Category Archives: Creative Problem Solving

Thinking about Your Creative Thinking

A recent article by Holly Green highlighted the role of strategic thinking in effective leadership. Referencing the mad pace of business, she asserted that leaders need to move beyond depending upon what she called “critical” and “implementation” thinking types, to embrace three additional thinking types: “conceptual,” “innovative” and “intuitive.” Green placed these five types together under the larger umbrella of strategic thinking. (The reference in the title of the article to “Five Critical Thinking Types” is misleading; “Five Strategic Thinking Types” is a more accurate description of her theme.)

While there’s some murkiness around her usage of “type” and “skill,” in her article Green does two significant things: she asks leaders to think about their thinking, and, building upon this, she draws awareness to the fact that different types of thinking are called for in different situations. Both of these are valuable propositions.

We can take her recommendations further, however, by offering leaders a deliberate process for applying these two concepts of “thinking about your thinking,” and using different thinking skills while you do.

The most recent adaptation of the classic model for applied creativity, Creative Problem Solving (CPS) does just this. The aptly-named “Thinking Skills Model” uses an approach similar to what Green proposed, but has the advantage of being more explicitly incorporated into the creative thinking process from beginning to end – in Green’s terms from “visualizing” to “implementation.” Drawing upon its CPS lineage, it is also supported by decades of research into the benefits of applied creative thinking.

The Thinking Skills Model (TSM) identifies key cognitive skills which come into play throughout the creative thinking process. They are: diagnostic, visionary, strategic, ideational, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking.

Green’s list of thinking types, again, is: critical, implementation, conceptual, innovative, and intuitive.

Of course there are some similarities and differences, and in a longer analysis we would line these up in a straight-on comparison to explore the overlaps and gaps between the two. For the time being, suffice it to say that Green’s on to something when she says “knowing when and how much to utilize each (type) is the hallmark of great leaders.” By aligning different thinking skills to different phases of the creative process, the Thinking Skills Model gives leaders a framework for being able to do this. The result is more effective thinking in complex, open-ended situations such as Green describes.

Effective creative thinking is at the heart of what Green advocates. Yet it’s interesting to note that the words “creative” and “creativity” are nowhere to be seen in her article. This may have been a deliberate choice, in order to avoid the fuzziness often associated with the “c” word, especially in business settings. Using deliberate processes like Creative Problem Solving doesn’t make things fuzzier, however. In fact, it does quite the opposite: it clarifies and strengthens our thinking, especially in these complex and open-ended situations, when we need our creative thinking the most.

Photo Credit: Jacob Boetter
Green, H. (2012, March 27). How to develop five critical thinking types. Retrieved from
Puccio, G. J., Murdock, M.C, & Mance, M (2007). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

What’s the Problem?

Problem clarification plays a large role in Creative Problem Solving (CPS). This is the space where we explore the terrain of our goals, wishes, and challenges, before we move forward into generating ideas.

The CPS model shown below depicts three major phases, with six process steps distributed across them. You can see how fully half of the process steps take place during the first phase.

Creative Problem Solving

If it feels like heavy lifting at times, it’s because there’s a natural tendency to want to rush ahead and begin generating ideas. The research is very convincing, however, on the important role that problem identification or problem construction plays in the quality of the final outcome. The more time we spend upfront figuring out what the real (or the most important, or the most interesting) problem is, the better the ideas and solutions that follow. As philosopher John Dewey famously said: a problem well-stated is half-solved.

So the next time you’re in a session where lots of energy is being spent trying to come up with answers, check to see if adequate attention has been paid to the first and most important question: what is the problem?

 Creative Problem Solving graphic adapted from Roger L. Firestien, Ph.D. – Innovation Resources, Inc.

Strategy and Uncertainty

Strategic planning engages our expectations of a future state. We set out our desires, hopes, goals, plans, benchmarks and time-lines, and formulate a strategy for implementing them.

Several significant challenges come along for the ride: the future – while forecast-able to some degree – is uncertain in important ways; the past shapes our expectations, sometimes without our knowing it; and the present circumstances are often presumed – that is, we think we know what our current opportunities and problems are, but often haven’t thought deeply enough about them to really understand.

When organizations engage in strategic processes, whether through annual planning, or individual initiatives and projects, these challenges can often be swept aside. We want a good solid plan, and spend less time thinking about our thinking (which we can have some certainty about), and more time planning the future (which will always contain a hefty does of the uncertain).

