Creative Problem Solving Explained

By Mike Raia | Published May 31, 2023

Creative problem solving is based on the belief that everyone is creative and can enhance their creative abilities with discipline.

Creative problem solving is a deliberate approach to solving complex problems. While creativity is an innate part of creative problem solving, the process uses a variety of steps and strategies designed to bring to the table solutions that are actionable and effective.

It’s a proven approach to use innovative ideas and views of a problem to develop viable options that can be brought to bear on the challenge. It can also redefine the problem, coming at it from a new perspective that results in an effective solution.

It also has powerful applications for addressing your greatest workflow challenges. Using creative problem solving lets you identify, refine, iterate, and select the best options to improve workflows using new technologies like automation.

Fundamentals of Creative Problem Solving

Many people hear “creative problem solving” and think it’s about brainstorming answers. However, creative problem solving is about much more. Creative answers to problems do not just appear magically but are the result of deliberate processes.

To work well, creative problem solving is rooted in two assumptions:

  1. Everyone is creative in some manner
  2. You can learn and enhance someone’s creative abilities

Those are powerful assumptions. They help to dispel the idea that there are “creative types” and “noncreative types.” All participants can be empowered to engage in the process by supporting and reinforcing the innate presence of creativity.

Alex Osborn helped define and formalize the idea of creative problem solving. He believed that two types of thinking are critical to creative problem solving.

Convergent Thinking focuses on the norms of problem solving and focuses on finding a singular solution that's well defined. Divergent Thinking is the opposite, with multiple options being considered after fostering creativity as part of the problem solving process.

Both play a role and have value in problem solving. Typically, both are used as part of the process.

For example, divergent thinking can create multiple ideas for possible solutions. Convergent thinking can whittle those down to a few or one idea to implement.

Principles of Creative Problem Solving

Here is a closer look at some key tenets of creative problem solving.

Reframe the Problem as a Question

Begin by restating the problem as a question or series of open-ended questions. The problem becomes more approachable with multiple possibilities available, and participants can be invited into the process.

By contrast, problems presented as declarative statements are often met by silence. These statements often lead to a limited response or no response at all.

There's a shift when asked as a question rather than a statement. The challenge is not an obstacle but rather an opportunity to solve. It opens the door to brainstorming and ideation.

Suspend Judgment

All too often, ideas that are generated in problem solving spaces are quickly dismissed. This instantaneous judgment has short- and long-term impacts.

First, it immediately dismisses the presented idea and the presenter. What’s more, the dismissal can have a chilling effect on others, stymieing the idea generation process.

There’s a time when judging presented ideas – when convergent thinking is at play. In the beginning, immediate judgment should be suspended.

Even the most implausible ideas presented at the beginning of the process may play a role later as long as they are still considered viable. If poisoned early in the process, they will unlikely be given any value later.

‘Yes, And’ Instead of ‘No, But’

The word “no” can have a similarly stifling effect on the creative problem solving work. "But," whether preceded by "yes” or "no," can close the conversation. It acts to negate everything that has come before.

You can create and maintain a more positive, encouraging tone using "yes, and" language instead of "no, but" language.

More positive language helps build on previously generated ideas. It creates an additive approach to the process instead of a dismissive one.

One Approach to Creative Problem Solving

Having a clearly defined approach to solving problems helps participants understand the scope and scale of the work. While multiple approaches can be used, here is one way to frame the engagement.

1. Clarify the Problem

The most critical step to creative problem solving is identifying and articulating the problem or goal. While it may appear to be easy to do so, often, what people think the problem is is not the true problem.

The critical step is to break down the problem, analyze it and understand the core issue.

One approach is to use the "five whys." Start by asking yourself, "Why is this a problem?" Once you have the answer, ask, "Why else?" four more times.

This iterative process can often refine and revise to unearth the true issue that needs to be addressed. You can ask other questions to further refine, such as:

  • Why is this problem important to us?
  • What is stopping us from solving this problem?
  • Where will we be differently 6-12 months after solving the problem?

2. Define Evaluation Criteria

The creative problem solving process is likely to generate many potential ideas. It’s important to establish the process by which the ideas will be evaluated and, if selected, deployed.

These processes may have important factors, such as budget, staffing and time. The process needs to address what you seek to accomplish, avoid and act on. The process should be articulated to the participants in the problem solving and those affected by the outcomes.

3. Research the Problem

You want a clear understanding of the problem, which may require lots or a little research. Understand the common problem, how others may deal with it, and potential solutions.

4. Develop Creative Challenges

Once the problem is articulated and researched, it’s time to frame them. “Creative challenges” are simple and brief, question-based concepts. For example, "How can we …" or “What would it mean if …" These challenges will form the basis of your problem solving. They should be broadly focused and not include any evaluation criteria.

5. Create Ideas

Idea generation is what most people envision when they think of brainstorming or solving problems.

Start by taking just one of the creative challenges. Give yourself or the team some time to build at least 50 ideas. That may seem like a lot, but it can spark conversation and construction.

The ideas may or may not solve the presented challenge. By capturing them on paper or a computer (many programs support idea generation), you can have them readily available to organize, expand on, evaluate, and flesh out.

Be sure to use the following rules in this stage:

  • Write down every idea
  • Ensure no one critiques presented ideas
  • Don’t stop until you’ve reached 50
  • Present the full list of ideas and then ask if anyone has anything else to add
  • If you have time, sleep on the ideas and return the next day. Try to add 25 more.

6. Sort and Assess Ideas

Take a break and reconvene to look at the ideas using the evaluation criteria. Combine ideas, then use the evaluation criteria to whittle down the list.

Some ideas may be implementable immediately. Others may need further analysis to prioritize.

7. Create a Plan

When you have your shortlist, create an action plan that outlines the steps necessary to implement the ideas. By breaking down the ideas into actionable steps, you’ll be better able to put them into play and see the results.

Problem Solving Your Workflows

When it comes to coming up with creative answers to your workflow problems, we have a variety of resources for you listed below. In addition, we're always interested in providing objective, experienced ideas through our Customer Success and Services teams.



creativity   problem solving   process improvement  

Business Ideas   Workflow Ideas   Project Management  

Mike Raia

Marketing the world's best workflow automation software and drinking way too much coffee. Connect with me on LinkedIn at