Creative and Effective Problem-Solving


Creative and Effective Problem-Solving

  • By Ian Bradley
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Problems in business are the norm; however, accepted ways to solving those problems might be less obvious. I have assembled a two-part, 10-tip guide, that follows a timeline from conceptualization of the problem to the ultimate presentation of a possible solution. I hope that you find the material helpful.

Tip 1 Characterizing the Problem:

Starting off on the right foot- that the first theme. In other words, inhibit the impulsive to dive into the search for solutions without going through a comprehensive analysis of the problem.

The Problem Lab at the University of Waterloo ( has performed innovative work, particularly in the first step to problem-solving, namely, characterizing the problem. They ask questions in three domains:

#1 Scale or importance of the problem, eg number of people affected
number and extent of those affected)

#2 Content, both putative causes and resultant effects

#3 History; bot of the problem and attempted solutions

Tip II Multi-perspective view of the problem:

The Problem Lab’s approach to defining the problem is broad and comprehensive. The value of this multi-dimensional perspective was reinforced in a recent article from McKinsey which drew upon a comparative anatomy analogy.

“Dragonfly-eye perception is common to great problem solvers. Dragonflies have large, compound eyes, with thousands of lenses and photoreceptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Although we don’t know exactly how their insect brains process all this visual information, by analogy they see multiple perspectives not available to humans. The idea of a dragonfly eye taking in 360 degrees of perception6 is an attribute of “superforecasters”—people, often without domain expertise, who are the best at forecasting events.

Think of this as widening the aperture on a problem or viewing it through multiple lenses. The object is to see beyond the familiar tropes into which our pattern-recognizing brains want to assemble perceptions. By widening the aperture, we can identify threats or opportunities beyond the periphery of vision.

Adopting this multi-lens perspective means talking to many people both within and outside your organization.

Tip III Representing the Problem:

Expert problem-solvers differ from novices in many dimensions. Experts obviously have more domain-relevant information about the problem than novices. Experts have that information better organized with easier cross-referencing. However, they are actually slower to start the generation of potential solutions, why? Because they do something that novices don’t do – they take the time to make an internal representation of the problem.

You know that you have a good representation of the problem when you can comprehensively and succinctly explain it to someone else. Better yet, when you can draw it. My favorite aid to using schematic diagrams to illustrate complex ideas comes from Dan Roam.

Tip IV Start with a hypothesis.

Dr Paul Saffo of Stanford in his book “Strong opinions, weakly held” ( advises us to develop a hypothesis early even in the face of incomplete information.

“For example, you may have to forecast the revenue potential of a new business opportunity, or the impact of a new product. Despite the lack of available information, you should develop a tentative hypothesis for your forecast
Instead of collecting information that simply supports your views, try to uncover information that refutes the hypothesis. In fact, actively seek the contradictory information — this provides you with data to iteratively improve the forecast, until you get to the right answer.”

Tip V After that first Hypothesis, Generate Others

To land of the right solution, one has to generate many possibilities. Creative generation is an engine fueled by curiosity. Here how McKinsey explains it:

“As any parent knows, four-year-olds are unceasing askers. Think of the never-ending “whys” that make little children so delightful—and relentless. For the very young, everything is new and wildly uncertain. But they’re on a mission of discovery, and they’re determined to figure things out. And they’re good at it! That high-energy inquisitiveness is why we have high shelves and childproof bottles.

One simple suggestion from author and economist Caroline Webb to generate more curiosity in team problem solving is to put a question mark behind your initial hypotheses or first-cut answers. This small artifice is surprisingly powerful: it tends to encourage multiple solution paths and puts the focus, correctly, on assembling evidence. We also like thesis/antithesis, or red team/blue team, sessions, in which you divide a group into opposing teams that argue against the early answers—typically, more traditional conclusions that are more likely to come from a conventional pattern. Why is this solution better? Why not that one? We’ve found that better results come from embracing uncertainty. Curiosity is the engine of creativity.”

Creativity is swamped by stress, anxiety or criticism, therefore follow Peter Schwarts’s advice in The Art of the Long Game and tell yourself and your team to “ask outrageous questions” without “being afraid to look silly.”

to be continued