One way to respond to this dilemma is by engaging in a deliberate process such as Creative Problem Solving. I’ve used CPS for strategic planning in one-on-one sessions, and in multi-client, multi-year planning retreats. The results are always the same: CPS clarifies thinking. The stages of the CPS process conform perfectly to the different stages of a strategic process, from deeply understanding the current situation, to generating ideas for moving toward identified goals, to planning and execution.

A not-incidental benefit, of course, is that CPS also improves creative thinking in open-ended, ambiguous situations. And the future, being what it is, fits that description to a tee.

(If you’re in the Seattle area, and interested in digging deeper, I’ll be holding a seminar on CPS and Strategic Planning later this month.)

photo credit by Shiny Things

Creating a Business

Last fall I gave a short workshop on small business development for my local SCORE chapter — a wonderful community resource for entrepreneurs and small business owners. The content was focused on using the creative process deliberately as a tool for business development. It came to me as a result of my recent Master’s work in applied creativity and innovation, and as a sort of “stumbled-upon” process which I discovered I had intuitively fallen into in the course of my own entrepreneurial marching-forth.

When I set out to form a consulting business based on theatre practices, I had a wish to bring to organizations some of the things I’d learned from years being an actor. It took me awhile — talking to people, taking classes, partnering with others, etc. — before I realized I wanted to target leadership and organizational development, and creativity. Once I knew this, I was in the course of playing around with ideas on programs to offer, how to describe my work, how to improve my skills, etc. — when I went back to school and got my Master’s. Strengthened by the teachings, and able to incorporate the content directly into my programs, I then set forth planning how I would continue to move my work out into the world.

What I just described took about 4 years. It also followed, more or less and through no deliberate intention of my own, the classic model of Creative Problem Solving: from Exploring a Goal, Wish or Challenge, through Generating Ideas and Planning for Action, plus it’s six internal process steps — with some looping back and forth for good measure. Had I known the process model at the beginning of my journey, would it have gone by any more quickly or efficiently? Quite possibly.

But that’s not so much the point I want to make here, as much as to draw attention to the natural sequence of entrepreneurial efforts, and how well they match to CPS. This was the topic of my presentation. My audience was a room full of SCORE counselors, who donate their time to helping small businesses come into the world and flourish. They appreciated the connection between a deliberate process of creative thinking, and the sequence of steps a small business goes through in its various stages from conception to execution. At a time when job creation and healthy business development is so sought after, it makes sense to channel the natural entrepreneurial instincts through a tried-and-true model of deliberate creativity. From actresses-turning-consultants, to the next best gizmo, to the new coffee shop down the street, small business development benefits from Creative Problem Solving.

image by Gilles Chiroleu

Creativity and Leadership

What are the natural relationships between creativity and leadership?

I’ve recently explored this question in relationship to current issues in creativity studies, through my Master’s work at the International Center for Studies in Creativity. Both creativity and leadership are huge concepts. Defining them is tricky. As Warren Bennis says, “it is almost a cliché of the leadership literature that a single definition of leadership is lacking.” According to the beloved Dr. Mary Murdock — charming dynamo in the field of creativity studies until her death earlier this year, and my first teacher on the subject — the task of defining creativity “is like nailing jello to the wall.”

We may disagree on concise definitions of creativity and leadership, but we can see them operating together. How might we better understand their interrelationships?

I addressed the question in a longer paper you can read at the Current Issues in Creativity blogsite. Here are some of the highlights:

How we think and how we feel.

Both creativity and leadership invoke cognitive and affective skills — how we think, and how we feel. Complexity plays into this as well. Often, the more cognitively complex our thinking is, the more we will be able to draw on a variety of categories and frames of reference when we are looking for creative answers. Leadership, too, requires attention to complex cognition, since leaders are tasked with thriving within complex environments (for more on this, see my post on the 2010 IBM CEO Survey).

Affective skills, such as our ability to tap into our emotional intelligence, are important in both creativity and leadership. In his work with emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman says that “coming up with a creative insight is a cognitive act––but realizing its value, nurturing it and following through calls on emotional competencies such as self-confidence, initiative, persistence and the ability to persuade.”

For leaders, awareness of affect and emotional intelligence help them understand and manage behavior, including: knowing when they might be reverting to familiar emotional scripts; skillful reliance upon emotion as a method of interpreting others (especially when the information presented is novel and complex); and when faced with high-emotion situations.

