Essential creative problem solving tool

Creativity Techniques

Think Jar ConsultingI often get asked if I can send a link to a basic creative problem solving tool or technique for a group to use to generate new ideas and possible innovations. It’s a tall order and I’m usually reluctant to send a single process or tool because there isn’t really a single method that works for all situations and groups. There are however some patterns of creativity and disciplined innovation that we can learn and apply with success.

As life and systems get more complex and change rapidly, I think as people and organizations we can often find ourselves secretly wishing to stumble upon a secret formula that if followed will solve all our problems we face. The uncertainty and stress on people and organizations in our complex times can cause us to lose confidence in our own creative abilities and then we can find ourselves looking outward for consultant saviours to solve our wicked problems for us. It’s understandable to wish for this, but it also reinforces that the locus of control is outside ourselves and can cause us to paint ourselves into a dark corner and do nothing. Even if you get a great consultant to come in and teach you a creative problem solving technique, if you don’t see how you can make a difference, spark innovation and help tame complexity then even a great consultant and creative problem solving tool won’t help. I mean don’t get me wrong, Think Jar Collective contributors do facilitate and help organizations develop creative cultures and learn techniques, but it is done less in a way to solve your problems for you and more in an empowering way that lays the foundation for sustainable and continued innovation over time.

So where does innovation begin?

To better navigate complexity and spark innovation we need creative problem solving and fresh thinking more than ever. In terms of where to start, you need to begin with your own mind and shake up stiff patterns of thinking first!

“According to a study by IBM and based on 1,500 corporate heads and public sector leaders across 60 nations and 33 industries, creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business, outweighing even integrity and global thinking”  Fast Company, May 2010, Austin Carr

Katherine Hepburn quote on innovationEven though I warn you above to not get seduced by thinking there is one creative problem solving technique, now I’m going to contradict myself and lay out a general creative problem solving process for small groups. It is my synthesis and remix of what I’ve learned from the Osborn-Parnes creative problem solving technique, from Design Thinking, from my own graduate research into fostering creativity in the social sector and from the rebels and free thinkers in my life that I’m fortunate to know and who push my thinking.

If there is one thing I’ve found makes a difference to navigate complexity and solve problems creatively, it is less around rigid tools and more around learning to think flexibly and to have well developed critical thinking skills. It’s a both-and approach of being able to move fluidly between divergent wild thinking and laser sharp practical questioning to converge on actionable solutions. And it takes lots of practice and lots of making yourself look like a fool. Lots of practice and lots of fails.

“If you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” Malcolm Gladwell

Buckle up, here we go!

1. Convene a rad group

picture of think jar collective design7 people is ideal. 9 people max. Bring in diverse people, but diverse people with some friendliness and an open mind. Some people should know the situation you are trying to apply creativity to and some should be fresh and new. Some jokesters help lighten the mood. Bring some good food and coffee or that hard core green tea with lots of caffeine. Let people know you need their attention for 1 and a 1/2 hours in the session. Finishing early is always better. Whatever you do, never go over the time you set or people will begin to hate your creative problem solving sessions.

2. Ready people to think differently (5 mins)

Frank Zappa deviation from the normFirst lay the foundation with participants and let people know they need to allow some space in their minds to think differently.
It may sound simplistic, but really when you engage with creative problem solving technique you are going to think in weird ways that go against what you are used to. We are creatures of familiarity and one of the patterns that leads to innovation is to embrace the unexpected and look at the world in new and fresh ways. People also won’t be creative if there isn’t trust among the group. Don’t do forced play, but talk about how playfulness fosters trust. Convene people in a comfortable place. Take 4 mins to engage a creativity warm up exercise.  Encourage humour, playfulness.

3. Set the rules of engagement (4 mins)

Yes, this is kind of like war, war where our enemy is habitual tendencies that derail creative possibilities. We need rules of engagement to support each others creativity, sustain trust and get to unexpected and innovative solutions. Post the rules of engagement in the room. Here are rules that have been adapted from Osborn-Parnes, Peter Senge and systems thinking and design thinking approaches.

Think Jar Action Lab Agreement



4. Explain why some creativity is needed in your situation (5 mins)

George Carlin on challenging the status quoPeople settle down and loosen up when they understand why. Why have you brought together this group? What are you hoping for? Why is it important apply some new thinking to the challenge you’re about to tackle. In the think tanks I steward, we get together and explain that we are trying to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. Why? because our systems typically hold people back from living the lives disabled citizens want and deserve. And because as professionals we get stuck in doing what we are used to. We get together in our think tank to try to design experiences and meaningful ways people with disabilities could offer their best in community. Break it down and explain whatever your why is.

