Lightbulb on a background of hand drawn illustrations representing innovation

How you can apply creativity in problem-solving to develop innovative thinking

Our working world has recently faced a constantly changing environment. From new digital technology and the boom in remote working, to altered market and legal conditions such as Brexit, growing environmental concerns and of course the Covid pandemic.

Responding to such changes requires fresh thinking and for people to question established ways of working as well as, the processes, structures and protocols governing products and services and whole business models.

However, the creativity needed to generate innovative responses is hard to magically switch on like the proverbial lightbulb moment that is so often used to visualise it!

Figure 1: Easy to draw, but hard to do!

Instead, we see creativity like a muscle – something that requires exercise and training to build both strength and agility..  And, just as preparing for a workout in a gym should involve warm-up exercises like stretching, we advocate doing something similar when preparing to ‘workout’  our creativity.  A simple mindfulness exercise gives us permission to be present and engage for the duration of our creative endeavours. 

To develop your creative ability, we encourage a range of different techniques in ideation workshops – These are sessions that aim to build creative confidence and introduce people to ways of thinking that can stretch their creative capacity.  We typically introduce problem statements for issues that anyone attending a session could relate to, e.g. How might we encourage children to read more? or How might we encourage people to use public transport more?

By using these broad, abstract problems, people can participate and contribute, without the risk of feeling self-conscious that they might lack sufficient contextual knowledge of a business problem while amongst their peers.

Of the many creative techniques that exist, we recommend using a range that extends from free association at one extreme, to more structured association at the other.

Examples of free association creativity techniques

Word association has its origins in psychiatry and dates back over 100 years. It focuses on creating a list of unrelated (or unintentionally related) words, allowing the stream of consciousness to develop the list, and perhaps from the sub-conscious that is rarely recognised. Our adapted version takes a defined problem statement and tasks participants to practice using these seemingly spontaneous words to link back to the problem at hand. 

These then conjure connections purely from a word and their imagination, perhaps to describe a feature of the problem, an emotion that springs from it, or even a potential solution to the problem. In the words of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

You can read more about word association in this article.

Creative Storytelling is a technique which provides participants with a context setting – for instance the Wild West – and requires each person to assume a persona, such as the Sherriff, the Preacher, The Saloon Owner and so on. They take it in turns to improvise and narrate a story and handover to another person at any point; interweaving elements of the problem statement at different points within the story as they choose.

The power and fun(!) of this technique lies in this improvisational style – as participants steadily immerse themselves in their assigned character, they tend to grow in confidence to speak up for themselves – trying to persuade and inspire others to their characters’ point of view. You might find that other participants borrow from earlier ideas and describe how their own persona can extend them further (or make them better – it can become quite competitive!).

Throughout the session, participants are constantly finding new links between their character and the problem statement, often with an emotional connection they never knew existed until minutes earlier.

This technique is widely used by emergency services who then go on to role-play real problems using different job roles within the organisation. It helps teams to recognise that all actions have consequences, and consequences help us to see these actions from a different perspective.

You can read more about creative storytelling in this article.

Examples of structured and semi-structured association creativity techniques

Metaphors provides both a problem statement to work with and a metaphor from which to see the issue. For instance, participants might be asked “If the problem was a vehicle, what might it be?” The light structured suggestion of a vehicle anchors individuals to a familiar concept, but still provides wide scope for interpretation – is it a road vehicle, like a car or truck, or something historical such as a horse and cart? Is it carrying people, goods, or symbolism? Who is driving it? A few semi-structured, facilitator-led questions can quickly help participants to recognise features and benefits of their imagined vehicle that might convert or relate to the problem in some way. Of all the creativity tools, this simple technique often has surprisingly fast results, opening ideas for innovation in otherwise long-established modes of operation.

Read more here about metaphorical thinking.

S-C-A-M-P-E-R is a structured approach for brainstorming. It tasks participants to address the problem head on, but to use Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse each in turn to explore how changes to existing product or service solutions could impact the problem. For example:

  • How could two services that are difficult to communicate be combined into a single offer?
  • How could a process that was designed to support face-to-face interactions be adapted for online provision?
  • Or even put to an entirely new use altogether?

Covid restrictions suddenly imposed upon an industry was an ideal opportunity for how S-C-A-M-P-E-R could inspire fresh, creative thinking which led  to quickly deployed innovation.

Learn more about the S-C-A-M-P-E-R Technique for Creative Thinking.

Whichever creativity exercises are undertaken, almost all benefit from team development, which build upon and connect to each other’s ideas.  This practice is helped by drawing upon the expertise of a diverse range of individuals. In a face-to-face business context, this might include people with different roles within a single organisation, with varying years of experience and/or personal backgrounds. More recent virtual workshops add the potential of bringing together those from different countries, even combining languages, using icons/emojis or universal terms.

In building out an idea iteratively from different sources, groups tend to create a wider range of solutions. This divergent form of idea generation often develops alternative versions or variations on a theme. In creativity workshops, the goal is not to judge such ideas, but to encourage their arrival – to grow people’s confidence in their own innate creativity.

Note: within the wider process of Design Thinking principles, we recommend a follow-on stage of idea evaluation and assessment, to choose the most promising ideas to take forward into storyboarding and ultimately prototyping or testing.

Perhaps most of all, we should try to facilitate a sense of fun and an engaging atmosphere to work in.

We can all develop and train our creativity ability. The use of targeted exercises and techniques can give teams and individuals the opportunity to develop new ideas, test new ways of thinking and become more innovative in their problem-solving.  In developing our creativity, we also learn to acknowledge and celebrate our own uniqueness, diversity and self-expression and find a way to create something from our personal feelings and experiences.


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