- Creative problem-solving is an art that can separate forward-moving solutions from quick fixes.
- Bryan Lindenberger walks us through a six-step problem-solving model that can help you create a structured, coherent approach to problem solving.
- The proposed model functions as a sort of algorithm, with feedback loops at each stage.
Creative problem-solving strategies separate forward-moving solutions from quick fixes. Truly an art, creative strategies address challenges by guiding you to see challenges in a whole new light. Can crisis equal opportunity? With these 6 creative ways to solve a problem, the answer is often a resounding yes.
1. Six Step Problem-Solving Model
Some problems seem overwhelming in their complexity. You don’t know where to begin. And this lack of direction can leave you running in circles.
The six step problem-solving model aids you by creating a structured, coherent approach to problem solving. In a sense, it gives you the opportunity to step back, take a breath, and approach the issue methodically.
The six steps of this method are:
- Define the problem.
- Define the root cause or causes of the problem.
- Develop possible solutions.
- Choose the best-seeming solution from the list.
- Implement the solution.
- Evaluate the outcome of the solution.
Although the steps are sequential, any one of them can be repeated. For instance, deep thought about Step 4 might lead you to realize that you defined the root causes of the problem in step 2 incorrectly. And evaluation of outcomes at the final stage may be negative, calling upon you to repeat the process. In this sense, the model functions as a sort of algorithm, with feedback loops at each stage.
2. Drill-Down Technique
Defining root causes of a problem is often the most difficult part of problem solving. You know that something is wrong. You see something isn’t working. But the causes remain vague or elusive. The drill-down technique helps you resolve this issue by breaking the problem down into progressively smaller pieces. More accurately, you define a large problem and “drill down” closer and closer to the root causes.
To use the drill-down technique, you will draw a simple table. On the left side you write down the problem you face. To the right, in the middle, you list possible causes of that problem. And even further to the right, you will list potential causes of each of the middle issues. Although it sounds complicated, a graphic example shows how easy it is:
In this simple example, you’ve drilled down from one large problem to its core issues. Once you know root causes, solutions present themselves more easily. In this case, you may consider looking at a new, more reliable supplier that has items similar to ones that have been discontinued. At the same time, you may want to meet with the outside sales team to show you care about their challenges and help to address them.
3. Reverse Brainstorming
You likely have some familiarity with brainstorming techniques. That is, a gathering of interested parties to throw out spontaneous solutions to a problem without judgment. Often, a team leader facilitates the brainstorming session by writing the team’s ideas on a white board. With practice, you can brainstorm on your own, too.
But what is reverse brainstorming?
The process may appear the same to an outsider. The difference lies in the fact that you don’t try to find solutions to the problem. You’re looking for ways to make the problem worse
With reverse brainstorming, everyone offers how to decrease sales, increase employee turnover, raise expenses—bring us your worst. It may seem silly at first, but people will get quite focused and creative as the brainstorming period evolves. Once you have a satisfactory number of negative solutions, work on reversing them to uncover the real solutions. The method is highly effective at finding new angles to solve problems.
4. Reverse Engineer—Work Backwards Problem Solving Strategy
While we’re in reverse, let’s look at the “work backwards problem solving strategy.” With origins in mathematics and engineering, it’s not for everyone. But you hardly need a mathematics degree to try it out. It requires mostly patience with yourself as you learn to “walk backward.”
We usually approach problems from a starting point of the present. Then, we define the consecutive steps required to reach our goal. But any particular step may lead us off the best, most efficient path. But sometimes, plans in action go completely astray when implemented. Backwards problem solving serves as a sort of check against this possibility.
With the work backwards strategy to problem solving, you start with your goal. Then you work backward: what was the final stage prior to reaching that goal? And what came before that? Step by step, you work backward to the situation as it currently exists. When you are finished, compare the stages to your more standard, forward plan. Where are they the same, and how do they differ?
5. Make the Problem Bigger (aka 10X Problem Solving or the Eisenhower Principle
The 10X Rule teaches you to reach for 10X the success. What if you attempted to solve problems by making them—or at least, imagining them to be—10X bigger?
Any organization faces a multitude of problems. Managers or entrepreneurs race to resolve one mini “crisis” after another. In this rushed state, it’s easy to lose perspective of the issues that are truly critical. But not all problems deserve the same amount of attention. One way to manage task prioritization is to imagine that each issue is 10 times bigger.
Suppose you manage an office staff of 10. Three issues arise. An employee is consistently 10 minutes late, a company computer has gone missing, and your administrative assistant neglected to schedule your important lunch meeting. Each issue needs to be resolved. And at an emotional level, the late employee gets under your skin in particular.
But imagine the problems as 10 times bigger, and you may prioritize differently. One missing computer seems easy to put off. But the entire office would grind to a standstill if 10 of them were missing. Your first move may be to call security to help resolve the issue, then address your administrative assistant’s lack of focus. After all, 10 missed lunch meetings could be disastrous when one of them is with the CEO. The tardy employee can wait until the end of the day.
This process, famously used by General Eisenhower on the battlefield, allows you to take a step back and see issues more holistically. You develop a big picture to assist you in prioritization.
6. Don’t Just Step Back—Sleep on It
Each of the above creative problem-solving strategies uses an entirely different method. And yet, they all share one thing in common: they help you step back and re-assess the problem in a new way. But if you find yourself embroiled in a single, complex problem—the sort of thing that consumes your days and weeks—you may need to do more than simply step back. You might want to sleep on it.
We sometimes over-emphasize the benefits of “sticking with it.” We admire the person who works hard, stays up late, and gets up early to attack the problem again. But lack of sleep not only takes a toll on your health. It can also prevent your brain from doing what it is designed to do during rest. That is, process and correlate the information of the day in ways our waking minds may have missed.
Abundant research makes clear that a proper night’s sleep aids in problem solving. That time you woke up refreshed and a solution seemed clear? That wasn’t a unique occurrence. The process has been widely documented across cultures. Historically, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and others have resolved complex problems during sleep.
Yes, you might sometimes need to burn the midnight oil to catch up on routine tasks. Filing taxes, meeting payroll, and ordering inventory are valid reasons to miss a little sleep if they all hit at once. But for complex problem solving—and overall health and wellness—don’t deprive yourself of sleep for long periods. That night of quality sleep might provide unique, creative solutions your overworked conscious mind would have never imagined.