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How to Become an Expert: Creative Problem Solving

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen” – John Steinbeck

Your success in life mostly depends on two things – luck and ability to solve problems. I would leave luck topic for Irish tales and concentrate on the topic of creative problem solving.

Any active person constantly facing many problems and challenges. For example,
  • Improving relationship
  • Flying to space to be the first man on Mars
  • Overweighting and health problems
  • Winning bodybuilding or beauty contest.
  • Procrastination
  • Learning new technology
  • Making more money
  • Building next Facebook or Twitter
  • Raising kids
  • Boosting career growth
  • Becoming Olympic champion or billionaire
  • Making the world a better place
  • Planning a dream vacation
  • Seeking for happiness…

We often are inconsistent in solving problems and cannot find a good solution. This post focus on effective and creative problem solving by offering systematic approach and wide range of techniques.

Beginning

There are four main elements of Creative Problem Solving:

  1. Problem – any question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty or difficulty
  2. Solution – set of actions that solves a problem
  3. You – your knowledge, beliefs, emotions and abilities
  4. Context -forces, people and environment

And there are seven strategies:

  1. Knowing – you know how to solve the problem in practice
  2. Copying – copy and adapt working solutions
  3. Logic – follow reasoning and step-by-step approach to find a solution
  4. Lateral thinking – solving problems through an indirect and creative approach
  5. Psychology – use intuition and subconscious to pop a solution
  6. Dialogue – engage brains of other people
  7. Trial and errors – make guess, verify and refine by experiments

Before you start finding a solution, you should board the problem – understand and accept it.

Boarding a problem in 3 steps

“A wise man’s question contains half the answer.” – Solomon Ibn Gabirol

Step 1. What is the core of the problem?

  • Essentials – What are symptoms, facts, key points, players, context?
  • Root Conflict – Why is this a problem? What is the core of a problem? What is not a problem? Ask 5 whys
  • Clarity – What is still unknown and unclear? Do I need more information?
Step 2. Is this a right problem for me?
  • Feasible – Is the problem real and you can solve it? Continue by asking critical questions about the problem
    • Is it logical? Does the problem make sense for the rational part of my brain?
    • Is it subjective? Is it possible that problem exist only in my mind?
    • What are emotions and feelings? How do they contribute to my perception of the problem?
    • Is the problem based on hard facts and proven information?
  • Fit – Why is it necessary to solve? Should I really solve this problem based on my
    • needs
    • priorities
    • values and principles
    • resources (time / money)
    • potential benefits / risks?
Step 3. What is my target for solution?
  • Purpose – what is the purpose of solving the problem?
  • Stretch – should I solve bigger problem?
  • Squeeze – should I solve only part of the problem?
  • Model – what are elements and parameters of the problem? What are forces?
  • Question – use CIA Phoenix checklist of problem solving questions

Ideal solution

Next, you should think about the ideal solution (even impossible). This will help you to direct your thoughts and focus on the gap between what is possible and what you want. (Ideal Final Result)
  • Find contradictions that can be resolved – I want more money, but also want to work less and impossible – I have to be in two places in the same time. Use them as a creative stimulus to define an ideal solution.
  • Understand when you can stop, what is good enough outcome and how much time, energy and money you are willing to spend on resolving a problem
  • What are potential harms and cost of the solution?
Now, we can move to the strategies

Knowing

“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” – Will Rogers
The best option is when you know how to solve the problem and have practical experience. However Indians say that you can never enter the same river twice. Before repeating a solution think
  1. Is the situation same?
  2. Should you improve or change something from your previous solution?
  3. Can you come up with better alternatives?

Copying

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” – Albert Einstein
Reinvention of wheel is not the best way to apply your energy. Copying of existing solution is one of the most effective options that taps into boundless experience of other people (sometimes learned hard way). However, think
  1. Can you trust sources? Do they provide full unbiased information?
  2. Do you pay attention not only to glorious outcomes of the solution, but also to problems?
  3. Can you use this solution for your specific problem, situation and abilities?

