Everyone claims to be one on the CVs, and many jobs require it in the job description, but how do you actually become a “creative problem solver”? Before we answer that question it’s important to be clear why we have to find an answer.

sky-1181333_1280There are at least three reasons why everyone needs to be a creative problem solver these days:

  1. a turbulent world with constant change keeps presenting us with circumstances and problems we’ve never encountered before,
  2. a digital world increasingly populated with artificial intelligence, machine learning algorithms and robots will replace any human worker who just “goes through the motions” of their job (even if their job is quite difficult or complex – if it can be described and reduced to repeatable steps, a machine can do it), and,
  3. employers really do value creative problem solvers – this is good for your career.

The good news is that creative problem solving is not the exclusive preserve of some genius-level special people. It is actually a set of skills that can be learnt. And those people who have learnt those skills typically display the following seven characteristics:

1. Comfortable with uncertainty – and even seek it out

Creative people don’t need everything to make sense up front, and don’t wait for everything to make sense before they take the next steps. In fact, the very process of finding out excites them. They don’t approach problems in a linear or solely analytical way, and can hold opposing and paradoxical thoughts in tension in their minds.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook famously explained his t-shirt and jeans dress code. He doesn’t want to spend any brainpower on what he wears each day. Some found this slightly pretentious, many found it odd. It may be over the top, but it is the flip-side of this characteristic. Many very creative people have aspects of their lives that have extreme predictably to them. They wake up at the same time, eat at the same time, wear the same outfits day after day. We all need a balance between structure and spontaneity, so build certainty/structure where you need to and free yourself up to be creative/uncertain where you can.

2. Failure is part of the process, and not taken personally

Failure can often bring up negative emotions like shame, fear, and frustration, and so many of us try everything to run from it. A simple technique is to depersonalise failure. Instead of saying, “I failed,” innovative thinkers reframe the failure into, “That attempt failed.” And they work hard to find the lessons, and ensure they don’t repeat the mistake.

3. Reverse engineer problems

Great problem solvers are able to picture a desired future outcome/state and then work backwards to the present to construct a methodology that will achieve the desired future. Creative problem solvers therefore also tend to be more positive than average – they believe that the future will be better than the present. And then they go about proving themselves right. It’s not magic, but positive people do in fact tend to be more successful than pessimists.

This doesn’t mean that creative problem solvers are simplistic or ignore reality. They know the difference between complex and simple thinking, and know when to use systematic and complex thinking and when to go through short cuts and find an easy solution.

4. Ask great questions, and listen to as many (open minded) people as possible

Great problem solvers surround themselves with people who will help them think better – and broader. They know the best results come from groups of open-minded people working together and sparking each other. Diversity of this group is vital – not just check-box diversity, but real diversity of world-views. And, of course, you have to listen to these differing opinions and insights.

5. Understand your best contribution in the problem solving process

Creative problem solving typically goes through the following phases:

  • Clarify and identify the problem
  • Research the problem
  • Formulate creative challenges
  • Generate ideas
  • Combine and evaluate the ideas
  • Draw up an action plan
  • Implement ideas
  • Evaluate the success of various options
  • Provide feedback and make adjustments on the fly
  • Repeat (in other words, never be truly satisfied that anything we currently have is as good as it could possibly be)

Not even the most genius of all geniuses could possibly be world class at all of these steps. This is another good reason to have a team around you, where different members of your team are strong in different parts of the process. For you personally, it’s important to be clear which parts of this process are strengths, and which are not. Aim to get help where you’re not strong, and then be confident to contribute where your strengths lie.

6. Get on the balcony

It is impossible to be creative if every waking moment of your life is filled with activity and “to do” lists. Creative problem solvers all find ways to create space in their lives. Many of them use physical activity to give themselves a “mind break”. They also are almost all in control of their technology, not allowing their communication channels to overwhelm them, but rather being quite deliberate about managing tech and comms. At TomorrowToday we refer to this as “getting off the dance floor and onto the balcony”. Do it regularly.

7. Don’t believe your first answer, and don’t believe you have found the best answer

Creative problem solvers do not feel the need to be right all the time: they focus on finding the right solution rather than wanting to prove they are right at all costs. In fact, they enjoy finding new information and having new experiences that cause them to have to evaluate their current positions and change their mind. They explore their options, seeing more than one solution to a problem and finding new and productive ways to deal with new problems as they arise. Many of them also work on “Plan B” (and C and D) as they go along. They’re not aiming at only possible solution or outcome, and therefore are able to see multiple paths and options.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls this a “growth mind-set” rather than a fixed mind-set. It’s not that you can’t solve the problem – you just haven’t solved it yet. Seriously, add the word “yet” to your vocabulary, especially to the ends of your sentences – “I haven’t solved it, yet”; “I can’t find the answer, yet”; “I’m not sure what to do, yet.” With the simple addition of this word, creative problem solvers signal to themselves and others that the breakthrough they’re looking for is out there, and they will find it.

Don’t wait. There’s only one way to develop these skills: start practicing them.


TomorrowToday Global