The Creative Problem Solving Process

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Problem Solving Skills

"Never try to solve all the problems at once — make them line up for you one-by-one." — Richard Sloma

How well can you solve your problems?  Solving problems is one of the most fundamental skills in life, and it’s something we get to practice every day.

I learned early on that wishing away problems didn’t work and that it was more effective to embrace challenges as a part of life, as a chance to grow and expand myself.  One of my favorite sayings is, "Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger."

Unfortunately, we don’t always get taught the best ways to solve our problems.  Some of the less effective ways include anger, blame, avoidance, curling up into a little ball, etc.  The good news is, you can improve your problem solving skills by using problem solving techniques.

One of the most effective problem solving techniques to add to your problem solving skills cache is the Osborne-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, or CPS for short.  It’s strength lies in casting a wide net over the problem, and testing multiple paths and possibilities before locking in on a particular solution.

In the book, Creatively Ever After: A Path to Innovation , Alicia Arnold writes about how you can use the Creative Problem Solving Process to tackle your challenges in work and in life.  It’s about getting science and structure on your side, while unleashing your creative powers to solve the tough stuff.

The Creative Problem Solving Process

According to Alicia, you can think of the Creative Problem Solving Process in six main steps:

  • Step 1. Identify the Goal, Wish, or Challenge.
  • Step 2. Gather Data.
  • Step 3. Clarify the Problem.
  • Step 4. Generate Ideas.
  • Step 5. Develop Solutions.
  • Step 6. Plan for Action.

Check Your Current Problem Solving Approach

While the process may look simple and obvious, the key is to compare it to your current approach:

  • Do you know your goal?  (Can you state it in one line?)
  • Have you gathered any data and sorted facts, opinions, and fiction?
  • Do you have true clarity of the problem you are solving?  (Can you state the problem as a simple question, such as, “How to ….”?)
  • Do you generate multiple ideas or just run with the first thing that pops in your head?  Do you look across the ways other people have solved this problem before, and find the patterns?
  • Do sketch out solutions and possibilities and test for fit or do you dive into the details?
  • Do you turn your ideas and solutions into actionable steps?  Do you break the steps down into mini-goals that you can test and get feedback?

While a lot of problems can be solved by jumping to conclusions and drawing from experience, many of the problems we face cannot.  Whether you’re solving a health problem or changing the game at work, a process like the Creative Problem Solving Process can help you tap into your creative potential.  Better yet, with a process like the Creative Problem Solving Process, you can harness and leverage the collective brain power of multiple people in a coordinated way.

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Photo by Alaskan Dude.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Great pattern!
    Unfortunately I witness more often that steps 1-4 are skipped ending up with irrelevant solutions and wasted time and energy, and a problem not being solved.

  2. I have a children’s problem – solving book that uses this same formula and was written by a nursery school teacher in North Seattle. I have used this formula for 30 years to work with children and it works so well a few years into it I started using it with groups and work experiences – it is amazing.

    I have written about problem-solving a great deal because we seem to keep doing the same thing over and over and just spinning our wheels so often.

    Without Spanking or Spoiling by Elizabeth Crary is the name of the book and I call it the S.I.G.E.P method…
    S= stop
    I= Id the real problem
    G= Generate ideas and research
    E= evaluate the ideas and data
    P= plan of action

    teaching people about problem-solving, emotions, and communication skills seems to be a lost art and they are vital components to teaching people how to think and learn…and look at the results we are experiencing because of the lack of these skills- it surrounds us hourly

  3. I know if feels obvious but I would like to add step 7, take action.
    It should be evident that you should once you have done all the steps up to it but sadly much to few people ever do.

    Just look at MBA students for example, during the course they develop a business plan, an action plan, a goal, funding and everything else they need in order to start a business, yet only about 1 in 10 ever get around to starting the business.

    Taking action is the one most important step in any endeavour, without it the rest of the time was wasted.

