4 ways to solve problems creatively

As humans, we’ve got more than a handful of complex challenges facing us right now.

To name just a few:

  • Weather and climate-related events cost the global economy US$313 billion in 2022 
  • A report by Gallup and Workhuman discovered turnover and lost productivity due to employee burnout cost businesses around US$322 billion globally 
  • According to a report by Accenture, supply chain issues could result in a potential €920 billion cumulative loss to the gross domestic product (GDP) across the Eurozone alone by the end of 2023
  • ChatGPT reached a million users within 5 days of launching in December 2022. By June 2023, that number had reached 2.6 billion. Its growth and pace of development will have significant impacts on the global workforce.

If the last several years have shown us anything, it’s that rapid and unpredictable change is unprecedented. (As is the unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’, I might add!)

You might have heard of the nifty little acronym VUCA. Well, it’s on steroids right now.

It’s enough for any leader to want a cup of tea and a bit of a lie down.

Complex, interrelated and complicated challenges call for creative problem solving.

These four tips for creative problem solving below might not solve all of our global issues, but they might just help you and your team address some of the challenges you’re facing that stem from them. They’ll help you solve problems of the garden-variety too.

  1. What exactly is the problem we are trying to solve?

One of the first stages for creative problem solving starts with problem identification. Too often we don’t dig deep enough and don’t question our assumptions enough in this initial stage.This can lead us to solve the wrong problem altogether, address the symptoms only, or miss creative solutions by looking at the issue too narrowly.

Questions to ask during problem identification:

  • Is there a more significant problem we are overlooking?
  • What are our “sacred cows” and deeply-held industry assumptions that might be at play when we look at this problem?
  • If this problem was solved to the ideal scenario, what would we see? How would we know it had been solved?
  • What are the answers telling us about what we might be missing?
  1. Look beyond.

When looking for solutions, look beyond your team, your company, your industry, your country. You could even look to nature for ideas to solve your problem. Chip and Dan Heath call this approach ‘laddering up’.

Questions to ask to help you look beyond:

  • Who has faced a similar problem? What did they do? Think of analogous industries or a similar process in a completely different industry.
  • What can we compare this problem or idea to? Philosopher Ortega y Gassett said, “the metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.” Compare unrelated concepts and find similarities between them. An example of this is “What do a cat and a fridge have in common? They both have places to put fish, they come in a variety of colours.” This example seems somewhat non-sensical, but you get the drift.
  1. Toggle between extremes.

Exaggeration can be your friend when it comes to creative problem solving because it forces us to think creatively and makes our brain a bit uncomfortable. It stretches us, if you will.

Questions to ask to lean into exaggeration:

  • If we had unlimited time and money, how would we fix this?  What would happen if we did the exact opposite?
  • What’s the idea that would get us fired? Now bring it back a bit.
  • What if it were a thousand times bigger, faster, louder, stronger, more powerful? Now the opposite; what if it only one thousandth as powerful, fast, complicated?
  • We can’t choose any of the current options we’re considering. What else could we do?
  1. Tolerate the discomfort of ambiguity.

Imperfection, trial and error, and ‘not knowing’ are all common stages of great breakthroughs. Skilled and creative problem solving means being comfortable with the discomfort of estimating, experimenting and tolerating the stage just before breakthroughs. Encourage your team to persist when it feels hard. When I work with leadership teams, I often find that the frustration and discomfort is high just prior to an epiphany or breakthrough. Good problem solving is rarely linear. It’s common to feel like you’re largely dancing backwards, or coming at something sideways.

Questions to ask as you navigate ambiguity:

  • How can we challenge solutions that imply certainty? How can we work better with odds?
  • What would we have to believe for this to be true?
  • What are we learning at this juncture? (This can be helpful even if it’s about the process, not the problem we’re trying to solve.)

Creative problem solving has always been important in leadership, but it’s even more crucial in today’s environment. What creative problem solving approaches have you seen work well? Add them below.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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