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Can you align your approach to creating new work to the four stages of the creative problem solving process?
When I first learned the creative problem solving process, I had a prejudice against processes.
“You can’t confine me to steps and stages!” my mind argued.
“I must maintain my natural creative inspiration!” it cried.
“My crazy thinking isn’t linear like this!” it rebelled.
If you’re used to being naturally creative it can feel confining or false at first to quantify creative thinking into stages. To learn creative problem solving (CPS), you have to apply the tools from each stage in a linear fashion. It wasn’t my style and I demanded that the graphic should be a three-dimensional spiral. But once I accepted that I wanted to learn it, using CPS really did supercharge my ability to be creative on demand. Over time, my productivity soared.
Before you came across the article that you are now reading, it passed through the four distinct stages of creative problem solving, which I like to think of as the scientific method for innovation. Just as the scientific method helps us be deliberate and pragmatic in matters of scientific inquiry, CPS provides strategies and tools that drive creative thought. If you need new thinking at work like I do, CPS can become your new best friend. Here’s how this article went down, stage by stage.
Stage 1: Clarify
When I set out to write an article, I have to first figure out what you want to read about. What questions do I get asked all the time? How might creativity help people overcome struggles at work? What problem do I want to solve? There are a lot of topics on my brainstorm list, but this time “creative problem solving process” rises to the top.
Once I decide on the general topic—creative process—I consider all the possible angles. I jot down several thoughts. Then, I gather information from conversations, research, and colleagues. I’ve noticed that when I explain it this way, people really perk up. They get it.
I formulate a challenge question to guide my writing:
“How might I demonstrate that creative problem solving is like the scientific method for innovation, a natural process that can guide and supercharge creativity and lead to new ideas?”
Stage 2: Ideate
I have my guiding question and now I think up all the different ways to approach this article:
- tell a story from one of my interviews
- tell a funny story
- make up an example of a work scenario that uses CPS
- use Chuck the entrepreneur’s story
- flashback to my past poem writing process from childhood and how CPS helped me be more prolific
Arguably, I should continue my brainstorm to push toward more outlandish ideas. Crazy ideas take us past the obvious and get us into truly original territory. They can always be refined and tamed down if needed.
Instead, I start writing a draft using one of these options (the poem one, if you must know). Midstream I realize I can use our shared experience—you reading this article that I will have written.
As a writer, my best brainstorming often happens in the context of a messy draft. I often just start writing, knowing the messy draft is part of the ideation process. Once I hit upon the approach I’m using now, I leave the messy draft behind and start a new page in my notebook. I have decided on my approach. If this article were an animation, you would see my pencil moving steadily across and down the page in real time.
Stage 3: Develop
The draft is now complete. It is handwritten in a throwback Barclay Cursive Writing Tablet notebook with my new recycled newspaper pencil from my favorite store in New York City (ooh, a future article topic: Why I Collect Pencils and Write My First Drafts by Hand). I let the draft sit for a day and come back to it the following morning to begin to develop it to make it better.
Now it’s time to type it up. Again, if this article were an animation, you would see the words appearing on my computer screen in real time. As I type, I edit.
Then, I print it out and let it sit again.
I’ve found that I enjoy the process so much more if I build variation into this stage. When I’m ready, an hour or a day or a week later, I choose one of my pencils and edit the paper draft.
Finally, I type up the hand-marked changes. Sometimes I share it with a pre-reader for feedback and further changes.
Stage 4: Implement
Now it’s time to get my article out into the world. I copy and paste it into my blog and hit “publish.” Today I’ll cross-post it on The Creativity Post.
After years of randomly sharing each blog post when I can remember to do so, I now have a rough implementation strategy. I brainstorm about which groups would find this article most helpful:
- LinkedIn connections?
- Email list?
- Facebook groups?
- Specific clients who asked a related question?
- Specific friends who asked a related question?
- An expert whose work is mentioned in the article, or is related to the topic?
I choose the most appropriate for the topic, and post away.
Reflections on a Process
When I was ready to take my creative problem solving training wheels off, I had the basic skills necessary to adapt it over time to make it my own.
Through tools like the FourSight preference survey, I developed self-awareness about which stages of the process I have more energy for and where I tend to get blocked up. There was a distinct pattern and I have deliberately strategized my process to remove blocks.
Now if I don’t have a brilliant idea immediately, I have steps I can jump into to get there. Best of all, I can train others to work better and smarter by leveraging their own thinking strengths. I can train teams to work more effectively and collaborate more productively.
Here's a challenge for you. Can you align your approach to creating new work to the four stages of the creative problem solving process? Which stages tend to excite you? Which drag you down? Starting with this simple bit of self-knowledge about how you approach creative problems can make a big difference in your work.
Creative Problem Solving was born as a distinct process in the early 1950s. Over the past seven decades, it has been applied, improved, and empirically studied. I was trained in CPS by several of the masters, including Roger Firestien. He provides on his website a complete and detailed timeline of the evolution of this process. As you will see, I have presented here the simplified FourSight model, on which my graphics (designed by Jane Harvey) are based.