  4. JD, can’t top that at all so won’t – one mighty fine approach my friend. My only thoughts would be that some people may not even have a problem in the first place. They invite them into their world by making dramas out of annoyances. When we can begin to see minor hassles as mere passing clouds then problem solving may just have got a whole bunch easier.

  5. I am not even sure if I follow a structure or plan when it comes to problem solving. Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I don’t. However, in cases when I do, I believe that I have been applying the process steps as outlined in your post. Thank you for sharing!

  6. @ Alik — I’m glad you pointed out what happens when we don’t follow the steps, and it echoes my experience.

    @ Patricia — It sounds like you have a good formula with a wealth of experience. Problem-solving, emotions, and communication skills are a powerful combination for bringing out the best in teams.

    @ Daniel — The lack of action does foil the best of plans. I’ve learned to trade the perfect plan for imperfect action, and modify my approach as I go. Over-planning is an easy trap to fall into, so I deliberately set a bias for action, and it’s proven helpful time and again.

    @ John — I know what you mean. I’ve seen people make mountains out of molehills, and make major productions out of otherwise trivial things. There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

    @ Evelyn — I think my simplest structured approach starts with the question, “How’s this been solved before?”, and my unstructured approach tends to be intuitive and more about pattern matching. I find if I sleep on a complex problem, I tend to wake up with creative answers.

  7. Hi JD .. I know I did all the bad things early on in life! But I’ve always been a quick thinker and could ascertain what needed to be done and do it. Problem solving and me don’t really seem to mix .. yet those I can’t sort I let ‘sit’ around for a while and eventually they come.

    I’m a very pro-active person if I can see a potential challenge ahead – I’ve usually put the wheels in motion before others think about it .. so I’m prepared at least.

    I have finally worked out what I want to do! Only taken three years .. but the pieces needed to ‘ping’ into place – and now it’s just the action plan – slow but sure – and it’s an ‘easy’ idea to replicate .. bliss!

    I’ve lots of other ideas too .. so just the doing. I’m back on the tracks .. and that’s a big relief .. now to follow your action points and ‘do’ point 6.

    Cheers Hilary

  8. Hey, J.D. I couldn’t agree more on breaking it down into small steps, and sketching out a simple plan. And avoiding anger and blame.

    This post reminds me that sometimes problems we perceive turn out to be things we actually need to learn to let go. As Liara Covert taught me, what we focus on becomes part of us. Sometimes, as I say. Obviously — imediate challenges for our food, shelter and well-being take precedence. But often I find things I worry about do not matter for my overall development.

    xo

  9. Hi J.D. Like this plan, but i do agree with Daniel in adding #7. People do forget to take action.

    And many problems are not problems like John said. If you think you have a problem, most likely you will. If you think you don’t have a problem, it is most likely a little detour that you can get around.

    However if you do have a real problem it does help to talk it out, get great input from others. They always say, 2 heads are better than 1 and this really works when there is a real problem.

    Keep it up JD many people need help with solving there problems.
    Blessing
    Debbie

  10. @ Hilary — I’m a fan of the boy scout way — be prepared. How’s the saying go –“an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure”?

    Sometimes it takes a while to build enough foundation that plans can take off. It must feel great to get to the doing.

    @ Jannie — Beautiful insights.

    Just today, I was reflecting on the idea that we keep bumping into the lessons we still need to learn. I had to ponder why. Then it occurred to me. If you’ve solved the problem before, you won’t even notice it anymore because either you’ll either skate over it, plow through it, or navigate around it with skill.

    @ Debbie — It’s always refreshing for me when I find somebody with a bias for action.

    One of the biggest differences I’ve seen between people that would be wildly successful and those that are struggling is developing the ability to take consistent action. I’ve seen it change so many lives.

