Questioning for Creativity

Have you ever tried writing with your pen pointing up? According to legend this was quite a problem for NASA astronauts wanting to write in space. Gazillions of dollars were spent developing a space pen with ink that would work in zero gravity, no matter which way it was pointing. The result was the fabulous space pen, a marvel of modern engineering and quite a cool gadget too. The Russians used pencils.

Within this amusing tale are some great lessons in creative problem solving. How often do we start generating solutions straight away, or gloss over the problem statement as a given? In most models of creative problem solving, ideation comes in the middle and not at the beginning. In this post I’m going to talk about the power of asking questions, and the importance of asking those questions in the right way.

Why are we here

The most important goal in creative problem solving is to solve the problem, not develop a particular solution. Many problems are stated with the solution in mind, such as Q) how can we improve our marketing strategy? or Q) what material can we use on our spaceships that will resist the heat of atmospheric entry?

In both of these cases we are guided towards preconceived notions which effectively blinker the creative thinking process. For NASA, a better approach to the question of heat-resistant materials was to search for a solution that would protect the crew, in this case a heat shield designed to take just long enough to melt away (the ablative heat shield).

What is important here

Once you have decided what problem you are actually solving, you need to direct your attention to the right place. Asking to develop a cheap solution is very different to asking for a solution which will delight customers or a solution which will never fail. Understanding different perspectives, knowing what is important to each of them, and asking questions to guide you in the right direction are all essential elements in setting the stage for successful creative thinking.

You’ve been framed

We all know the story where our hero is framed for a crime they didn’t commit, and then spends the rest of the movie proving their innocence and chasing down the bad guys.

In creative thinking we are deeply affected by the way in which a problem is framed. It affects our attitudes, our assumptions and the way in which we treat the problem. In some cases we might even lock the problem up and throw away the key, assuming it can never be solved.

Understanding our psychological response to risk and uncertainty, or the way in which we will respond differently to the same problem when stated in positive rather than negative terms, can really help when framing problems to motivate a creative response.

Also critical to successful creative thinking is an understanding of those aspects of a problem that actively prevent creative thinking, such as our natural bias towards particular solutions being used in a particular way or our assumptions about a given problem domain. For example, when designing ship’s hulls that won’t rust or rot like steel or wood most of us would not think to use concrete given our assumption that it is heavy. This solution uses a concrete which floats.

Questioning for Creativity

If you want a creative response, you need to set the stage with a creative question and manage the production of ideas with some light direction to keep everyone’s attention focused in the right place. In this series I’ll be looking at how to frame problems for creative thinking, and how to ask questions to keep ideation alive. Over the next few days you’ll see the following discussions:

  • Probing questions such as the 5 whys, if…then spirals and TERMS
  • Perspective altering questions such as zooming, conflict analysis and assumption busting
  • Framing techniques such as uncertainty bias, positive framing and attribute priming


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