There are hundreds of different methods out there to assist you in solving problems. Some ways tend to be more on the creative side, while others might be a bit more logical. While both types of methods are great, sometimes one is better in a situation than another. It’s good to have some of each in your back pocket in case you need them!
As such, in this guide, we’ll teach you several of the best creative problem-solving techniques. Innovative techniques are best for when the usual logical strategies have failed or haven’t been good enough. They’re great if you’re a naturally creative thinker, too!
Break the Rules
Rules and regulations are often the antitheses of creativity. A creative mind can’t truly explore all of its options when it’s bound. As such, if you’re looking to find a creative solution to a problem, the first thing to do is take the rules off the table.
This is an option that many people never consider. For the sake of a creative solution to a problem, sometimes it’s okay to break a few rules. In any case, taking the rules away is still an excellent exercise, even if you need to reinstate them later. The simple act of removing the rules from the equation can help you come up with better ideas.
Creative problem solving is all about thinking of things that haven’t been done before. As such, it makes sense that removing the rules that helped previous generations of people make their decisions would result in new ideas.
There’s one big catch, though: even if you come up with a revolutionary idea, if you can’t work it around existing rules or change the rules to suit the creative idea, it’s not going to work anyway. However, even if you can’t come up with anything that complies with the rules initially, it’s a great way to get closer to the final, ideal solution.
Another shining benefit of breaking the rules is not having to worry about criticism or judgment. Under the assumption that the rules aren’t in play, you can suggest something entirely off-the-wall without needing to feel like it’s out of line. The purpose of suspending the rules is to let all creative thoughts flow; the ones that can’t be worked into the rules can be eliminated later, but they should all be recorded during the first brainstorming phase.
If you’re having trouble with this approach, try asking yourself, “What if?” What if X rule didn’t exist? What if this rule was different? Keep going with this approach until you come up with something entirely unlike anything that’s been suggested before.
Regardless of whether you’re playing with rules or not, you should always be generating (and recording) plenty of ideas. Often, this is called brainstorming, and it’s an activity that involves one or more people coming up with short, sweet ideas that might solve a problem.
Brainstorming is the preliminary stage – it’s not the place to spend significant chunks of time fleshing out a few ideas. Instead, try to come up with as many different potential solutions to the problem as possible. If you want a bit of organization, you can split them into two groups – likely to work and unlikely to work – or categorize them in another similar way.
Some problems seem simple enough that the first solution that comes to mind feels like the best. However, we’re not talking about regular problem solving with this article – we’re looking at creative problem-solving! If you’re looking for an innovative solution to a problem, it’s essential to take some time to flesh out that solution instead of merely taking the easiest route.
The best way to come up with an out-of-the-box idea is to eliminate all of the obvious choices. This forces you to think of a solution that’s not quite so mainstream. Naturally, our brains jump to the most straightforward answers or the ones we’re most familiar with first. By getting those out of the way, we’re forced to think about alternatives.
That’s not to say that the most simple and most natural ideas aren’t bad. Often, the most straightforward ideas end up being the best because they take up the least time and fewest resources. However, they’re usually not enough when you’re looking for something unusual, new, and different.
Give It Time
The worst thing to do when trying to come up with an excellent creative idea is to force it. While you may be able to brute force your way through typical problems by using solutions that your brain’s already familiar with, this is a very inefficient way to generate creativity.
Instead, try taking a short break, then returning to your activity. While this might seem counterproductive, just give it a try. You may find that your productivity and creativity feel recharged when you return to the task at hand.
When we’re focusing on something hard, we sometimes end up stressed, frustrated, or hyperfocused on the task at hand. Taking a second to get a drink, grab a snack, or even just use the restroom is a great way to give your brain a short breather. You can look at the situation with new eyes when you return, and you might even put something new together, too.
The best way to look at a problem with fresh eyes, though, is to sleep on it. When we dream, our subconscious brains make new connections that we might be unable to reach while awake. Not to mention that sleeping recharges both our minds and our bodies, giving us more energy to put towards a pervasive problem.
Ask for Help
Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, and while many people treat it as a last resort, it doesn’t have to be. Getting a pair of fresh eyes when yours feel worn out is a great way to change your own perspective, as fresh eyes are more likely to have a different take than you yourself do.
If you feel like a task is above you, asking someone with more experience isn’t a bad idea, either. While asking someone to solve your problem for you is the wrong way to go about it, they might be able to give you a push in the right direction without being too inconvenienced.
Instead of asking someone, “How do I solve this problem?” ask them questions like:
- What kinds of questions should I be asking?
- What questions would you ask?
- What issues should I address first?
- Where can I look to for inspiration?
- What techniques have worked for you in the past?
You don’t need to wait until it’s late in the game to ask for help, either. If you know a problem is going to test you, consider going into it asking some peers for their input. Getting their thoughts early on might be enough to speed you through the process and smooth the way more than it would be if you did it on your own.