  11. hey jd:) another simple yet insightful post. Totally agree with the earlier posts re the need to “take action”. I also know that the above steps constitute the right approach. My struggle is getting a hold of my emotions so i could deal with the problems in the right perspective. Sometimes it’s not as easy… and this affects the results or aim I wish to get.

    Years of dealing with challenges and consulting with “peers/friends” have yielded me varying results. I have:

    1. junked well thought-out plans that came with double contingencies (back up upon back up)’cause the situation suddenly changed overnight

    2. blamed myself for having weak character after being told by someone that i “crack under pressure” as i supposedly always opted for the easy way/s out and so i never get to pull things together.

    3. opted to avoid some old friends (who i thought made me feel bad) and felt that some old friends have also avoided me (i figured they felt heavy whenever they’re around me and my problems back then)

    What i’ve realized on hindsight is that:
    1. There’s never a foolproof plan.
    (Mistakes are bound to happen, there’s no point in over-planning simply prepare the best you can)

    2. The game will keep on changing.
    (Resilience and accepting the fact that things don’t really stay the same way will keep you a step ahead)

    3. Keep your morale high while aiming for the goal.
    (includes being with positive people, things that motivate self, ways to keep a sense of humor, happy memories and a sense of gratitude)

    4. Weed out opinions that don’t promote “your positive growth”.
    (am referring to put-downs and negative labelling. there’s a difference between absorbing the harsh realities vs. listening to opinions that may cause one to develop feelings of self-doubt or blame)

    In the end, self perception and personal power will be the ones to pull things through during tough times. Other people or events merely serve as either catalysts or obstacles. For me, it’s about building a better “You” while in the process of solving the problem..:)

  12. @ Riza — Absolutely stellar hindsight.

    These are gold …
    1. There’s never a foolproof plan.
    2. The game will keep on changing.
    3. Keep your morale high while aiming for the goal.
    4. Weed out opinions that don’t promote “your positive growth”.

    One of my toughest lessons was learning that life’s not static and that it’s better to have a sustainable way forward, than trying to get “set for life.” The idea of “set for life” is wonderful in Fairy Tales, but it’s not a very effective strategy in real life.

  13. Hi J.D.!

    I definitely have my own problem solving process. It involves peeling away the layers to first find the problem. Recently, I thought a problem was the problem then realized that was the distraction hovering to my left, the real problem was on my right. Lots of decoys out there.

    Once I find the real problem then it’s easy to proceed. I always concentrate on the bigger what and let the how catch up to me. Humans can do all sorts of things they don’t think they can do. I imagine the Wright Brothers saw a bird and thought, “hmmm. how can i fly like that?”

    thx, G.

  14. While I certainly applaud a systematic approach, I fear the CPSP has several hidden traps that its users may never realize they’ve fallen into. I find the Problem Pyramid™ to be a more powerful disciplined method for getting the problem and solution right. It has six steps too, with certain similarities to CPSP but also important big differences. Data gathering is involved throughout and thus not accorded a separate step. Similarly, throughout there is systematic checking and challenging what you come up with at each point. And, yes, action is necessary to use the method as well as to implement the solution.

    Problem Pyramid™ step 1 is accurately defining the REAL problem, opportunity, or challenge that will provide meaningful value when addressed. Step 2 defines the current measures that tell us it is a problem. Step 3 defines the goal measures that tell us the problem has been solved, which provide the value or benefit. Achieving the goal measures is the objective or purpose, and I’d contend to get the objectives right you first must get the problem right, which too often doesn’t happen, even I fear using methods like CPSP. Getting the measures and value right are integral and essential to getting the problem right.

    Before jumping into generating ideas, the Problem Pyramid™ step 4 identifies the causes of the problem which are producing the step 2 current measures that tell us we have a problem. The Problem Pyramid™ distinguishes two very important and different types of ideas and solutions. Step 5 identifies what I call the REAL business requirements, deliverable _whats_ that together achieve the step 3 goal measures and thereby provide value. Step 6 identifies a way _how_, including an action plan, to accomplish the step 5 _whats_.

