Techniques for Formulating Creative Problem Statements

Creativity Techniques

Think Outside the box pictureWhen trying to enhance creative problem solving, we first need a well defined challenge or problem to work with. Coming up with workable problem statements can be tricky, so I’m offering a few tips and techniques here that can help.

The initial statement of a problem often reflects a preconceived solution. Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. 

Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “In what ways might we make railroad traffic safer?” was the flanged wheel invented.


The formulation of a problem determines the range of choices: the questions you ask determine the answers you receive. To start with, it’s helpful to coin problems in a particular way. Write the problems you want to solve as a definite question. Use the phrase “In what ways might I…?” to start a problem statement. This is sometimes known as the invitational stem and helps keep you from settling on a problem statement that may reflect only one perception of the problem.

For example, in the series of letters below, cross out six letters to make a common word.


If you state the problem as: “How to cross out six letters to form a common word?” you’ll find it difficult to solve. If, instead, you framed it: “In what ways might I cross out six letters to form a common word?” you will likely find yourself inspired to think of many alternative possible solutions, including the solution which is to literally cross out the letters “S,” “I,” “X,” “L,” “E,” “T,” “T,” “ and so on, leaving the word CREATE.

Before you brainstorm any problem, restate the problem at least five to ten times to generate multiple perspectives. The emphasis is not so much on the right problem definition but on alternative problem definitions. Sooner or later, you’ll find one that you are comfortable with.

The following are some different ways to look at your problem.

Abstractions and asking Why Questions

One can always look at a system from different levels of abstraction. A very fine-grained description of a beach would include every position of every grain of sand. Viewed from a higher vantage point, the details become smeared together, the grains become a smooth expanse of brown. At this level of description, different qualities emerge: the shape of the coastline, the height of the dunes, and so on. The idea is to look for the appropriate level of abstraction, the best viewpoint from which to gather ideas.

One of the keys to Freud’s genius was his ability to find the appropriate level of abstraction of his problem so that he could operate beyond the usual assumptions and interpretations. To find the appropriate level of abstraction, ask “Why?” four or five times, until you find the level where you’re comfortable.

Suppose your challenge is: “In what ways might I sell more Chevrolet Luminas?”

Step One: Why do you want to sell more Luminas? “Because my car sales are down”

Step Two: Why do you want to sell more cars? “To improve my overall sales.”

Step Three: Why do you want to improve overall sales? “To improve my business.

Step Four: Why do you want to improve your business? “To increase my personal wealth.”

Step Five: Why do you want to improve your personal wealth? “To lead the good life.”

Now you shape your challenge in a variety of ways including:

In what ways might I sell more Luminas?

In what ways might I sell more cars?

In what ways might I improve overall sales?

In what ways might I improve my business?

In what ways might I improve my personal wealth?

In what ways might I lead the good life?


Oscar Wilde Quote on dangerous ideasPlaying with verbs and nouns encourages you to think of perspectives that you would probably not think of spontaneously. Try changing the nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in your problem statement. For example, a problem might be “How to sell more bottles ?” Changing the verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs makes this into “How to bottle more sales?” Bottling sales now suggests looking for ways to close sales, instead of ways to sell more bottles.

The problem “How to improve customer relations?” becomes “How to customize related improvements?” This new perspective leads one to consider customizing products and services for customers, customizing all relevant aspects of the customer relations department, and so on.

The problem “How to motivate employees?” becomes “How to employ motivated people?”


Further Reading




One thought on “Techniques for Formulating Creative Problem Statements

  • James Davis says:

    I will quite often use the abstraction technique when trying to problem solve. I see this as literally taking a step back from the problem and very much like how a photographer composes his shot – I try and look at the problem from a new perspective.

    Some of my best photos (and ideas) have been created while lying on the ground or hanging high above my subject.

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