The one thing to keep in mind when asking for help is that it should not be something you resort to every time. The goal when asking for help in creatively solving a problem is that it will provide you with knowledge or experience. That way, you’ll be capable of even better next time. Asking for help is an excellent tool to have in your arsenal, but you shouldn’t be dependent on it, either.
Change Your View
There are many ways to view a given problem, and sometimes, when we get sucked up into one, we forget this fact. For example, imagine that you work in advertising, and your company is asking you to build a good advertisement for a new product. You have a particular view and set of experiences as a marketer that will help you do this efficiently.
However, instead of falling back on those skills, try to imagine the request from the perspective of a different role. For example, Instead of a marketer advertising a new food product, imagine a farmer marketing that same product. What might they say instead? Would the ad be better-received?
This is just one example of another view you might take. You could consider building an ad from the customer’s perspective, the seller’s view, the manufacturer’s opinion, and even an unrelated entity’s view. If you think about it, you can probably call to mind some television commercials you’ve seen that utilize this kind of strategy – it’s not uncommon, and it tends to be successful.
Changing your view is a great way to address problems that are closer to home, too. For example, if sales on a product have dropped repeatedly for the last few months despite your best efforts, try considering whether your view might be wrong. For example:
- Has the industry changed, and the product failed to keep up?
- Has your target audience aged or changed somehow?
- Is the product or service you’re selling obsolete or edged out by the competition?
- Are you failing to meet your customer base’s needs?
If you’re trying to solve this type of problem, you’ve probably heard the terms “microscopic” and “macroscopic” in regards to business. Switching from a macroscopic view to a microscopic view or vice versa is a great way to bring new clarity to an issue. If you focus on the small details for too long, you might lose sight of the big details. The opposite is true, also.
Check Yourself First
Sometimes, when we’re experiencing difficulty with solving a problem, the issue isn’t the problem at all. Sometimes, it can be inner turmoil and personal problems getting in your own way. This is especially common when working with a team, as interpersonal conflicts can get in the way of a solution quite quickly.
While personal or interpersonal issues won’t always be an issue when solving problems, it’s still a good idea to do a quick self-check before you begin. Ask yourself if anything’s holding you back, whether anything will get in the way in the process, and, most importantly, whether you’re working at your peak potential.
Of course, most of us don’t work at top efficiency every day. However, you want to stay as close as you can, as much as you can (within reason). Always tackle a creative problem with your best side.
Personal biases are another part of yourself that can sometimes get in the way of solving a problem creatively. For example, if a given problem-solving method failed for you once in the past, you might be reluctant to try it again. This could keep you from attempting an excellent strategy.
Sadly, personal biases can keep us from working well with others sometimes, too. Teamwork synergizes very well with creative problem-solving, so shunning teamwork because you dislike someone else can be a real shame.
Of course, if you and someone else on your team just don’t get along, sometimes it’s unavoidable that conflicts will happen. However, working past that and doing the best work you can with that other person is still just as important.
If you do end up in a situation where you must work with someone that you don’t get along with, consider keeping some strategies in mind to keep yourself centered. There are many things you can do to blow off steam and keep wild emotions in check, but some examples include:
- Going for a walk or run
- Taking a lunch break
- Visiting a counselor or therapist
- Going to church
- Breathing exercises
The Six Hats Method
The Six Hats Method, coined by Edward DeBono, is a great tool that helps to encourage thinking about an issue from multiple angles. The Six Hat Method works as such: there are six hats, and each one represents a particular emotion, feeling, or stance. These hats include:
- The white hat: facts
- The red hat: emotions
- The black hat: negative logic
- The yellow hat: positive logic
- The green hat: creativity
- The blue hat: thought
Typically, we each wear one hat or a combination of a few colored hats to solve a problem. However, if you take the time to wear a different hat, you might see vastly different results than you’re used to seeing.
For example, think about someone who might natively wear a logical hat. They might not think about how a consumer might feel about a product or advertisement emotionally. By wearing an emotional hat instead, they can get a very different and precious insight into their problem that they might never have seen otherwise.
The first step to using the Six Hats Method is to determine which hat (or combination of hats) you natively wear. No test or quiz will tell you that answer, so you’ll have to figure it out yourself or with the help of friends.
Switching hats on your own is a great way to look at a problem from a different angle. However, the real purpose of the Six Hats Method is to guide teams of people when working through issues. For example, you might specify before a meeting that everyone wears a blue hat or a red hat that day. This is a great way to get everyone on the same page, especially when addressing a problem that’s related to one of the hats.
This should be a no-brainer for anyone looking for a creative solution to an existing problem, but an environment where solutions are being proposed should always be open, judgment-free, and available for all to contribute to. If someone feels like they’re going to be judged or excluded when they mention their idea, they’ll be reluctant or unwilling to share it.
If some people on the team are unwilling to share their ideas, not only is this an excellent way to breed resentment between members, but it leaves you without ideas that might have been helpful, too. As such, keeping open, accepting communication available should be a very high priority.
