each stage may help people who evaluate possibilities too quickly.

People inclined to the opposite tendency of ‘castles in the air’ thinking or those who find it hard to make choices, may benefit from the discipline of the convergent (closing down) phases. The action-planning phase often helps the vague-minded to commit themselves to a concrete action.

As you get more practised with creative problem-solving techniques, you will speed up and become better able to judge which techniques to use in different circumstances. The different stages and phases may blur into each other, but a skilful problem solver will remain aware of where they are in the process, and whether convergent or divergent thinking is being emphasised, even if the procedure appears less tightly structured. Even without using particular creative techniques, awareness of these stages can provide a useful model for applying to many problem situations.

Activity 8 Converge, diverge

Select some problematic issue (it could be the same one as you used for Creative problem solving activity 2 or 3, or it could be a different one).

Diverge: Make some notes or sketches about different aspects of the issue. Aim to open up your thinking as widely as possible while doing this, rather than being focused on what might be most important. Explore the edges of the issue, break it down into sub-parts, or get ideas from the previous exercise on stakeholders’ perspectives. Spend 5–10 minutes on this.

Converge: Even if you realise that your divergent investigation is incomplete, close down your thinking now, and – based on your divergent exploration – jump to a conclusion about what you think the main or key problem is in this issue. What’s the core of the matter, the most important question to answer, or the factor that’s causing the most difficulty? Formulate this key problem in a short sentence. Spend 2–5 minutes selecting the key problem, and a similar time composing your sentence.

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You have just carried out a very brief and speeded-up attempt at Stage 1 of a basic problem-solving process. How easy was it for you to hold off jumping to conclusions (or even proposing solutions) as you thought divergently? Or did you wish you had more time to extend your exploration further?

And how readily did you home in on the core of the issue when invited to think convergently? Did it seem obvious what the key problem really was? Or did you find yourself still entertaining many other possibilities or uncertainties, or struggle to find a succinct verbal expression of the heart of the matter?

What did you instinctively find easier – divergent or convergent thinking?