Creativity, Innovation and Problem Solving – Some of the Difficulties


For so many years I have been reading in the press about the need for creativity and innovation and the various initiatives that organisations have implemented in an effort to unleash the minds of individuals and teams to help them (and in turn the organisations) generate new ideas for products, services, differentiation, competitive advantage, problem solving and so on.

Of course it is extremely difficult to argue against the need for new ideas, creativity, problem solving and innovation (in so many ways it was this that put the ‘great’ in Great Britain) and yet there seems to be a constant struggle to ignite and sustain this valuable, if not vital ingredient in today’s organisations. There are of course a handful of exceptions that spring to mind, Dyson to name but one and you only have to watch Dragon’s Den to see where the smart money is being invested, typically in products and services that are new, innovative or solve real life problems.

For a similar number of years I have been absorbing myself in the complexities of this fascinating subject in an attempt to understand as much about it as possible so that I can in turn assist clients and individuals open their minds and learn successful, proven tools and techniques that will enable them to unleash their creativity and problem solving skills at work, at home and indeed in all areas of their lives.

An easy task? I think not! There are simply so many barriers to success that what on the face of it should be a fairly straightforward task (after all the thirst to learn is there) is actually quite a challenge, not insurmountable but a challenge none the less.

The aim of this and subsequent articles is to unravel some of the difficulties surrounding creativity and innovation and to provide some proven gems that if applied are guaranteed to make you more creative and a better problem solver (both technical and non-technical) and even become the creative genius or champion that so many organisations appear to be crying out for.

‘Some people are just naturally creative and others quite simple are not. It isn’t something that can be taught or more importantly learnt.’

Whilst the first part of this statement might in part hold some truth (it could easily be argued that we are all naturally creative but some of us have been more susceptible to all or some of the inherent internal and external suppressants, more about these later) but the second part of the statement could not be further from the truth. I know from experience that there are many practical, systematic tools and processes that are easily learnt, easily applied and without doubt increase our levels of creativity but first of all I need to define what I mean by creativity.

In this context our maximum level of creativity is equal to the maximum number of ideas that we are able to generate and for this reason one of the most valuable lessons that I have learnt is to break the creative thinking process down into two distinct phases. Idea generation first, evaluation and judgement second (and late in the process). This helps on so many levels but most importantly it counteracts some of the biggest barriers.

One of the barriers is for us to be prematurely judgemental, particularly from a negative standpoint. The behaviour I often see displayed, particularly in a group thinking session, is for individuals to seek out reasons why an idea won’t work, to quickly try to identify the weaknesses in an idea or worse still to resort to ridicule.

Don’t underestimate the power of this! Not only are these extremely common traits but they are obviously some of the most damaging. For the individual, they erode the motivation to generate and share ideas, for the group it leads to an immense amount of debate, defensiveness and argument, detracting from the productive process of creativity and idea generation. Many fruitless hours have been spent like this in meetings, corridors, offices and even in the bar!

Please don’t misunderstand me, debate and evaluation are essential but all too often we are basing our arguments on our own thoughts and prejudices which spring from our personal bank of experience and knowledge. Remember, this is phase two of the process and should be left to late in the process.

On the subject of knowledge, this too can become a major factor in limiting our ability to create ‘new’ ideas. We can easily become bound by our own pool of knowledge, restricting us to what we know and often the more ‘expert’ we become the greater the significance of this. Without meaning to single out a particular group or stereotype a profession, engineers can present a somewhat classic manifestation of this. After all, when faced with difficult technical problems they are paid to apply their knowledge of engineering principals and rules to solve them. However of course, the solutions they present are more often than not limited to their own knowledge and experience.

I wonder just how many engineers are aware that 99.7% of the tough problems that they face (more often than not technical or physical contradictions) have already been solved. How wonderful it would be for them to have access to the world’s knowledge of all these solutions at their fingertips. Yet this is the reality, this font of knowledge already exists and is only one of many tools, processes and systematic approaches that can turn them into truly productive, creative and innovative engineers. I will expand upon this in a future article.

I mentioned earlier and promised to expand upon the inherent internal and external suppressants to creativity, knowledge being a prime example of an internal suppressant. There are simply too many to do them all justice in this brief introductory article but I plan to expand on them in subsequent editions. However, to give you a taster I’ve listed below a number of the key ones that I will be examining.

Internal suppressants are those that are manifested through our own psychological factors the more common ones include:

Hindsight: the better the idea the more obvious it is in hindsight and the risk is that we devalue it.

Premature critical thinking: once we have an idea there is a tendency to jump to identify reasons why it won’t work rather than looking to identify the inherent strengths within it.

Time: we are simply too busy to create time and space to think, many people prefer to ‘roll their sleeves up’ and get on with the job.

Knowledge: understandably, it is easy to become restricted by what we know and be bound by this knowledge. We find it difficult to ‘think outside the box’.

When I refer to external suppressants I am talking about factors beyond our own control that we are subjected to. These are often managerial or cultural.

‘Chewing your pencil’: This is simply frowned upon. Management or organisational culture does not permit (or worse still, actively discourage) thinking time.

Lack of feedback, recognition or reward: individuals are not recognised and/or rewarded for the ideas that they generate and put forward (a common failure of staff suggestion schemes).

Ridicule: colleagues and managers laughing at our ideas or using incredibly damaging phrases such as ‘that won’t work’, ‘stupid idea’, ‘we can’t do that here’ etc. The medium to long term effect of this is for individuals to cease voicing their ideas.

Poor facilitation: managers of meetings or leaders of group thinking sessions are not sufficiently equipped with successful facilitation skills leading to a lack of productivity, participation, focus etc.

The above are more common examples of suppressants but many more prevail. In subsequent articles I will be expanding upon these and providing proven solutions to help overcome them.

The purpose of this article is to introduce some key elements of the subject of creativity, innovation and problem solving and highlight some of the key issues surrounding it. Hopefully you will now have an appreciation of these.

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