Creative Problem Solving

Creative problem solving (CPS) is an iterative process of divergent and convergent thinking techniques which can be used to identify and resolve conflict, or find solutions to constant change and the requirements of continuous improvement.

The creative problem solving process can be divided into three phases with the percentage of effort required for each phase approximately split as follows – problem exploration 70%, idea generation 20% and implementation 10%. In addition there is a requirement for process management which should be on-going throughout the whole process.

This process management ensures that a culture of creativity exists within the group. For a culture of creativity to be established the culture must above all be perceived to be open, safe and trusting. Culture is like the wind, you cannot see it in itself, but you can observe its strength and its effects. A creative culture must be dynamic, with members allowed the freedom to take risks and learn from their mistakes.  However, the most important factor is that the group should have a shared view and be able to communicate effectively.

‘The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished’

George Bernard Shaw

The techniques used for creative problem solving can be divided into two groups.

Divergent thinking techniques are used to open up and expand the group’s view of the problem. Typical divergent thinking techniques include brainstorming or brainpooling, super heroes, six talking hats and Disney.

Convergent thinking techniques are used to close down and summarise the issues. Useful convergent thinking techniques include affinity diagrams, fishbone diagrams and forcefield diagrams.


The facilitator nominates a scribe to write ideas on flipchart. Participants call out ideas randomly, but one at a time. Judgement must be deferred, no criticism allowed. Freewheel ideas, must be uninhibited and go for quantity. The disadvantage of brainstorming is that some participants may be reluctant to voice their ideas particularly if management are present.


Participants write one idea on a post-it note, and pass it to the person on their right. Repeat for another idea. The facilitator ensures there is a constant flow of post-it notes around the table and that the post-it notes are read by participants. Continue until participants have run out of ideas. The advantage of brainpooling is that an element of anonymity is introduced, unless the participant’s can recognise each other’s hand writing.

Super heroes

Participants pretend to be a fictional or real life super hero (Superman, the Incredible Hulk, James Bond, Wonder Woman, Sherlock Holmes or even Hitler!) and use their ‘super’ characteristics to trigger ideas. One member describes their character’s special powers, habits and vulnerabilities etc. in as much detail as they can, and then the whole group generate ideas by linking this description back to the problem. How would Sherlock Holmes solve this problem? Repeat this process with another member playing the role of a different super hero. Use of costumes, props or badges can add to the reality and enjoyment of the process, if appropriate in the group’s environment.

Six thinking / talking hats (Edward de Bono)

Six participants are selected to discuss the problem and each person is given a different coloured hat to wear. The colour of their hat determines the role that person must play.

White hat – Information, data, needs. Neutral and objective. Information that is available, needed or missing.

Red hat – Feelings, hunches and intuition. Legitimises emotions and feelings. This is how I feel.

Black hat – Negative judgement Devil’s advocate. Logical negative and non-emotional. Here’s why it will not work.

Yellow hat – Optimism, values and benefits. Positive and constructive. Here’s why it would work.

Green hat – Alternatives and new ideas. Creative effort, new concepts and perspectives. Goes beyond the known and obvious.

Blue hat – Managing the thinking process. ‘Control ‘hat. Chair person sets focus and ensures rules observed.

In practice, it can be observed how easily people fall into playing their given role. Repeating the process by swapping hats or introducing different participants means that each individual brings their own perspective to the role.


In the Disney technique four roles are played out. As with the de Bono technique, the roles can be rotated or different participants involved.

Wise observer (Neutral) – Acts as Chair person.

Dreamer (Child) – Feels every expression and reaction, subjective, emotional.

Realist (Adult) – Pragmatic, clear action plan and ensures mechanics work smoothly and professionally.

Critic (Parent) – Role is to challenge and test out. Act as a difficult customer.

Affinity Diagrams

From the results of a brainpooling exercise, collect all the post-it notes together and spread them out on a table. The participants then group all the post-it notes that seem to belong together and choose a name for the group. There may be some ‘lone wolves’ or unrelated items. Spatially arrange the groups on the table, draw rings around any groups that go together, and add arrows to show any relationships between them. Try to describe this affinity diagram in writing to explain the structure of the problem. Use a digital camera to keep a photographic image of the affinity diagram for future reference.

Forcefield diagram

A change scenario is identified and plotted as the centre line on a graph.

The driving forces in favour of the change scenario are plotted as arrows above the centre line of the change scenario. The restraining forces against the change scenario are plotted as arrows below the centre line. The size and length of the arrows denote the magnitude of the forces acting on the change scenario.

Fishbone diagram

The problem scenario is identified and plotted as the centre line on a graph.

An example could be Problem: Failure to meet project deadlines. This is displayed as the backbone of the fish’s skeleton.

Above and below the backbone are the other major bones of the skeleton. These bones represent the major contributory factors causing the problem. In the above example these major factors could be Information Technology, Planning, Project Management and Teamwork.

Likewise each of these major factors causing the overall problem can be drilled down to identify the causes contributing to that particular aspect of the problem. In the case of project management these could be bad budget setting, ill-defined priorities, poor delegation or brief not fully understood.

CPS Process

i.            Identify problem issue

ii.            Identify causal issues (Fishbone diagram)

iii.            Pose “How can I / We…” question. For example, ‘How can we improve customer service?’ Not a ‘Problution’ – problem definition should not include a solution

iv.            Reframing – brainstorm replacement words (synonyms), brainstorm opposite words (reversal) and brainstorm weirdest words (out of the mindset, metaphors)

v.            Idea generation – brainstorm ideas for each of i) to iv)using techniques such as brainpooling, super heroes, talking hats or Disney

vi.            Find a metaphor – mindmap attributes of metaphor

vii.            Transform attributes of metaphor into a solution for the problem

viii.            Explore other solutions

ix.            Identify constraints to the solutions – boundaries, resources, timescales, family commitments

x.            Select solution with least constraints – prepare an action plan

xi.            Help / Hindrance matrix – who or what will help or hinder the solution

xii.            How to convert hindrances into help, or neutralise them – forcefield diagram

xiii.            What can you do soonest / easiest to achieve solution

Now, repeat all of the above for another thread of the problem …

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