In the current economic climate, where the trend is to minimize budgets and reduce workforce, project managers are expected to deliver more high-quality content in tighter schedules.
“Do more with less and do it faster” is the mandate.
In this context, the ability to apply creative ideas and “out-of-the-box” thinking to the development of solutions to problems becomes critical. It significantly increases the chances of project managers to be successful in their role and to deliver a return on their organization’s investment.
Edward de Bono, the originator of the “lateral thinking term” said, “Creative thinking is not a talent; it is a skill that can be learnt. It empowers people by adding strength to their natural abilities which improves teamwork, productivity and where appropriate profits”
There are several strategies and techniques that encourage creative thinking, the most common ones being visualization, using combination and relationships, thinking in opposites, and thinking metaphorically or analogy thinking.
Well-known methods and processes have been formalized combining these creativity and creative-problem-solving techniques. The best suited technique shall be applied after considering the context of the problem and what “solving” it actually means.
Brainstorming – for generating as many ideas as possible
Brainstorming is probably the most widely known tool for stimulating group creative thinking. It has been proposed by Alex Osborn in the book called, “Applied Imagination.”
Brainstorming is a technique that uses intuition and the knowledge of the members of a team to produce new ideas, suggestions, and approaches – the most unusual ones. Following Albert Einstein’s principle, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, than there is no hope for it,” brainstorming aims to generate as many apparently absurd ideas as possible.
When the method works, the results can be outstanding. However, because the approach is so much based on intuition, the method tends to have unpredictable and unrepeatable results.
Not to be ignored, one of the collateral advantages of applying group brainstorming in project problems is that it builds team spirit by enabling everyone to feel involved and as though they are participating in the final solution.
TRIZ – for applying known solutions to new problems
“TRIZ” is the (Russian) acronym for the “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving.” The method was developed between 1946 and 1985 by G.S. Altshuller and his colleagues in the former U.S.S.R.
TRIZ is based on logic, research, and data and its practice consists of applying known patterns of problem solving solutions to specific situations.
Quite opposite to the brainstorming method, TRIZ brings repeatability, predictability, and reliability to the problem-solving process.
Polarity MAP – for solving apparently unsolvable contradictions
Sometimes the issues that project managers face are not so much problems to be solved as they are paradoxes, seemingly contradictory situations that are nevertheless true.
Common project management paradoxes are “deliver more content with fewer resources” or “deliver more content in less time.”
The polarity map is especially useful in deciding whether to approach the issue as a problem to be solved or as a paradox to be balanced. It is well-suited for thinking through a paradox and seeing the big picture behind it, hence it provides an alternative when dealing with difficult, ambiguous situations.
There are four steps in the process that leads to balancing a paradox – describe the issue, determine either the issue is a problem to be solved or a paradox to be balanced, describe the paradox by creating a polarity map, and determine how to balance the paradox.
A polarity map shows how a paradox cycles from one polarity to the other over time. The purpose of balancing a paradox is to achieve the best aspects of both polarities – and avoid the situation when one polarity begins to dominate and the downside consequences associated with it will manifest.
Storyboarding – for creative group decision-making
In the early 30s, Walt Disney Studio developed the first storyboard system to help with cartoon animation.
Storyboarding is like taking the thoughts of the whole team and writing them on the wall. The first story board may be composed of Post-it notes, titles, and one-line ideas – but they can be replaced later in the process with draft presentations and well-developed proposals.
When all ideas are up on the board – interconnections and relations that haven’t been visible or understood before start to appear, hence new ideas are generated.
Story boards can be successfully used in project management planning when the team works together in spotting the problems, identifying the complications, changing the tasks, etc. They are also extremely useful in the group decision-making process, especially where challenging decisions need the group unity and agreement.
Other various tools and methods can be used for creative problem solving in project management – from De Bono Hats for looking at a situation from different perspective, to Delphi Decision Making to collect views of the experts and find expert-based solutions.
Problem Solving and Decision Making
Along the way to successful achievement, many instances cloud issues and create mistakes that lead to setbacks. Managing these troubling situations can require higher order thinking about problem solving and decision making.
Often, solutions are not apparent and the options seem exhausted. Learning to reason, being conscientious, and utilizing an effective problem solving process can reveal creative outlets and solutions that did not before seem attainable.
Steps in Effective Problem Solving
Effective problem solving is a multi-step process.
Find and Frame the Problem – The first step is being able to identify what the problem is. This relates to the who, what, where, and when of the problematic circumstance. Actually pinpointing the specific issue that is troubling or conflicting can be difficult, so it is important to establish the specifics of a concern and deal with it accordingly.
Develop Good Problem Solving Strategies – It is important to examine all alternatives possible. This can be done through developing sub-goals or an action plan with achievable steps toward the greater goal. This helps provide measurable objectives that reveal the progress being made. Developing these strategies can come from an array of options such as trial-and-error or brainstorming.
Select the Best Solution and Evaluate – Evaluate solutions by reviewing the consequence of the strategy. Examining questions such as: Will the outcome resolve the problem for the long-run? How realistic is this solution? What are the risks? This adaptability assists in a continual process of problem solving.
Implement the Solution – Lastly, following through with the decided solution and examine the outcome. Actually focusing on the problem and working toward resolution or management can take dedication and commitment. It is important to use this type of problem-focused coping instead of avoiding or masking the problem to alleviate the associated stress. After implementing the solution, examine the outcome and learn from the situation.
Problem Solving Related to Creativity and Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is crucial in making good judgment through the decision making process. Making sure evidence is evaluated, and analyzing uncertain or unfamiliar information provides reassurance for a decision. Critical thinking helps to avoid a narrow focus of fixating on only one solution and succumbing to hidden assumptions.
Two areas inherent in the ability to think critically are mindfulness and open-mindedness. Mindfulness relates to being alert and mentally focused. Developing self-awareness through metacognition, or thinking about thinking, provides awareness of thinking patterns and provides more control over emotions and behavior. Open-mindedness stimulates creative and innovative thinking. Being open-minded can create numerous alternatives and novel perspectives.
Creativity is the mental process of generating new ideas or concepts. Creative thinkers are typically flexible and playful thinkers that maintain a more positive and enthusiastic attitude. Similarly, creative people are usually divergent thinkers. They are able to think outside the box and examine numerous possibilities, expanding and generating on the perceived solutions that could be incorporated.
Creative Problem Solving
When faced with a problem or issue requiring alteration many people are unable to connect with an inner creativity to find a solution. This prevents thinking outside the box and denies the creative idea before it reaches elaboration.
Julia Cameron, author of the Artist’s Way [Penguin, 2002], encourages readers to write three morning pages in order to develop the ability to free-flow thoughts and avoid filtering. The objective is to help people discover and uncover true inner creativity.
An additional solution can be approaching the problem with more than one person whom have various strengths; such as a visionary, developer, organizer, etc. to generate a fluid creative process. One person may be more suited as a developer while others are more apt at implementing and following through with the idea.
Innovation begins with creative problem solving, and the approach and attitude taken through the process of improvement is viewed as a challenge rather than a burden.
According to King (2009), the steps involved in effective creative problem solving are:
- evaluation; and
Creating and Shaping the Future
The fortitude of the creative critical thinker provides novel solutions to apparently irreparable problems. Many of histories most profound accomplishments derived from creative ideas that never would have been thought possible or attempted if mind limiting processes were present. Through creative problem solving, innovative creations can manifest, and almost any idea can become a tangible reality; if creative insight is embraced and captured.