In today’s fast-paced world of business, it is critical to make choices and execute on decisions quickly to remain competitive. However, at some point, innovation has to be a part of the plan or the result is a very well built, highly engineered . . . typewriter. Whether it is new products or other difficult business problems, a structured approach to problem solving is superior to a reliance on the incremental decisions approach often used to identify day-to-day operational improvements. If you are in a situation where simple solutions are not going to suffice, it is time to consider more creative approaches to problem solving.

Smart Business spoke with Karen Schuele, Ph.D., professor of accountancy and dean of the Boler School of Business, and David Jarus, Ph.D., adjunct professor, both at John Carroll University, about true creative problems solving and its role in business.

What is creative problem solving?

Creative problem solving is a well-established, structured process used when unique or innovative solutions are necessary. There are many versions of the process, but all include the following steps: 

  • Identify the goal, wish or challenge.

  • Gather data.

  • Clarify the problem.

  • Generate ideas.

  • Select and strengthen solutions.

  • Plan for action.

The process dates back to Alex Osborn, who coined the term ‘brainstorming’ as a method of generating ideas. Creative problem solving, however, is more expansive than a group sitting around a table ‘coming up with ideas.’ It is structured to drive real solutions for planning and execution. Each phase includes a divergent step, stretching participants to identify what may be possible, followed by a convergent step, narrowing down possibilities.

Why is creative problem solving useful?

Understanding the goal and gathering the known facts are important first steps to ensure that the idea generation stage is grounded in and aligned with the actual business objectives of the company. The next step, clarifying the problem, is often overlooked. The many ways the problem could be viewed or addressed is in itself a creative exercise. It is only after these stages that idea generation — however wild or creative — can occur around solutions that are anchored to the core problem and can achieve the actual business goals.

How do the divergent and convergent steps work?

A critical aspect of good creative problem solving is keeping the divergent and convergent phases of the process distinct. The divergent phase requires the participants to suspend judgment and allow for wild and unusual ideas and concepts. The fastest way to shut down creativity is to kill an idea during the divergent phase.

The convergent phase, or critical thinking phase, is where you narrow down your choices to those on which you will take action. Critical thinking is a highly valued skill in business leaders, but one that must be held in check until the convergent phase of creative problem solving. Thinking critically too early can get in the way of good creative solutions.

What are key things leaders can do to encourage creative problem solving?

A good facilitator is always recommended, but a business leader can take steps to help his or her team be more creative in their solutions. First and foremost, don’t converge on a solution too quickly in front of your teams. Once the boss has weighed in on what he or she believes is the best solution — or the most important facts, or the most clarified problem to work on — few participants will stick their necks out and offer additional ideas, especially the really creative solutions that are not part of the mainstream of your business today. Second, if the problem is really difficult and there is great value to gain from a solution, allow the team the time to work through the process. If it is an easy fix, you wouldn’t need a creative solution and incremental approaches would work fine.

Karen Schuele, Ph.D., is professor of accountancy and dean of the Boler School of Business at John Carroll University. Reach her at (216) 397-4391 or kschuele@jcu.edu.

David Jarus, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at the Boler School of Business at John Carroll University. Reach him at djarus@jcu.edu.

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