During this year’s a2zWeek, Dr. Oliver Schlake, Clinical Professor at Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, conducted a workshop at a2z on creative problem-solving. Along with being an educator, Dr. Schlake is a senior business consultant, entrepreneur, and researcher. His research on scenario-based strategic planning and innovation strategy have been featured in leading academic and practitioner journals worldwide.
After participating in this wonderfully inspiring workshop with him, we requested Dr. Schlake to share some of his key tips and techniques in a guest blog for our ongoing series on ‘Innovation and the Future of Events‘.
Creative Problem Solving, Going Beyond Brainstorming
By Oliver Schlake, PhD
When business executives call for creativity, the go-to staple is Brainstorming, a technique attributed to advertising executive Alex Osborn, who developed it around 1948. A lot of time has passed since, and there have been many variations developed from his initial idea. However, for the most part, the basic principles of the brainstorming methodology remain intact: Go for quantity, postpone criticism, encourage wild ideas, and combine ideas for synergy.
But brainstorming does not always work, especially in – let’s call them – “creatively challenged organizations”. These are organizations that rarely solve a problem creatively but are often desperately in need of creative solutions. The reason is that Brainstorming is only one-third of the creative problem-solving process.
It supports the ‘Divergent’ phase, during which new ideas are uncovered. However, it doesn’t incorporate the critically important ‘Emergent’ phase. This second phase stresses the importance of playing with new ideas, asking questions such as “what would happen if we implement this?”, “How would things look like doing this?”. The Emergent phase helps to generate mental support and confidence for a new and unusual idea. The third and last phase, the ‘Convergent’ phase, during which perhaps the best four or five ideas are selected for further consideration.
So if your business has not been solving problems “the creative way” for a long time or has brainstormed too often, here are two of my favorite techniques that can help your team generate and shortlist creative ideas to meet challenges.
Technique #1 – Hall of Fame
This technique works for individuals and groups alike. It is geared towards the divergent phase. It’s my favorite technique to help me get out of a creative block.
Step 1: Creating your Hall of Fame. Assemble your personal Hall of Fame of creative problem solvers and out-of-the-box thinkers. This could be anybody famous to the world or famous to you. Some of the members of my HoF are Angus McGyver (1980’s scientific secret agent), Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, The A-Team, and Sherlock Holmes. I have chosen these characters for their acumen (within their fictitious existence) for finding creative solutions. McGyver’s ability to improvise using science principles is key to his success as a secret agent. The A-Team is a great collection of individuals with unique skills who bond together as a group to do good for the underdog.
Step 2: Step out of character into a new one. When stuck getting new and creative ideas, try to step into a character from your Hall of Fame. For example, you are stuck on the road at night in the winter with a flat tire and have no way to make it to town. What would McGyver do to make it through a cold night? Perhaps you could wrap yourself into the upholstery of your car to keep warm, use the battery to ignite a cotton strip dipping in gasoline and set the useless tire of fire to signal your help.
Stepping into a new character often helps us to remove our own mental restrictions that prevent creative ideas from emerging. “I wouldn’t do this, but McGyver would. Maybe I should try it out.”
When your creative process has produced many potential ideas, it is time to trim down and find a batch of ideas that your organization should consider for implementation. Again: You don’t find the “one” idea with this technique, but you can weed out the ones that have limited value moving forward. Keep in mind that those potentially discarded ideas are essential for the creative process, as they might have sparked many of the ideas that emerge as the solution. They are similar to a doodle pad while you or your team is working their way through the process.
Technique #2 – The 100 Dollar Test
This process lets you put your money where your mouth is. It is a group voting process that involves real “fake” money.
Step 1: Have between 8 to 15 ideas collected and described. Everyone should be able to understand the merits of each idea so they can make an informed vote.
Step 2: Each participant gets money. I use small pouches of black/white copies (see: http://amzn.to/2fR3Woc). In this configuration, each person receives $203 dollars in play money. As silly as it may seem: People value even fake money subconsciously and therefore, tend to “invest” it carefully into ideas they like.
Step 3: All team members vote on the ideas. Use a set of numbered plastic cups to represent each idea. If you like idea number 10, you put money into the cup. If you like it a lot, you drop $100 dollars on it, if you don’t like it but you appreciate the effort or the person you came up with the idea, you spend just two or three dollars on it.
Step 4: Show me the money. After all of the money has been spent, the 5 ideas that accumulate the most money are shortlisted for further consideration. All other ideas should be documented for potential further use.
This technique is fun, interactive and a good reminder of the fact that in order to successfully implement our best ideas, we will have to eventually spend money – even though it is playful at this stage.
More to explore: