Several years ago I facilitated an ideation session within a public technology company. By the end of the first half day I realized that the solutions proposed by the different teams were "safe." They were not imaginative enough. They were not radical enough. In fact, they were pretty incremental. They rated pretty low on the 4 dimensions of creativity

I then joined one of the teams to see how they brainstormed, and that's when I had my epiphany. The team was doing the right things. They started with defining the problem they wanted to solve. One team member proposed an idea. Another had built on it, they all got excited, the idea kept developing with a lot of excitement in the air, until someone (the team's designated devil's advocate) realized that the idea would generate a secondary problem. This would sound something like this: "guys, if we do this than X will happen..." Everybody seemed deflated. As if they were celebrating too early. He was right, if they tried their solution to the initial problem, they may have solved it, but created a secondary problem, or face an obstacle that was created by their solution.

"Back to the drawing board!" was the team consensus.

And here lies our problem. We can only solve one problem at a time. The effort to solve the initial problem came to a complete standstill when the initial solution created a secondary problem, and the team went back to square zero.

There is a very simple thing you need to do to avoid this conundrum. Think of creative problem solving like playing a board game. You start at square one. Literally. You throw the dice, and overcome a hurdle that gets you all the way to square 5. However, there is another problem in square 5. Somehow, however, you don't go back to square 1 (unless the instructions in square 5 send you there...), but keep fighting the new problem in square 5.

Why not implement the same rule to creative problem solving in business? When you encounter a secondary problem, start working to solve the secondary problem. Don't immediately abandon the first solution and go back to square 1. Maybe the solution to the secondary problem is not difficult? Maybe once you solve the secondary problem you are home free with a new, and very creative solution to the original problem you were set out to solve? Give yourself (and your team) some latitude in how far will you go before you finally decide to go back to square one. Don't give up after the first secondary problem you encounter. Start down a path, and keep on solving problems until you get to a dead end. Or until the solution becomes unattractive anymore, or you have spent too much time on it without seeing the end in sight. Only then go back to square one. Not sooner.

Anyone up for a round of Monopoly?

Published on: May 3, 2016
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