We were brought up with a romanticized notion of creativity as the personality trait of painters, musicians, and writers. However, Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.” It is merely a state of critical thinking. These ideas come as a result of a problem that needs to be solved, whether it’s tangible, like Uber’s solution to expensive, stinky cabs, or if it’s a little less tangible, like re-approaching a client interaction that didn’t go as well as it could have.
Solving a problem in a creative way (i.e. originally and with a valuable result) requires conscious effort. It requires thought and intention. And like any creative craft (we’re referring to those painters, musicians, and writers again), it is not completely based in talent. A masterpiece doesn’t just fall out of someone’s brain. It is nurtured over a lifetime. It is practiced.
A valuable idea is not just an idea that makes a lot of money (though if it can, that’s cool). It is an idea that solves a problem in the most beneficial and complete way.
Here are some ways to keep yourself thinking about problems in a creative way:
We started asking “why?” when we were toddlers, when the part of our brain that makes logical connections started to develop. Over time, we either had this curiosity beaten out of us, or we simply lost interest. However, we need this curiosity to be truly creative—we need it to look at problems in a three dimensional way.
Noreena Hertz, in her TED talk about our addictive reliance on experts, talks about a study in which volunteers’ brains were monitored in an MRI scan while they were listening to experts speak about different subjects. While they listened, the researchers noticed the independent decision making part of all the volunteers’ brains literally turn off.
(We understand the irony of citing a source that is an expert telling us not to trust experts. We’re running with it, regardless.)
If we are not continually questioning the way we do things, why we do those things in the first place, and what we want out of those things, we will never have solutions that are valuable. We need to be able to understand why things are the way they are before we can change them.
Creativity is a direct result of idea exploration. Do not take what you’ve been taught as gospel. Be the toddler. Exercise your curiosity.
Look Behind the Problem
It is important to consider what the problem really is, where it came from, how it got here.
For example, we’re reassessing our creative brief right now, and while we were discussing user experience, development of the form, and creative ways to engage our incoming clients, it occurred to us to ask, “Wait. Why do we even have a creative brief?” Do we have one because everyone has one, and that’s just how it’s done? What is important about having a creative brief? What questions must be answered? What answers are usually irrelevant?
So, we’re taking a step back. It’s not just about a better user experience, it’s about focusing on what information is pertinent and necessary to the project, and how we can best harness trust for our team.
Often, behind the problem you are trying to solve, there is a larger, more difficult problem looming. Taking on that more complicated one not only allows you to solve the problem you had, but prevent more in the future.
Constructive conflict is a key to true problem solving. You need people that poke holes in your ideas, and you can provide other people a service by poking holes in theirs. Margaret Heffernan describes this “a fantastic model of collaboration: thinking partners that aren’t echo chambers.” She describes this conflict as a form of critical thinking, a cooperative method of problem solving.
Part of killing complacency is not just asking questions, but being a whistleblower when questions need to be asked. It’s about playing devil’s advocate to fully understand a problem.
Often, people are afraid to take this constructive conflict model seriously because there is a chance they might be wrong. According to Robinson, however, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” This is difficult because only very rarely do companies have a culture of constructive conflict. We live in a society where mistakes are penalized. Where being wrong is embarrassing. This is a completely hindering mindset to have. We need to accept that we are often more wrong than not, and that failures are “early brushes with success.”
It is important to realize that, wrong or not, the thoughts that lead people to these places are what makes constructive conflict effective. These thoughts are the meat of creative problem solving.
Be Aware of Your Blind Spots
Willful blindness is a legal concept that, Heffernan explains, declares you responsible “if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.” This concept exists outside of a legal context, and is an unfortunate psychological condition of humanity.
“Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.”
Be aware of the fact that you have blind spots, that you will never truly be able to look at things in an unbiased way. Simply the act of knowing your blind spots creates the humility you need to look at problems in a holistic way. Not only should you question the people around you, but you should question yourself. Why do you do things the way you do them? We can no longer do things a certain way simply because it’s how it’s always been done.
Creative problem solving isn’t a method to be followed or a technique for better business. It’s a more complete approach to looking at the world around you. If you can solve problems for people in a way that is valuable to their lives, and you’ve done it in a way that is well-rounded, you are a creative problem solver. It doesn’t have to be Starry Night to be creative, it just has to be a valuable solution to a problem. It isn’t a step by step process, but merely a way of thinking.