Creativity and Leadership in Tandem

What are some areas we might find creativity and leadership naturally occurring? I propose three: within theoretical perspectives which blend the two constructs, such as Sternberg and Lubart’s Propulsion Model of Creativity, and Sternberg’s WICS model of leadership, which intertwines wisdom, intelligence and creativity; in deliberate problem solving methods like Creative Problem Solving that implicate creativity and leadership in a duet of process; and in the particular nested dynamic found in the creative leadership of creative people.

Inner Source

Both creativity and leadership require intense personal resources. In order to engage in them for any length of time, a person must draw deeply upon personal energy and motivation. This highlights, at minimum, the benefit of being well-centered in oneself; at the maximum, the necessity of it. Both creativity and leadership theories speak of this important connection to the inner self, which can be consciously developed. In this regard, creativity and leadership are seen as being rooted in an internal locus, evoking self-development, maturation, mastery, and even spiritual growth.

Connecting? Coinciding?

Creativity and leadership interrelate in our cognitive and affective skills; in certain theories, processes and situations; and in the inner source from which they spring and are nourished. We can certainly have one without the other, and in some instances we need to. But by drawing attention to their rich interrelationships we can improve our understanding of, and performance in, both.

These are some highlights. You can read the complete paper here.

Novelty and Trimtabs

I’ve been exploring how creativity works within a creative organization. The project will be wrapping up shortly. In the next few blogs, I’ll be sharing some overall insights I’ve had in exploring creativity within a creative organization.

I’d like to relate some insights that have come up for me around the use of language in creativity and Creative Problem Solving.

“Novel” can be a Tricky Story:

A well-established definition for creativity is that offered by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, who says that creativity is the production of ideas which are both novel and useful. I will admit that the first time I heard this definition, I wanted to leave the room. It was the first day of grad school, however, so I thought I better stick with it. I’m glad I did. Having spent more time with the ideas of novelty and usefulness, I can appreciate how they relate to creativity — and in fact it’s now become hard for me to think about how creativity operates apart from one or both of these boiled-down, serviceable-but-not-particularly poetic descriptors.

I had forgotten, however, how they can appear at first blush. Especially, as was true in the current case, the word “novelty.”

For a team of creatives, the idea that novelty was required had a few of them pushing back. “It sounds like a novelty — a do-dad — gimmickry.” “I see people doing things all the time that are new to them, and I think ‘so-and-so was doing that fifty years ago!'” “Does this mean that we should be all about the next flashy thing? What about the great products we already have to offer?”

It was a robust conversation. Where did we end up? With the understanding that the company needs to make sure what it offers to the client fulfills the client’s expectations of a creative solution — something that is new (to them, or they could have already done it), and which fulfills the client’s business need, which is the creative service organization’s sine qua non of “useful.”

And, at the same time, for this organization to keep its creative juices flowing, and to also continue to differentiate from its competitors, it can’t shy away from pushing into frontiers of new and implementable ideas.

What is might be in a Word?

Creative Problem Solving (CPS) is a deliberate approach to creativity, which uses words in key ways, as prompts to the creative process. This is seen the most obviously in the CPS tool called “statement starters,” short phrases which begin either statements or questions. An example: if I say to myself “I need a new car,” my internal response is likely to be: “Ok. Yep.” It’s a statement of fact, with which I happen to agree. No forward motion here.

If, however, I were to say: “In what ways might I acquire more comfortable transportation?” then my internal response is much more likely to involve the production of ideas. And if I stick with it, and try to come up with lots of ideas, I just might land on one novel and useful enough to give me some options I hadn’t considered before.

So, in the CPS training with this team, we have spent some time learning to work with these statement starters. They include: “In what ways might I/we…” “What might be all the….” “How to….” “How might I/we….” etc.

In a recent session, one of the team members phrased a question thus: “What is a way our company can accomplish x,y,z?” I stepped in to redirect. Why? What might have been less than ideal about that question?

It’s a small thing — so small that when I mentioned it, it didn’t make sense at first.

If we ask ourselves “what is the/a…”, even though it’s a question and thus more likely to spur a response, it’s a definitive one-on-one set up. What is the. The use of the word “is,” as small as it is, suggests a decision, an answer, a solution, a formulation. Compare this to the word “might,” which leaves us still in the land of possibility, openness, consideration. Secondly, to use a definitive article “the/a” is to imply that we are looking for one clear response. Ultimately, yes, we’ll want to narrow down the field of choices to a manageable one or few. But not yet. In posing these initial questions, we want to stay away from language which alludes to “the one answer.”

Is this tough to do? Sure can be. Especially when we have a desperate need for a good solution to a big problem. However when we try to get the answer within the question, we are attempting to diverge and converge at the same time. Doesn’t work so well. By separating divergent thinking from convergent thinking, especially early in the CPS process, we tease apart the complementary needs of seeking and finding, to let each flourish on its own for awhile.

As I reflected on the difference between something so small as using “is” or “might,” in the face of articulating substantial challenges or big wishes, I was reminded of something that Buckminster Fuller had to say about turning a big boat. The rudder is involved, but a small portion of the rudder, the trimtab, initiates the action. A very small element of a very big machine helps to determine its course.

So it is with little words like “is.” When faced with a clear need for creative thinking, how might we instead make better use of “might?”

Clarifying and Developing: A Balancing Act

I’m exploring how creativity works within a creative organization — what are the strengths and where are the potential blind spots? In an earlier post, I described how the eight members of the core team recently learned their FourSight Breakthrough Thinking Profile preferences for different stages of the Creative Problem Solving process. The team profile showed high preferences for Ideation and Implementation (the orange and purple bars), and low preferences for Clarification and Development (blue and green bars):

FourSight Team Profile

There was a general sense of recognition of the abundant energy that drives the team’s work from generating creative ideas into implementing them. That’s what the company is hired for; its brand differentiators are reflected in the team profile. This is a good thing.

And yet, what about these other spaces of clarifying and developing? (Clarifying refers to gathering plenty of data on the big picture before beginning to generate ideas; developing is the stage where the best ideas are elaborated and strengthened.) The team could see their low preferences playing out here, as well. More than once, the lack of thorough clarification has shown up when the project concept was further along in development. New understandings with clients surface, sometimes late enough in the game to require stressful last-minute adjustments. Perhaps, one team member suggested, it was because the clients hadn’t been clear themselves. How much more important was it, then, to make sure that really thorough clarification happened from the company’s end?

A suggestion was made to develop a white paper to educate clients on how to think about the engagement in ways that would really help them bring forth all the relevant information at the beginning. Additionally, by customizing some Creative Problem Solving clarifying tools, the company can develop a template to use with clients when scoping out projects.

The low preference for developing also piqued discussion. For a team that has a high preference for generating ideas, there’s a tendency to continue to pump new ideas into the developmental phase, which can muddy the waters and sometimes take the concept off-track. A method for tracking idea development was suggested as a way of distinguishing between iterations that enrich the final product, versus great ideas that are best saved for another opportunity.

And how about working together as a team?  One team member remarked that knowing where the individual preferences lie reminded her of a relay race, where team members hand off energy to each other through the process. It’s a lovely observation. For a creative team, some of them working together for a decade, the insights into individual and team preference from the FourSight measure have given them new understandings of how to support each other through the balancing act of the creative process.

Next steps: training on some Creative Problem Solving tools to support the developmental phase. In the meantime, if you’d like more information on FourSight, and how it can help you or your team, let me know.

Diary of a Process: Moving Forward in Uncertainty; Perfecting the Pitch


Diary of a Process: an episodic peek into a creative company’s internal process.

  • The company: a design and production firm that creates learning environments and opportunities for team-building, exhibit design, education, training, branding, etc.
  • The project: designing a visitor experience for a small west coast museum.

Episode 2, September 9: Moving forward in uncertainty; perfecting the pitch.

At the end of the last installment, Budget Slashed in Half, owner Bryan Thermo had agreed that his best option for restoring the project budget would be to re-pitch the board of directors on the original concept. Meanwhile, if the project (a museum visitor experience) was to stay on track, certain core elements needed to be advanced.

Thus, from a creative process point of view, a level of tolerance for ambiguity was needed in order to proceed in uncertainty. This ran side-by-side with the need to generate ideas on how to better communicate the value of the original concept, select the best of these solutions, and strengthen them into an inspiring pitch. Lastly, a willingness to embrace risk was necessary in order to move the project forward without knowing how much money would be there. Let’s pull back the creative curtain on these concepts, from a Creative Problem Solving (CPS) perspective.

Tolerance for ambiguity is one of the key attitudes or emotional skills needed for effective Creative Problem Solving (1). Why? One reason is that when we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity, we tend to rush to the first idea or solution we can find—which isn’t necessarily the best one.

Generating Ideas and Selecting & Strengthening Solutions represent two phases of the Creative Problem Solving process. Both steps involve divergent thinking, where ideas are generated (the more ideas the better) and convergent thinking, where the best ideas or solutions are chosen (2). These steps can be used as many times as you need throughout a project.