    Too often people leap to the step 6 product, system, or software _how_ without adequately understanding steps 1-5. In my experience, CPSP types of approaches almost always define a step-6-type solution _how_ without first identifying the step 5 _whats_ the _how_ must satisfy.

  15. @ Rochelle — Thank you.

    @ Giulietta — It’s amazing how elusive the problem can be, even when we’re hot on the trails to go solve it. I find that a problem that’s well-defined, rarely stands a chance.

    There are so many things in my life I was able to do because I did not know that I couldn’t.

    @ Robin — I like your points and I agree. One of the practices I use at work is I identify “the tests for success.” It makes a world of difference in shaping the possibilities and trending in the right direction.

  16. My wife and I were having this almost exact conversation this morning. Our six-year-old has been coming home from school every day (she’s in first grade) and – without having mandatory homework – will begin writing WORD PROBLEMS. She LOVES them. She will start asking us questions (“If we have ____ coins and we take ____ away, how many do we have?”). I didn’t have the love of math that she does, but I’m willing to bet she is learning some problem-solving skills and logic that will serve her very well in life. I was so proud of her.

  17. @ Bryan — I think the skills we learn early on really get baked in. We can definitely teach an old dog new tricks, but the dog has to want to learn, and it might require some unlearning. A clean slate is great.

    I actually like word problems. That was the first time math got fun for me. Really, it was because my Algebra teacher believed in me, more than I did. Strangely, it was my best year. I guess I didn’t want to let her down.

  18. I came across the SIMPLEX model from Min Basadur earlier. I found a description here: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCT_10.htm It is very similar to what you described.

    However, if I would create my own version of the model I would add an explicit “Looking up Models/Best Practice/etc.” between steps three and four. Too many times did I try to come up with my own solution approach to a problem without looking up how other people have solved a similar problem. What looks to me as mess might turn into a difficulty by looking at it from the right angle.

  19. @ Klaus — I’m a fan of rounding up models and best practices.

    I found that’s actually the short cut. It’s very rare that you’re the first one to have to solve the problem you’re facing. In fact, that’s why I’ve used “stand on the shoulders of giants” as a key theme.

    I’ve written an article about modeling from the best. It’s in my “Articles” section, and it’s called The Way of Success.

  20. You know, I’ve always identified problem solving as one of my key skills but always in the sense of programming and science, not in life. =P I haven’t really paid attention to how important problem solving skills are within relationships and life decisions for example.

    It seems like Step 3 might be easily overlooked. Sometimes, we think the problem is so clear, but realize how complex or different it might be than originally thought when we take the time to sort out our thoughts. Great post, JD!

  21. @ Samantha — I think one of the beauties of programming is we learn to sort our problems and thoughts with skill.

    Once I realized that problems are a part of life, I really appreciate problem solving skills now … both the science and the art.

  22. This is a great post! I like to think about problems and sometimes I come up with solutions and sometimes, I don’t. Having problem solving broken down into steps makes a lot of sense and would probably give me a better solution to just flying by the seat of my pants. Yikes! I do that a lot!

    Thanks!

  23. @ Maddie — We really get a lot of power when we break things down. It’s the power of concentrated focus.

  24. Hey JD – The problem Solving process is really a road map to thinking. The step’s you’ve outlined here are the logical process to get from A to Z. This is helpful because A can seem mile’s away from Z – and without the right thinking tools its can be a crazy maze.

    I really believe in self study I taught my self to read this was the biggest problem I’ve faced. I had to come up with thinking/action tools – to get me from A non read/writing to to Z my fully capable its took year’s, dyslexia was be big problem.

    Great post

    Blessing
    Be Great

  25. @ Lloyd — Thank you.

    Those are some of the best tools you can add to your toolbox for life. The fact you had to work at it, gives you an advantage. You don’t take it for granted and you now know the power you have in your hands.

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