The Secret Sauce of Creative Problem Solving

The Secret Sauce of Creative Problem Solving

Over the last few years, we’ve combed the literature on the creative process. Our goal was to better understand how an effective creative process works in order to transform these learnings into an online research tool. Along the way, we discovered several key ingredients that continued to pop up in the literature. To save you from reading hours of academic papers, here are a few things we’ve found to be extremely important in the creative process.

Look left and right (expand thinking)

The first step in the creative problem solving process should be to look left and right for possible alternatives. Take time to expand the range of ideas under consideration. It’s important to understand that you do not have the ability to conjure up every possible solution. We like to compare this process to a diamond.

Instead of taking a straight route from idea to solution, first consider a wide range of solutions before drilling down.


Creative thinkers

To help coordinate the expansion of ideas, we’ve found it’s important to call upon the right people. Our own research has shown that, on average, 22% of people classify as “creative thinkers”. These are people who regularly engage and excel in problem solving activities such as crossword puzzles, etc.

Including “creative thinkers” at the forefront of the problem solving process is a great way to expand the range of possible ideas.

Restate the problem

A study by Dorst and Cross showed that “the more time a subject spent in defining and understanding the problem, and consequently using their own frame of reference in forming conceptual structures, the better able he/she was to achieve a creative result.” By asking someone to restate the issue in their own words, they begin to take ownership of the problem. Our experience has shown us that when people craft the problem in their own language, we get a glimpse into how this “problem” is viewed in their world, and not necessarily how we (or our clients) see the problem.

Consumer language extracted from restating the issue can also be a gold mine for copywriters.

Skip the brain

Have you ever noticed that the best ideas often come after you step away from it, take a walk outside, and come back to it? Research has shown that a “break” in the creative process is important. James Webb Young brilliantly wrote about unconscious processing and the importance of making “no effort of a direct nature.” It’s hard to incubate in real time. Young’s research suggests that it’s important to “drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination or emotions (listen to music, watch a movie, read poetry); letting your mind unconsciously work on the problem in the background.”

Iterative process

Best ideas tend to be “compound ideas” – made up of parts from different people’s submissions. Maher’s study on co-evolutionary design has shown that an iterative design process produces the most effective outcomes (best ideas).

Research from Paulus and Yang suggests that “the idea exchange process in groups may be an important means for enhancing creativity.”

Applying what we learned

After extensive research on creative problem solving and a review of the tools currently available, we decided to create a tool ourselves. We took what we learned from the literature and our own experience; and designed a tool that encompasses these key qualities in an online setting. Meet coLABorate™…


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