Logic

“No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.” – Voltaire
Logical thinker solves a problem by reasoning and following defined steps. Many problems can be successfully attacked by our rational brain, but not all. You can use following techniques.

Reorganize break down the problem into elements or parameters and manipulate them. You can use SCAMPER method defined by Bob Eberle. (Example: a problem with failing relationship)

  • S – Substitute – components, materials, people
    • substitute something in your behavior or find another partner
  • C – Combine – mix, combine with other assemblies or services, integrate
    • start doing some things together
  • A – Adapt – alter, change function, use part of another element
    • change your home responsibilities
  • M – Modify – increase or reduce in scale, change shape, modify attributes (e.g. colour)
    • communicate more often, change your tone
  • P – Put to another use
    • use your partner as a tennis or chess opponent, engage as an assistant in fishing
  • E – Eliminate – remove elements, simplify, reduce to core functionality
    • separate or stop doing things that annoy your partner
  • R – Reverse – turn inside out or upside down
    • say opposite to what you said before
Abstract – solve a problem on an abstract level and apply to the specific problem to find a specific solution. (Abstraction) (Example: Start your blog)
  • Think about a specific topic you want to cover. Find out how people start blogs in general, what works and what are common pitfalls. Apply to your topic and situation to grow successful blog.

Analyze Variations (Example: Develop and promote new Content Management System)

  1. Parameters of a problem – list variations, combine differently
    • cost, time, features, people, quality, vendors, etc; time vs features, in-house vs outsourcing, quality vs speed
  2. Attributes list – list attributes of the object (or problem) and try to improve them (Attributes analysis, Morphological Analysis)
    • architecture, design, performance, scalability, security, reusability, networking
  3. Matrix – create related keywords in main areas, mix and match keywords to form new ideas (Leonardo da Vinci Ideabox)
    • solutions (blog, company website, e-commerce, news, social connections), needs (inform, advertise, sell, support), markets (individuals, companies, non-profit, schools, small social groups), technologies (web, video, mobile, aggregation), services (hosting, installation, support, training). For example, what could be opportunity in combination: blog + inform + schools + video + hosting

Change Context / Process / Forces (Example: Career advance)

  1. Force field analysis – maximize positive forces, minimize negative (Force-Field Analysis)
    • find how to use your strengths more and avoid negative impact of weaknesses
  2. Substitute rules, principles, people, places
    • change job responsibilities or job itself
  3. Anti-action – compensate harmful effect by specific action
    • minimize overtime or uninteresting work by changing how you accept your tasks
  4. Preliminary action – pre-arrange or change problem context in advance
    • build consensus with potential opponents before important meeting
  5. Theory of Constraints – find the worst bottleneck and improve until it is no longer a bottleneck, continue with the next bottleneck (Theory of Constraints)
    • find what are limiting factors of your growth, work on reducing their impact and increase your abilities and potential
  6. Eliminate waste
    • eliminate wasteful activities at work to boost your productivity
  7. Lemonade from Lemons – use waste or harmful effect to achieve a positive effect
    • learn from your mistakes and use them to improve and become better next time. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
  8. Feedback – introduce or increase feedback to improve action or process
    • seek for feedback and objective evaluation of your performance to advance faster by fixing your shortcomings

Explore future scenarios – project future scenarios to find unexpected opportunities (Alternative Scenarios) (Example: Deciding where to invest money)
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” – Alan Kay

  1. Identify forces
    • identify current economic forces and your personal situation
  2. Come up with 4-5 scenarios – good and bad
    • what could happen in the future with both economic and you?
  3. Search big opportunities in each
    • find how you can benefit from investment in each of scenario
Absence thinking – think about what is not there or you didn’t think before

Lateral thinking (Creative Spark)

Lateral thinker abandons logic, use creative tools and changes concepts and perceptions

Challenge assumptions, break away from obvious perspectives (Assumption Busting) (Example: Raising troubled teenager)
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. “ – Albert Einstein

  1. Expose and challenge all assumptions
    • challenge your beliefs about role of a parent
  2. Reverse problem in some way (Reversal)
    • praise for something you was punishing before
  3. Paradox – opposites exist simultaneously (True and False)
    • accept that you and your teenager are both right about controversial topic. Try to negotiate from this position
  4. Provocation – wishful thinking, thought experiments
    • unleash your imagination, go for crazy ideas about solving a problem
  5. Changing viewpoint – think from different perspective (Six hats)
    • imagine that you are a bird or live in another time. How would you resolve your relations with kid?
  6. Finally, challenge any part of the problem – ask why for anything

Force Associations (Example: Starting your own software business)
“Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected” – William Plomer

  1. Random keywords – select any word from dictionary and try to connect to your problem (Random Words)
    • For example, how a tree can be related to your new business?
  2. Words of great thinkers – use their quotes and wisdom to associate with a problem.
    • For example, how can Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” helps with business ideas?
  3. Free associating with common attributes – select 12 attributes, choose random 2, consider separating and combined (Combinatory Play)
    • break down into areas – finances, sales, development, clients, technology, usability, etc. Start pairing randomly
  4. Metaphors – similarities and connections of your problem with other distant area
    • How analogies of railroad or tropical forest can help with business idea
  5. Hieroglyphs – use Egyptian hieroglyphs to associate with your problem

Visual clues (Example: Designing web user interface for the new complex domain)

  1. Diagram to explore, organize and analyze (Lotus Blossom, Mind Map, Concept Fan)
    1. Explore – search for new areas that can be related to the problem
    2. Organize – put together as one picture what you know about the problem
    3. Analyze – go deep into a problem to find missing details and relations
    • Draw these 3 types of diagram for web site and business domain: put web site purpose in the center, start drawing branches for big ideas and aspects, branch for smaller and so on
  2. Draw and link abstract symbols for attributes
    • create symbols for web patterns and business concepts, shuffle and find ideas in random associations
  3. Drawing – draw anything that can be related to your problem; lets your subconscious drive your hand (Doodling)
    • just draw any screen ideas

Psychological tools

“Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

Use intuition and subconscious to find answers. Our subconscious is a large scene where conscious thought is a spotlight. Try to elicit ideas from these dark corners of the most powerful part of your mind. (Example: Finding new kicking-ass website idea)

  1. Intuition – ask and listen to your intuition
    • come up with website ideas without thinking
  2. Incubation – best ideas come than you don’t expect them, just don’t miss them
    • deeply dig into a problem, put into your mind and forget, and probably soon you will jump from the bath and run to the street screaming ‘eureka!’
  3. Fantasies – unleash unreal or crazy questions, suspend judgment and answer them (Crazy Ideas)
    • what if you build site for aliens? now you can think about usability for complete dummies, space design, navigation as a star system, etc.
  4. Dreaming – capture ideas from dreams
    • set questions before you sleep, try to recover answers from dreams immediately after you wake up
  5. Drink beer – to slip into different mind state. I don’t suggest becoming drunk or use something stronger or illegal 🙂
    • drink and start thinking about website, don’t foget to record your thoughts early enough 🙂
  6. Surrealistic images – find association of hypnogogic imagery with your challenges
    • relax, quiet mind and eyes, become almost unconscious- record experiences immediately after they occur
  7. Guided imaginary scenarios to find ideas in unexpected places (Imaginary Excursion)
    • choose scenario (e.g. going to camp and lost in the forest) and while you experience the journey in the head, search for clues
  8. Psychosynthesis – spiritual advisers (Role-playing)
    • invite Bill Gates, Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx to talk with you inside your head about the kicking-ass website
  9. Streaming writing out what is in your mind to associate later with the problem
    • hide in a comfortable place and start writing – smart thoughts or gibberish. Find how it could be related to the new website later.

