Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them”. He described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is very relevant in the context of business. When we reach a dead end and are unable to solve a problem after several attempts, the mistake that we are probably making is in assuming that there is only one way to solve that problem. This mental block creates a bias that paralyses our thought process and we refuse to think in a different way.
Let us look at a few examples of creative problem solving at work.
Reebok got the idea for cushioning in one of their best-selling basketball shoes from technology that was used in intravenous fluid bags. When clogged bags in vacuum cleaners led to people working on better filters to solve the problem, James Dyson thought of a creative solution to a problem of separating dirt from air, leading to the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. In each of the above cases people didn’t have a mental block, they just let new ideas permeate their minds and that led to unique solutions.
Today creative thinking and problem solving in business has become more critical for success because the lifespan of good ideas required to acquire and retain business leadership is getting shorter. Therefore, it has become imperative to generate new ideas on an ongoing basis to retain the competitive edge. This in turn calls for the use of sound systematic methods to drive creative problem solving in any organisation. When these creative problem solving techniques become an integral part of the corporate culture and mindset, organisations will not just react when confronted with a new problem but will make the transition to being proactive problem solvers who are always tuned in to what is happening in their environment, are always open to new ways of looking at things and are capable of coming up with ideas that can delight customers, stun competition and drive profits.
Let us look at the important pieces that need to fit together to complete the puzzle.
Framing the problem:
Creative problem solving always starts with an excellent understanding and a clear definition of the problem or issue at hand. The way the problem is framed usually determines the direction in which people start looking for a solution. A problem definition that contains a predisposition or bias towards a specific solution will usually become a self-fulfilling prophecy – it will constrain people to think in a specific direction, there will be no fresh ideas and you will probably end up with the solution you had in mind even before you started the creative problem solving process. Creative problem solving model thus has to start with the definition of the creative problem.
Setting the ball rolling:
Well begun is half done. At this stage it is important to understand that there is no single magic wand available to provide an instant solution. In fact, pushing for an instant solution could actually smother creativity. Creative solutions need space and time to evolve and take shape.
In order to understand the process better, let us take a couple of time-tested methods like ‘Brain storming’ and ‘Thinking outside the box’. These approaches have delivered good results. However, it is important to have a deep understanding of what makes these creative approaches to problem solving click before using them in any organisation.
Brain storming is an old concept developed by Alex Osborn in the 1950s and over the years it has undergone changes as organisations have used it. It is a simple approach that allows employees to get together in a relaxed and informal setting to think, discuss and generate as many ideas as possible. It helps bring the diverse experience of team members to the table. An idea is never shot down no matter how quirky or wild it is. All ideas are collected, evaluated and some are converted into viable new solutions, while other ideas are not discarded but retained to serve as food for thought during future sessions.
Brain storming, in a sense, is a reactive approach because to focusses on a specific issue at hand – it is usually about fixing something that is broken. Thinking outside the box, on the other hand has broader connotations. It is all about being proactive and staying ahead of the curve. It is about an organisation developing the ability to continuously and constructively question the status quo with the firm belief that there are always better ways of doing things. It is about breaking free of existing constraints and looking beyond current practices to open up new possibilities – new products, services or new ways of delivering existing offerings to customers.
A new variant that has evolved in recent years is ‘Thinking in new boxes’ which essentially is about further breaking down the silos that could develop during our creative thinking process. This is exemplified by what Bic the pen manufacturer did to their business – instead of thinking about themselves as pen manufacturers they broadened their horizon to redefine their core as ‘manufacturers of plastic disposable items’ and this helped them diversify successfully into lighters and razors.
The critical organisational enablers:
The methods and approaches by themselves are simple and extremely easily implementable, almost deceptively so. What is critical though is something that is hidden under the hood and drives or enables this in organisations, a structure and culture – that encourages people to think beyond ones’ core activities, that provides the freedom to express ones’ ideas without the fear of being shot down or ridiculed, that has a great degree of tolerance for failure because a lot of new ideas are bound to fail and an incentive system that rewards not just short term results but encourages people to invest their time and resources in dreaming of newer things that could have a much larger impact on the company’s ability to compete effectively in future.
To conclude here is an example of one of the most creative, simple and yet extremely effective solution to a problem that was becoming a roadblock for Amazon in India. Across the world people would order, pay online and wait to receive the product. In India, people initially were unwilling to trust online retailers and make a payment in advance. This could have been a complete showstopper till Amazon came up with the simple yet brilliant idea of ‘çash on delivery’. We all know how their business took off after that.
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