Use a Guide
If you’re really stuck on solving a problem, one solution that’s accessible to just about anyone is to use a preformed guide or method. The Six Hats Method is one example, but obviously, that one got its own section because it’s so useful for creative problem-solving.
There are hundreds of different methods out there for you to choose from. In fact, Creative Problem Solving, or CPS, is a method in and of itself. CPS is a step-by-step approach that has seven different stages. They are as follows:
- Identify the goal
- Gather data
- Formulate questions
- Explore the ideas
- Identify solutions
- Create a plan
- Take action
The steps above are rather self-explanatory based on their names. CPS isn’t the only option available to you, though – if CPS doesn’t appeal to you or work well for you, there are certainly plenty of others. CPS is an excellent place to start, though, because of its simplicity and ease of understanding.
As you’re solving all sorts of problems, the goal is always that you’ll accrue experience to help you answer questions more effectively in the future. While you’ll do this passively just by working and figuring out your own problems, you can jump-start the process, too.
A great way to do this is to accept whatever jobs come your way. Normally, if you’re given the opportunity to do something extra at work, you might turn it down. However, by accepting instead, you’re gaining even more experience in the long run.
Even if not many opportunities like this come your way, they add up in the long run. Maximizing your experience will maximize your growth, too. Having fewer opportunities coming your way makes it all the more vital that you accept the ones that are available to you!
Creative Problem-Solving Activities
In the following paragraphs, we’ll go through some smaller activities that are designed to stimulate creative problem-solving. Rather than being something to live by, these are things that you can pick up when you’re having trouble getting over an obstacle.
This is a fun little exercise that challenges your command of words, as well as your ability to isolate an issue. For this exercise, you need to frame the problem you’re having trouble with as if it were a tabloid header or newspaper title.
Feel free to write about your problem in one of two ways: either as the problem itself or as if it’s been solved already. For example, you could try something like, “Office worker solves customer dissatisfaction with unbelievable life hack.” This is a very vague example – you should be much more specific with yours – but it’s a great place to get started.
Not only does this exercise make you think about and narrow down the problem itself, but it helps you to sift through potential solutions, too. It’s also an incredibly fun exercise! You can make your headline as funny or as serious as you want, though this exercise lends itself well to comedic relief.
All in all, this exercise is a great way to release some stress while still familiarizing yourself with the issue at hand. It has even more potential to be entertaining when done in a group setting. That is, if you can do it with a straight face!
Creating mock-ups in design fields is incredibly common. Technologies like CAD and other virtual modeling programs are designed to let you build a part or product in 3D space. Granted, mocking up a product on the computer means it’s only virtual, but there are ways to make them physical, too.
The easiest way to make a physical mock-up of a problem or a plan is to do it with whatever items you have on hand. You might use pieces of paper, cardboard, tape, sticky notes, or just about anything else. However, you can get more serious about it too, like with blocks, diagrams, pipes, and much more.
If you want to make a very precise mock-up in physical space, there is always the option of building something with a program, then 3D-printing it. While 3D modeling programs do have some learning curves involved, the payoff is excellent once you learn how to use them efficiently. It may not be worth putting in the effort to learn unless you plan to use the program often, though.
Flip a Coin
Many people say that, if you can’t decide between two outcomes, the best way to decide is to flip a coin. If you genuinely can’t choose between both results, the coin will make the decision for you. However, in the majority of cases, the act of flipping a coin will help you make that final decision.
The theory behind this is that, in the act of flipping the coin, the outcome that you’re secretly hoping for will become apparent to you. For some people, when the coin is in the air, they’ll find themselves wishing for the coin to land on a particular side. For others, when the coin face is revealed, they’ll either feel relief or disappointment with the result.
When you come across a particularly tricky issue, try solving it backward. Instead of trying to come up with solutions to your problem, envision the problem being solved, instead. What are the results of the problem being solved? How was it settled in your mind? What methods won’t work to get to the end you have in mind?
Solving a puzzle by working backward is actually an incredibly useful strategy, and many professionals and non-professionals alike use it to help solve problems. Think of traditional jigsaw puzzles, for example. The idea is to start with a picture in mind, and you put the pieces back together based on where they fit into the picture. A picture jigsaw is the purest example of working backward that you can get!
However, this approach doesn’t work for all puzzles; don’t get too frustrated if it doesn’t always end up being the correct solution to your problem. Consider the brain game Sudoku, for example. In this game, you can’t work backward at all, because the point is to find the solution at the end. You have no choice but to work forward from whatever starting clues they give you.
Build a Timeline
A great way to decide between several finalist ideas to one problem is to build a timeline for each of them. For example, start with the successful implementation of your solution. Perhaps you’ve decided to add easy-open lids to a line of jarred foods to make them accessible to the elderly or handicapped.
Let’s imagine now that you have three different designs that you can’t choose from. While making the timeline for the first one, you realize that the lids have small parts that might pose a choking hazard. This would make the jar more accessible to the elderly and disabled, but it might drive off families with small children.
By making timelines like this for each product, you might come across future repercussions that could arise from your decision-making in the long run.