How to Increase Creativity in Problem Solving

Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.

Image Credits: Sebastian Stam Unsplash.com

Creativity is perhaps the most misunderstood of all disciplines.

According to Donald N. MacKinnon, who is considered to be a world-leading researcher on creativity:

“Creative people have considerable cognitive flexibility, communicate easily, are intellectually curious, and tend to let their impulses flow freely.”

Creative thinkers tend to be balls of energy and productivity machines. Think of Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Another is Yoshiro Nakamatso, a Japanese inventor who claims to have his best ideas while underwater suffering from oxygen starvation. He invented the floppy disk in 1952, apparently seconds away from death by drowning.

So far so good.

But that brings us to a fundamental question.

Why can’t we use those “balls of energy” and “brilliant ideas” in solving our personal problems?

What could be better than solving your very own personal problem with creativity?

At some point in life, everyone is a problem solver. You have a problem when your current situation differs from your desired goal. You want to be rich, but your account balance is circling the drain.

You want to date that gorgeous person, but you get tongue-tied whenever you even think about it. You are gunning for that promotion, and your boss is not interested. In each case, what you want and what you have are decidedly different.

And in most of the cases, we have the driving and motivation to solve the problem but there is no clear-cut procedure to go about it. We dither and teeter for some time and finally give up. End of story.

But it doesn’t have to be always like that. If one keeps on applying creativity techniques in each and every aspect in all the walks of life, one can emerge as a successful problem solver in the future life. The task is Herculean I admit but it can be done.

That brings us to the fascinating study done by the brilliant mathematician, George Pólya (1887–1985). His monograph for solving problems aptly titled How to Solve It summarizes the problem-solving process as below.

· First, make sure you understand the problem. You do this by developing a problem-solving mindset.

· After understanding, then make a plan for solving the problem.

· Carry out the plan by executing your solutions.

· Look back on your work and ask “how could it be better?”

But he found that most people make one huge mistake that derails the entire process, making it far less likely that they will succeed. What is that mistake?

They skip the first step.

They straightway enter into the “problem-solving” mode without entering into the “problem-understanding” mindset. This reduces every brilliant solution to a sham. A quick fix to be implemented, a monkey to be pushed off the shoulders. Problem-solving finally ends up into problem pushing and shoving under the carpet.

In Contrast, if people spend more time in developing a full understanding of the problem, comparing what they currently know about the problem with what they need to know in order to get a complete picture of the situation. they are more likely to derive successful solutions.

And here are some ways in which the problem understanding mindset can be developed.

Get into the “What” Mindset

Broadly speaking, there can be 2 mindsets for solving problems. One is creative. Other is destructive.

The “What” mindset starts with the following questions.

· What is the root cause of the problem?

· What options I have in hand to rectify the problem

· What can I do to Prevent the problem from occurring again?

On the other hand, the “Who” mindset starts with the following questions.

· Who is the moron who caused the problem?

· Who can help me to collect evidence against the moron.

· Who can help me to bash the daylight out of that moron?

So do you see the difference here?

Sometimes we fall into the age-old trap of the blame game. Certainly, you want to make finding the culprit your top priority. Don’t you? The answer is NO. Fixing the problem should be the top priority.

You may inadvertently fuel the problem more by saying things that complicate the problem further and make people defensive. Instead, take the high road and ask yourself “What can I do to make the situation better from this point”. Focus your rush of blood and “balls of energy” on outcomes instead of affixing the blame.

Remember instead of pointing fingers, point to possible solutions. It is the positive outcome that counts in the end.

Quick fixes become Quicksand

We have all been there. High pressure. No time. A lot of high stakes. We succumb to it and apply a quick fix, a Band-Aid.

Then we apply one more Band-Aid. The problem grows-one quick fix at a time. Each quick fix, which ignored the pervasive underlying problem adds up to a swamp-like morass of quicksand which sucks the life out of you, making the problems unsolvable.

The solution is to avoid the tyranny of the shallow hack………those quick changes you make under pressure without a deep understanding of the true problem and any possible consequences.

It is easy to fall prey to this temptation. The quick fix is very seductive. With a short lens, it looks as if it works. But in any longer view, you might as well be walking across a field strewn with landmines.

Always remember a creative solution has no dark corners. Every portion of the solution is brightly lit. While you might not know every detail of how things might pan out in the future, but you will still have a well-defined path in place……to go forward. There are no corners to be cut.

Don’t fall for the quick hack. Invest your energy to keep things clean and out in the open.

Criticize Ideas Not People

You have a problem. You ask Joe for help. Joe proposes a solution and you are not happy with it.

You can react to Joe in three possible ways.

· Dismiss Joe as incompetent.

· Dismiss the idea proposed by Joe.

· Discuss a bit more on the idea with Joe.

The first choice is a nonstarter. Even if Joe is a complete Bozo, pointing out fingers at him will most likely dissuade Joe from offering any more ideas in the future. The second option is the middle ground but it will neither help you or Joe to move ahead. The idea is bad.OK. What next?

That leaves choice three. No accusation. No judgment. Just a simple conversation. It lets Joe understand the problem more. It is the start of a conversation, not an argument. A small amount of courtesy and politeness goes a long way to keep you focused on the pure merits of the idea and avoid distractions of personal politics.

Remember we all are capable of generating excellent innovative ideas and we all are equally capable of proposing real turkeys. Even if the idea is way off the mark, it might help to shape the solution, showing the path to the way forward.

You don’t have to be great to get started. But you have to get started to be great.

Get into a “Change” Mindset

There is nothing permanent except change,” said Heraclitus. This has been true throughout history and even more in the times, we live now. You are in an exciting ever-churning world. You can be a professional in any field but if you are thinking that you are all done with learning, you are dead wrong.

In fact, a majority of our problems might be because of the fact that we are not adequately equipped to face them. We have lost pace with the times and are woefully outdated. And that restrains our problem-solving abilities.

How can you keep up with the pace? Here are some suggestions.

Learn iteratively and incrementally.

Set aside some time every day for catching up. It doesn’t have to be long but it has to be regular.

Get the latest buzz.

The web is vast. Use it. Read discussion forums and mailing lists to get a good flavor for the problems people are running into and the solutions offered.

Attend local user Groups.

Local user groups are available in most of the areas. Listen to the speakers and plan questions to be asked and clarified.

Attend workshops and conferences.

Conferences bring experts together. These gatherings are a great opportunity to learn directly from the experts.

Read voraciously.

The importance of reading cannot be overstated. As Stephen King has said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to anything else. Simple as that.”

Always remember, you don’t have to be an expert at everything. But stay aware of where the world you are living in is headed and plan your career and future accordingly.

And Lastly, Keep a Solution Log…….

This might sound trivial. But it is a very important problem-solving tool which is often overlooked. Problems occur and reoccur in life, work and even in relationships on a perennial basis. And it does not make sense to reinvent the wheel again and again.

Don’t get burned twice. To be more productive, maintain a log of problems faced and solutions found. When a problem appears, instead of saying “Hey, I have seen this before. But I have no clue how I fixed it.”, you can quickly look up the solution you have used in the past. Needless to say, it not only saves your time but boosts your self-esteem and confidence to unthinkable levels.

Remember, Creativity in Problem-solving comes from, one, acknowledging yourself; two, studying and understanding the problem; and three, finding a solution, in that order………….

As Albert Einstein has rightly said.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

About the author-:

Ravi Rajan is a global IT program manager based out of Mumbai, India. He is also an avid blogger, Haiku poetry writer, archaeology enthusiast, and history maniac. Connect with Ravi on LinkedIn, Medium and Twitter.