The basics of creative problem solving (with guidelines)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 8 November 2022 | Published 30 November 2021

Updated 8 November 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Creative problem-solving is an approach businesses typically use to come up with new and innovative products and ideas or to solve a challenging problem. Utilising this approach can help you grow and can give you an advantage over your competitors. Understanding how to apply this in your work and highlighting this during meetings can make you a viable candidate. In this article, we discuss what creative problem solving is, review the core principles and benefits of this approach and provide ways to how you can create your own technique.

What is creative problem solving?

Creative problem-solving is a process that professionals use to find unique solutions to a problem by identifying and then suggesting several potential solutions. You can use this skill for various purposes, including product development, branding or resolving workflow issues. For example, during your interview, you might give an example of a time when you've used this method to provide a client with different versions of an ad campaign for their new fragrance.

Consider your problem-solving techniques and how you've used them when working on a difficult task. It's a skill that you can learn by following a process and continue practising and developing. Knowing when to use this skill can help you effectively manage issues and provide custom solutions.

Related: 10 valuable soft skills that you need to succeed in your career

The core principles

There are some core principles to remember when you're going through the process. These principles help you generate as many ideas as possible with no creative limits and therefore help to make the process a success. Understanding these principles is also important if you're aiming to develop your skills.

  • Understand when to use it: Knowing when it's the right time to use creative thinking skills, such as when generating ideas or when using an analytical approach.

  • Rephrase problems as questions: Rephrasing challenges and problems into open-ended questions can make it easier to think of a wide variety of potential solutions and encourage others to have new ideas.

  • Suspend judgement: Making judgements too early in the process can make it harder to generate further ideas, so avoid making judgements when you're brainstorming and instead make a note of every single idea.

  • Focus on positive language: Using phrases like 'Yes and…' encourages people to elaborate and think of more ideas, whereas language like 'No but…' has the opposite effect.

Related: Best practices to boost your creative thinking skills

The benefits of problem-solving creatively

This strategy can help you find solutions when other approaches have been unsuccessful, which makes it a great approach for difficult challenges. It encourages innovation and finding new perspectives, which can lead to unique and unexpected solutions. This plays a big part in developing new innovations and generates sustainable ideas that can be successful in the long term. In a working environment, these strategies can also benefit teams. It encourages collaboration between colleagues, while increasing employee motivation, engagement and self-development. It also helps to create a culture of innovation and openness within the company.

Related: What does collaboration mean in the workplace?

How to creatively problem solve

When solving a problem, knowing how to create a plan to help in this process is important to ensure you took all points into consideration. Since being creative is an individual skill set and developed through experiences, consider what your problem-solving skill would entail. Here are steps you can take to help you create a problem-solving style that works best with your personality:

1. Identify the problem

The first step is to identify what the problem is. Typically, the root of a problem is something different to what we initially think it is, so it's necessary to look closely at the issue to understand what the cause is. Asking questions about the problem can help you to define it better and to think about it in more detail. At this stage, also think about the criteria that potential solutions meet when you start to evaluate your ideas. An example of the first step is that you might think you need a new job.

When you think about the issue more carefully you realise that the actual problem is that your cost of living is higher than your salary. In this instance, a new job could still be a solution, but another option is to negotiate your salary with your employer.

Related: How to use the 5 Whys (with examples of problem solving)

2. Research and understand the problem

The next step is to research the problem so that you understand it in greater detail. The amount of research you do depends on the problem. Consider conducting your research by using a wide range of sources, including books, online resources or feedback and opinion from other people, including professionals and experts. If you're gathering feedback as part of your research, make sure you get information from several people to make your results as well-rounded and accurate as possible.

Related: Research skills: definition and examples

3. Develop creative challenges

Once you understand the problems in your work, the next step is to turn these issues into creative challenges. This means framing your questions to encourage ideas and suggestions. Creative challenges are often questions like 'How could we..?' or 'In what ways could we..?'. Creative challenges ignore the evaluation criteria for ideas. Including the evaluation criteria at this stage would limit creative thinking, so test ideas against the evaluation criteria after they're generated. An example of a creative challenge is to ask, 'In what ways could I find a higher paying job?'.

Related: Problem-solving skills: definitions and examples

4. Generate ideas

Generating ideas is the part of the process that people most often associate with this method of problem-solving. You take one creative challenge and attempt to generate at least 50 different ideas for solving the problem. You can do this individually or in a group. Make a note of every idea, regardless of how unconventional or unhelpful it is. If you're generating ideas as a group, have a rule that no one is critical of anyone else's idea. Having an open and accepting atmosphere helps to encourage creativity. Avoid stopping until you've generated at least 50 ideas.

If members of a team are each generating ideas individually, set a time limit and then share your ideas. Some people might have new ideas after hearing what others in the group have suggested. Ideas generation is doable anywhere, so going out to a park or coffee shop might help to encourage a new perspective.

Related: Decision-Making Skills: Definition and Examples

5. Consolidate and evaluate the ideas

The next step is to consolidate and evaluate your ideas. Go through your ideas again after you've taken a break and combine related ideas. Create an initial list by selecting everything that broadly meets the evaluation criteria you set out. You can then look at each idea in greater detail against the criteria and rate from 0-5 for how well it fits with each of your points. The ideas with the highest scores are the best matches for your criteria. There might be an idea that's clearly the most appropriate solution and that you can implement straight away.

Sometimes the ideas need more development. Doing a SWOT analysis, discussing the idea with others or carrying out more in-depth market research or experiments with prototypes are ways to further develop and refine an idea. Ultimately, you can choose to progress with more than one idea rather than limiting yourself to a single solution.

6. Create a plan of action

After coming up with ideas, you can create a plan for how you're going to take them forward. Creative ideas can come with changes or risks, so moving forward with them is sometimes daunting. Having an action plan in place can give you more confidence as you progress. Work out the steps necessary to implement your idea. Implementation might be complex, so break the process down into smaller stages that feel more manageable.

Related: How to write an action plan to help you achieve your goals

7. Implement the ideas

Implementing your ideas is the final stage of the process. If you have a carefully written action plan, this stage of the process is fairly straightforward. Simply follow the steps you set out in your plan of action to put your idea into practice. If things start to deviate from the plan of action, simply make adjustments and adapt to the plan so that it reflects the real situation. You can then continue using it as a guide whilst you implement your idea.


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