Creativity & Problem Solving – Step 1

By Paul R. Scheele Ph.D. | Learn

If we have a problem, we want to solve it fast. However, a fast solution isn’t always better. In our haste we often solve the wrong problem–the real problem and its solution isn’t always as obvious as it seems.

Problem solving endeavors often fail due to unclear problem definition. Most people and teams are eager to get to a solution and only invest 20% of their focused problem-solving time thinking about the problem and generating what seems to be an obvious solution. The remaining 80% of their time is spent implementing their “right solution” to the wrong problem. As a result, they experience more of the same problem.

What if we took 80% of our problem-solving time to accurately determine what the real problem is and is not—before we begin implementing the solution? As a result we would tend to get better solutions to the right problems. The big bonus is that implementation would become faster, more elegant, and significantly easier.

Solving How You Solve Problems

When you have financial troubles, it makes sense that getting a quick cash infusion will solve the problem. When the problem is chronic, cash is not a fix. As an entrepreneur and business owner for 40 years, I’ve come to understand that money rarely solves financial problems. Lack of cash is only a symptom of a potentially much bigger disease in a business. Cash is merely a bandage, not a source of healing. We must find the source of the real problem first.

My wife’s friend recently attempted to make her video gear behave. After several failed attempts at button pushing she handed off the remote control and said, “This is why I hate technology!” Looking at the remote, my wife, Libby, tried a variety of sequences and achieved the desired result. The solution required an “unintuitive” set of steps—a lateral move—that did not make logical sense.

When Libby’s friend didn’t know the proper sequence she kept repeating what she thought should work and gave up too soon. Libby stuck with the exploration of alternative solutions and intuitively figured it out. We must examine our approach and assumptions to question whether the problem lies within us.

The president of a company wanted to try a new approach to selling his services and decided to produce a webinar. After the script was produced he asked us to look at it to improve it with the sales principles we teach at Scheele Learning. After an intensive meeting with all the stake holders, a completely different social-media marketing approach was revealed.

The company president concluded, “We had to start somewhere, because ‘you can’t improve on something you don’t have.’ Building the webinar script was the first round in generating a robust solution to our problem. All part of the 80% up-front exploration and discovery phase of problem solving.”

Gnarly problems are the recalcitrant dilemmas we face that seem to defy our attempts to solve them in spite of our best efforts. Why? Because these wicked problems exist as the unintended consequence of how we are going about solving them.

Literally, gnarly problems exist because of the way we design and implement efforts to solve them.

To approach our most difficult problems we must take time up front—as much as 80% of our problem solving time—defining the problem.

It doesn’t feel right to do so, after all, we need to get to a solution asap. However, taking time allows us to inquiry about our understanding and description of the problem. This allows us to expand our problem definition which includes: 1) the barriers to solving it, and 2) the potential unintended consequences of implementing a given solution.

Every solution can create new potential problems.

This is s a risk of every problem solving endeavor.

The better you can anticipate the consequences of implementing a solution, the better your problem solving becomes.

Define the Gap

Imagine yourself in a tug of war between your present situation and your desired situation. When a problem exists, you want to move away from your present and move toward your desired outcome. Your definition of the problem will often only include your description of the gap between here and there.

Based on your point of view, the definition of the present situation may be different than someone else’s assessment of it. You might say, “We have old equipment that needs to be replaced but we don’t have the money to replace it. This is a financial resource problem.” Someone else looking at the same situation might say, “Our old equipment needs more maintenance than we are giving it, but we don’t have the people needed to keep up with the maintenance demand. This is a problem of a lack of qualified help to meet current demands.” Someone else may know that the operations manager is in over his head, leading to an assessment of “poor resource management and bad hiring practices for maintenance staff. This is a management and staffing problem.”

Step 1: Defining a problem, requires that you explore a variety of perspectives that cover the conditions, consequences, and current results related to the actual gap between where you are now and where you want to be. Write down what you uncover as part of the problem’s definition. Then, consider what the blocks, barriers, or obstacles may be to bridging the gap. Each barrier you identify helps expand your definition of the problem.

Most teams agree on where we are going and disagree on how to get there.

Action Steps
Pick a problem you need to address. Take time to think about the problem from a variety of perspectives. Describe the gap between where you are now and where you want to be. List potential barriers you might encounter as you attempt to move from here to there. This is both a rational and a creative process. Use your imagination and stay in the inquiry.

In the next post in this series, we’ll explore how creativity plays into the generation of creative solutions, and how to discover the “unintuitive” moves that can get you to a workable solution.

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© Paul R. Scheele, Ph.D. | Scheele Learning Systems | All Rights Reserved