“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.” Man Ray

5. Discover and explore the challenge area (20 mins)

Critical thinking vintage pictureFor a short session, frame what the challenge area is. E.g. At present we are trying to think of ways we could make our service offer more delightful and engaging. Give a little brief on the situation or challenge area. E.g. Ask people the reasons why current service offers might not be engaging and it might cause customers to go elsewhere. Quietly on sticky notes people can list the challenge points with a service. Ask people for examples they have seen elsewhere of insanely engaging services, list the characteristics of the awesome service offers on sticky notes. Look for parallel examples and list them that could be applied to your challenge. E.g. It is interesting how West Jet flight attendants use playfulness to get people to laugh and pay more attention to the safety brief, how might we do something similar with our safety meetings on the worksite? This phase should end with a list of core need areas around the challenge area and then a frame.

6. Frame the challenge a bit better (4 mins)

Walt Disney as dreamerNow you take the discovery information and you tell the group, “In thinking of the core needs of this challenge, lets frame our challenge up a bit better.” I find this phase to be the trickiest because our assumptions can get the best of us. Tell people this is tricky and it is our best shot at framing the challenge at present. Now you frame up the challenge with a question that begins with How Might We… or In What Ways Might We… A question is better for opening our minds than a closed problem statement. E.g. In what ways might we give our customers delightful experiences that foster loyalty and word of mouth advertising?

7. Get Divergent and weird (15 mins)

Founder of think jar collective Ben Weinlick quote on being weird and innovationNow you have the discovery information, inspiration and challenge frame causing wild connections and ideas to emerge in peoples brains. You need to tell people, that for the next 15 mins, everyone needs to work hard at keeping their inner naysayer in a cage in the back of their minds and that they are going to push themselves to go beyond the usual. Encourage wild ideas, build on each others ideas, combine weird ideas, bring in ideas from other fields, draw your idea, story board your ideas, come up with lots of ideas, don’t just go for a few, go for quantity. One idea per sticky note(or else it gets bad weird!). In this stage you can use numerous divergent thinking techniques like the ones we have on our Tools page. The most powerful thing I’ve seen work is based in design thinking and essentially is about getting people to show what their idea looks like rather than simply talk about it. Have people roughly prototype their ideas with raw materials. Good creativity stewardship is necessary at this stage.

8. Converge on practical possibilities (15 mins)

Albert Einstein quote on simplicityNow let people know that they rocked it at coming up with tons of ideas in the last phase. Let people know they are now going to find some possibilities that are going to suit the situation at hand. You need to communicate that this phase can be tricky and even though people need to use critical thinking, be sensitive to sustaining trust. You are now going to see which ideas might best suit the problem you are trying to find creative solutions to. You might have people dot vote with a marker which ideas on the stickies are the top three ideas they think are actionable and relevant at present. This is a tricky time and people need to be extra careful to maintain trust. You could also ask people to pick one idea that is the most innovative, one that is most doable at present and one that would make the biggest impact. Key thing when choosing ideas; ask questions and be careful of your assumptions. Also, be careful you don’t just go for the easiest and most familiar possibilities. Tips on avoiding the wet blanket in creative collaboration in the convergence phase can be found here

9. Action steps (10 mins)

chronicle-of-flight1Brainstorming sessions often suck because people mix divergent and convergent thinking styles at the wrong times and because there is no clear action plan at the end. Don’t make those mistakes or you’ll help reinforce the myth that brainstorming doesn’t work. Disciplined creative problem solving works if done with the right stewardship and process. At this stage I often get groups to pick the top 3 ideas and make simple plans to get the ball rolling. You are not going to plan for world peace and solve everything in 10 mins, so give up that delusion. Especially important is asking who would like to help with each piece of the plan you are developing. When specific people are connected to an action item, more good shit happens.

10. Wrap up (5 mins)

Nancy Reagan and Mr. TAlways end sessions a bit earlier than you said. This helps people feel more fresh as they leave and feel better about creative problem solving. You could get everyone to go around and share what they are most stoked about after the session. Have people share key aha moments. You can also get people to say something they will be mindful of in the next creative problem solving session to sustain the collaboration, creativity etc… You want people to walk away inspired and have a sense of their role and responsibilities going forward. Thank people for their time, creativity, and sticking to the process.


Keep this in mind

Throughout all of these phases encourage playfulness, curiosity, strengthen trust, and get a bit weird to think differently.  Add your own style and flavour, realize these are not absolute rules to always follow and make sure you are also developing a creative culture in your workplace because simply injecting tools and skills will not work on their own for continued innovation.

“If there is one thing I’ve found makes a difference to navigate complexity and solve problems creatively, it is less around rigid tools and more around learning to think flexibly and to have well developed critical thinking skills. It’s a both-and approach of being able to move fluidly between divergent wild thinking and laser sharp practical questioning to converge on actionable solutions. And it takes lots of practice and lots of making yourself look like a fool”


Citizen Action Lab

Check out our Citizen Action Lab and the video in the link below to see what the creative process looks like as we apply it in the social sector

Enter the Citizen Action Lab

Further Learning



21 ways to kill creativity

creativity workshops 

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