How Creative Thinking Works

So far I have introduced a lot of different ways for thinking creatively such as getting the most out of brainstorms, asking questions and generally navigating your way through the creative thinking process. Today I’m going to walk through a framework for actually doing all f the steps you need to think creatively, and for getting something of value out the other side. The framework I’m going to walk through is called the Productive Thinking Model

Some models for creative thinking bring together logical and creative thinking, maybe using logical analysis to understand the problem and some sort of magic to come up with the ideas. Whilst earlier models relied largely on incubation and a flash of insight to come up with the creative magic, I prefer to open up out tool bag of creative thinking tools so we can be creative on purpose.

The Productive Thinking Model

Building on the Creative Problem Solving Process (Osborne and Parnes, 1957), the productive thinking model provides a really nice 6 step process for solving a problem creatively. The approach works well, and is even used by Facilitators without Borders to help communities like this one in Uganda. Here are the 6 steps.

Step 1: What is Going on?

Before we do anything we have to ask ourselves “what is going on here?”. This means empathising with the people involved and finding out where their pain points are.

For our man on the left here this could be a lack of snow to ski on, the heat of skiing in the outdoors or a lack of ski lift facilities nearby. As with other first looks at a problem, we need to find out more. If there is a clear vision of where the problems lie and why they are problems, now is the time to find out.

A could of great tools to use here are:

  • The Five Whys. Asking why a problem exists until we get to an underlying problem can be a very useful exercise in understanding what we are dealing with.
  • Zooming Out. Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees. Stepping back to see the big picture can reveal a whole new side to the problem that you may not have considered otherwise

Step 2: What is Success?

For creative problem solving, understanding what success means is all about value. Just solving the problem is not good enough. We want to create the best solution possible, which means understanding what value or benefit we are looking for.

At this point it is useful to ask who a solution is for, and what benefits you would want if you were them. Note the stress on putting yourself in your customer’s shoes here. Don;t be abstract and disconnected, actually imagine yourself on the receiving end. What pain points are you wanting to go away, what benefits do you want, and what don’t you want.

A couple of great tools to use here are Six Value medals (for understanding what value means in this context), and TERMS (for understanding your customers needs from a range of different drivers including time, emotion, risk, money, and situation).

Step 3: What is the Question?

This is all about framing the question in a way that you focus on the most important aspects of the problem whilst avoiding any solution bias that might block creative thinking at the next step. It can be useful to run a short brainstorm to determine the best way of framing your question, as I posted here.

Step 4: Generate Answers

This is the ideation part. As a creative thinking process, our goal here is to think laterally, which means disrupting our normal logical thought process. If we get it right, we’ll have useful ideas which make sense in hindsight, but which would have been impossible to create using normal logical thought.

This works well in a two step process, 1) generate as many ‘launch pad’ ideas as possible, 2) select the launch pad ideas that feel as if they have potential and generate further ideas based on them. Whilst the following techniques are designed to disrupt logical thinking enough so that we do actually generate lateral ideas, it can be really helpful to differentiate between ‘launch pad’ ideas and the more thought out ideas you might take to the next step.

For example, ‘launch pad’ ideas for coffee shop disruption may include space station coffee bars or coffee served under water. These might then be used as starting points leading to coffee bars in guaranteed pollutant free shops (for high traffic areas) or improved takeaway coffee cups designed to never spill or fall over.

A range of lateral thinking tools which I’ve already posted on include SCAMPER, Random Word Force Fit, Think by Analogy, Hall of Fame, and provocative statements

Step 5: Forge the Solution

A bit like Edward de Bono’s Positives Minuses Interesting, this step uses a lightweight review mechanism to sort through the ideas and identify which ones have value.

  • Positives: What’s good about the idea, what benefits does it offer and to whom. What impact could this have?
  • Objections: What might get int he way, or need to be worked around for this to provide a stronger impact or work better for the end user? Note: at this stage I am trying to avoid looking at what might and might not work, most entrepreneurs pay scant regard to what is possible anyway.
  • What Else: What else does this remind you of Has it been done a bit like it before
  • Enhancements: How else could we improve this idea, or add to it. This might also involve another round of ideation, as in step 4.
  • Remedies: How can we fix up any draw backs with this idea?
In addition, I would suggest shaping this approach to focus on potential impact, and the cost of experimentation. After a creative thinking session like this, I would expect a range of creative ideas, each of which would in some way destroy an accepted way of doing something. Prototyping those with some potential to make a real difference is a powerful way of staying the initial round of objections until you have actually played with the idea for a while. I wrote about this approach in Black Swan Idea Selection.
Step 6: Align Resources
All good meetings should end with an action plan and some decision making. For our creative thinking process we need a clear agreement on:
  • Who is going to do what
  • When they are going to do it
  • Who else should be involved

4 thoughts on “How Creative Thinking Works

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