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Creative ability is commonly connected to the work of artists, writers, musicians, and poets, but is also especially important for engineers, scientists, new product developers, and quality improvement professionals. Intuitive insights and creative solutions – often based on metaphors, analogies or “gut feelings”– are well known sources of product and project breakthroughs.  A single creative idea may head off months of nonproductive work or open up brand new market segments.  Conversely, the lack of creativity often results in stalled projects and “me-too” products with derivative designs and unwanted features that soon show up on the bargain table.

Whether we’re solving day-to-day business problems, developing new products and services, or contemplating next steps in our own personal development, we need new ways of thinking.  Listed below are some downloadable creativity tools that can help individuals and teams take the “road less travelled” when searching for solutions to problems that beset us in our work and personal lives.  The paragraph accompanying each tool describes when it’s likely to be useful and contains the link (click on tool name) to a downloadable procedure or “protocol” for the tool. 

Brute Force Idea-Generation Tools

Sometimes the problem or challenge is pretty well understood – perhaps too well understood – and what you need is more ideas, better ways of coping with current constraints, or simply more novel solutions.  For this purpose, consider the following techniques.

Basic Brainstorming Based upon Alex Osborne’s original method, formulated in the late 1930s, brainstorming is one method for encouraging a group or team to generate a large volume of ideas.  Brainstorming is best done by recording the group’s individual ideas on sticky notes, since this aids in clustering, sorting, and prioritizing ideas.  A flipchart pad can also be used, however, flipcharts work better when the number of ideas generated is small. 

Method of Analogies – This method entails generating solutions by using attributes of familiar, analogous concepts that are only indirectly, and not directly, related to the problem.  The attached creativity protocol describes how to use a random word to stimulate “lateral” thinking that side steps blockages to solution finding.  This approach creates a fun atmosphere, and is especially great for generating solution ideas in a group. 


Provoking Mental Leaps – This approach fosters group exploration of ways that one or more assumptions or constraints in a problem situation could be eliminated.  Through the use of a provocative operation – an absurd statement that bypasses our current predicament and permits us to work outside the current problem situation – we suspend judgmental thinking and find new solutions.     

6-3-5 Brainwriting Challenge – This is a form of written brainstorming designed to generate and select a large number of viable ideas in a short span of time.  By writing ideas on the attached form, group members are not affected by the need to compete with louder or more dominant individuals for “air time”, and the pace of ideation is much faster than methods where ideas are called out and recorded on a flipchart.  Moreover, the 6-3-5 method enlists the help of group members in selecting and prioritizing the best ideas, so the “narrowing down” phase proceeds faster as well.

Methods for Elaborating Your “Map” of the “Problem Space”

Sometimes the “space” encompassed by a problem or challenge needs to be better “mapped out” before proceeding to generate solution ideas.  For example, you may first need to better understand and define the implications of a challenge, who or what is affected by it, the causal forces sustaining the problem, or other factors that might prevent solutions from working.   The following tools are highly useful for this purpose, since they create a kind of “conceptual map” of the territory covered by a problem, and aid us in seeing multiple inroads for solutions.

Mind Mapping – This is a mapping approach, based upon a visualization and outlining technique first described by British educator Tony Buzan.  It starts with a blank, unlined page with a single focal word in the center. Other associations – single words, short phrases, or simple pictures – are written as branches around the focal word.  Other ideas are in turn written as branches emerging from these secondary ideas, and so forth, until the page is filled with connected words and pictures.  Branches can be further distinguished by using different colors.  Mind Maps can be completed individually and then passed around a group, so that group members quickly see how their colleagues think about the focal problem or challenge.  Sometimes, a group works at a large whiteboard or paper-covered wall to complete a Mind Map as a group activity.

Force Field AnalysisFirst described by social psychologist Kurt Lewin, Force Force Field analysis is method for listing and depicting the “forces” affecting a desired outcome.  First the outcome, for example, productivity or cycle time, is stated as something that increases or decreases.  Next, all of the forces (motives, needs, trends, enabling factors, etc.) that are driving the outcome to increase are brainstormed, listed, and ranked on one side of the form, and then similar kinds of forces serving to decrease the outcome are listed and ranked on the other side.  A completed Force Field shows the desired outcome as the product dynamic, interacting forces, rather than a static situation.  This permits problem solvers to see better ways of altering the balance of forces to move the situation in the desired direction.

Force Field Scenario Planning – This creativity tool builds on the Force Field method in order to predict and explore possible futures (“scenarios”).  When creating contingency plans relative to a problem or decision, it helps to examine implications of different possible futures.  Scenarios are short descriptive stories depicting alternative futures.  Scenario planning starts by posing a question about the future and ends when different possible futures have been described and planners have selected the most likely future scenario to form the basis for contingency planning. While this tool uses the Force Field method to examine factors affecting the trajectory of future trends, it adds consideration of “trigger events” – outcomes that could deflect the path of a particular trend and thereby affect the course of history.  Force Field Scenario Planning is further described in this article.

Six Thinking Hats – This tool is adapted from Edward de Bono’s famous process for expanding a group’s understanding and approach to an issue, problem, or decision by systematically applying a series of mindsets or forms of intelligence called “thinking hats.”  Each thinking hat is accompanied by a set of learning points and critical questions.  This method is unparalleled for helping a group with strongly held opinions and biases to work through an issue in a systematic way.

When Creativity Requires Self Knowledge

Some problems that might be faced by an individual are made easier or more challenging by the problem solver’s own preferences, needs, and emotional reactions to the problem situation.  The creativity tools below are helpful in developing the problem solver’s skill and objectivity in situations where personal feelings, values, and emotions play an important role in the outcome.

12-Questions Tool When a problem is emotionally charged, the would-be problem solver often struggles to step back from the situation and find a creative solution.  This is especially true for leadership, team, and interpersonal issues, or whenever conflict is present.  The 12 Questions Tool consists of a series of questions found to be useful in the Stanford University Business School for emotionally challenging personal or professional problems.

Three-E Exercise – Creativity research shows that we’re most creative when we’re doing something that’s intrinsically satisfying and rewarding, rather than when working for external incentives.  Moreover, our preferred activities and operating style help to define our comfort zone and may automatically steer us toward certain solutions and away from others without our conscious awareness.  It therefore makes sense to define those skills, activities, and situations we find most easy, effortless, and enjoyable, and that’s precisely what this exercise does.