Dialogue

“Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up because they’re looking for ideas” – Paula Poundstone
Surprisingly, most people think differently than you and can introduce many novel ideas and solutions (Example: Plan dream vacation)
  1. Talk with strangers
    • ask about vacation ideas people you don’t communicate often and you’ll get plenty of new ideas
  2. Brainstorming – exchange ideas and suggestions without judgment, evaluate and revise ideas later (KJ Brainstorming)
    • ask group of people to generate as many as possible vacation ideas without discussion
  3. Brainwriting – parallel generation of ideas in silence (index cards); exchange and develop each other ideas in turn (Brainwriting)
    • everybody in group writes vacation idea on card, give to the next in circle who continue refining this idea
  4. Survey – collect ideas from large group of people (Crawford Slip Method, Delphi method)
  5. Storyboarding – put ideas on the wall as a group works out problems
    • post vacation ideas on the wall and let anybody to contribute (add or extend idea)
  6. Socratic dialogue – have a conversation with a smart person and probe various dimensions of thinking: purpose, evidence, reasons, data, claims, beliefs, interpretations, deductions, conclusions, the implications and consequences of thought, response to alternative thinking from contrasting points of view, and so on.

Trials and Errors


Solving a problem by trial and error is an expensive, but reliable way to find a solution. In science it called scientific method. Most scientific discoveries are done using this method. (Example: Becoming happy)

  1. Ask a Question
    • form a problem statement – what is happiness for you?
  2. Do Background Research
    • learn what other people think about happiness
  3. Construct a Hypothesis
    • what could make you happy?
  4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
    • try your ideas in practice
  5. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
    • are you happy now? should you change a hypothesis and start again?
  6. Communicate Your Results
    • share your results – help other people to become happier

Summary

Your life success depends on your ability to choose right problems and solve them. Do not give up or settle for an ineffective solution. Use the power of your mind to creatively solve problems the best way possible. Control your life.
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Comments

And when it’s all said and done you have no idea what the best answer for a problem is or what is going to happen tomorrow. You just think you do, and that makes you dangerously arrogant and oppressive. We really are so small and so lost in the vast, unmeasurable sea of knowledge and undiscovered fact coupled with the unfathomable probabilistic event. It really is worth being humble.

When it’s all said and done, consider that your wisdom is naught. Ask God to guide your thoughts and trust that He will do it. Then get up and do your work with all your might, knowing that He will make it happen as you have no control over almost anything. And lastly, remember that you will have to face Him some day.

Comment by florin | April 27, 2010 9:52 pm

…and that’s why you’ll never become an expert at creative problem solving, florin.

Comment by eric | April 28, 2010 12:00 am

Excellent article!

Comment by Avinash | April 28, 2010 12:20 am

Wow, What a well presented article. I will use it as a personal reference for a long time. Thank You My Friend and God Bless You !

Comment by Ram Prasad | April 28, 2010 11:45 pm

Florin – the Lord helps those who help themselves. He gave you the ability to reason for a reason.

Comment by MJF | November 25, 2010 3:31 pm

To be honest I stopped reading at the list of problems and challenges that “any active person” faces. Pretty sure that “Becoming Olympic champion or billionaire” and “Flying to space to be the first man on Mars” don’t belong on the same list as “Making more money” and “Procrastination”. Bodbybuilding or beauty contests and building the next Facebook/Twitter aren’t exactly common activities either.

It’s not that the list is so very bad, more that I don’t think I want to take personal advice from someone who can’t stay consistent for the length of a dozen list items.

That and your English isn’t brilliant. I take it from your name that it’s not your first language, so that’s understandable (and your English is far superior to my ability with any other language) but I can’t help but notice little mistakes and be irritated by them.

Also while I’m here, florin, your god-talk is not helpful. We may be subject to all kinds of events that we don’t have control over, but there is nothing to suggest that we’re getting any help from the supernatural. I don’t care if you have a couple of anecdotes; take a look at the problems of the world, the big things, and you’ll see a distinct lack of divine intervention.

We’re on our own, we have to make the best fist of things we can, despite so many events being beyond our control. Appealing to a nonexistent deity to solve our problems for us isn’t going to achieve anything.

Comment by Matt` | February 27, 2011 7:51 am

Very good synthesis and quotations,
in what situations these techniques will work &
how long is it going to take to master them?

Comment by Bala | May 29, 2011 6:50 am

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