The willingness to embrace risk is important in creative thinking (1). Once we’re ready to Plan for Action (another Creative Problem Solving step), we’re putting our creative products out into the worldwhere they may succeed or fail. If we don’t have tolerance for risk, we may find excuses to forestall or sabotage our efforts. Creative companies tend to have a higher rate of product failure than other companies. But they’re also identified by the successful creative products they produce.

So how did the team engage around these concepts? Organically. This is one of the beauties of Creative Problem Solving: it capitalizes on our natural creative thinking process. As it so happened, the team members involved worked through the process in an organic and effective way. The team member charged with developing a key element of the project moved smoothly through clarifying what was needed and, along with the owner, generated ideas to get started. The pitch meeting, while a bit more intense since it was all about the funding, also rolled organically from generating ideas to strengthening them as solutions, and onto planning for action as the team developed visual aids and talking points to support the pitch.

Notice how, even though CPS can be used to direct an entire project or product cycle from concept through roll-out, it can also be used within the various stages. At any point, you can dip in to get what you need: idea generation, action planning, clarifying the problem, etc. This is in fact what happened in this episode: the core concept had already been completed, but the team needed to go back do some creative thinking on some trouble spots. Think of it as cycles within cycles, or a mini-iteration within the project as a whole.

The result: the board restored half of the money that had been cut, which was the amount Thermo requested. Meanwhile, a key component of the visitor experience has not lost too much time in development.

Question: if these things had not happened, would it have meant that the creative process had been unsuccessful? (see “tolerance for risk,” above…).

Process in a nutshell: by embracing ambiguity and risk, and by creatively developing a strong pitch, the team succeeded in persuading the board to restore the project budget to close to its original level, while losing a minimum amount of time in the project development.

This experience, or one very much like it, is probably familiar to you and your organization. By shining a light on the different aspects of creative thinking, we become more aware of how well the process is (or isn’t) working for us, andideallywe also learn to identify and embrace our natural creative thinking skills.

What’s next? now that most of the money has been restored, as one team member said: “now we gotta deliver.” Check back to see the next steps in the diary of a process…

(1) Puccio, G. J., Murdock, M. C. & Mance, M. (2007). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

(2) Miller, B, Vehar, J, Firestien, R (2001). Creativity unbound: An introduction to the creative process. Williamsville, NY: Innovation Resources, Inc.

Pulling Back the Curtain

What does creativity look like inside a creative organization?

How might it be possible to get a snapshot of the internal creative workings of a company that generates creative products (artistic productions, biotech breakthroughs, education/training programs, advertising campaigns, etc.), to see both how they do it, and how well they’re doing? Could we lift up the lid and take a peek at the inner workings? Examine internalized strengths and hidden blind spots? Take a stab at a recipe for creativity in creative companies?

To answer these questions, I’m embarking on a consultative exploration of a creative organization, a company that creates learning environments and opportunities for a variety of applications, from team-building, to exhibit design, to educational materials, to branding, and more.

I’ll be taking a look at this organization (for which, full disclosure, I have worked as content designer and trainer/facilitator) from the perspectives of their internal creative process, their creative climate, the creative preferences of the core team, and the development of a creative product. Throughout, I’ll be bringing in elements of Creative Problem Solving as a sort of process guide and framework for skill development. The specific project I’ll be observing is the concepting phase of an exhibit design for a small museum.

I’ll be posting regularly here on the process of observing a process… and the creativity that manifests in the creation of creative products. Something of a hall of mirrors? I’m seeing it as peek behind the curtain. Names will be changed to protect the innocent. I expect later in the project I’ll be able to give you some more information as to what, where, and when, for those who are curious. The “how” will be on full display throughout.

What do I expect to find out in all this? Well, the first major insight will come at the end of this month, when I present the findings to the team on their FourSight profiles. FourSight measures preferences for different phases of the creative process: clarifying the situation, coming up with ideas, developing them, and implementing them.

Is a company whose stock in trade depends on coming up with strong ideas full of people who love to ideate? Does a company which also develops and implements great ideas attract people who love to do that, too? Where are the strengths, and where are the blind spots? We’ll know that next week.

I’ll also be posting episodic snapshots of the organization’s creative process in action. Look for these under the category Pulling Back the Curtain/Diary of a Process. Also see the program page Pulling Back the Curtain for a quick program overview.

If you work for a creative organization (and even if you don’t) I hope you’ll find it to be an interesting journey. Please stay tuned…