There’s a fable about the power of creative problem-solving (CPS). It goes something like this:

Many years ago, in a small Indian village, a farmer owed a large sum of money to a village moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the farmer’s beautiful daughter, so he proposed a bargain: he would cancel the farmer’s debt if he could marry the farmer’s daughter. Because both farmer and daughter were horrified by the proposal, the moneylender suggested letting providence decide the matter. He explained that the girl would pick a pebble out of a money back containing a black pebble and a white pebble. If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven. If she picked the white pebble, she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven. If she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles from the pebble-strewn path they were all standing on. The sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked her to pick a pebble from the bag. 

With this understanding of the girl’s dilemma, how would you solve the problem? Sure, you could expose the moneylender as a cheat, but that would likely only create a tense situation rather than resolve the situation. Think for a moment about how to solve the problem before reading the rest of the fable. Traditional thinking won’t help. 

The girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path, where it was lost among all the other pebbles. “Oh, how clumsy of me!” she said. “But never mind, if you look in the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell the color of the pebble I picked.”

The girl used creative problem-solving to get out of a difficult situation. Her technique made it impossible for the moneylender to cheat.

Here’s another tale of creative problem-solving, “The $100 Loan”:

A Russian businessman walked into a Swiss bank in Geneva and requested a $10,000 loan. He offered to leave his Mercedes there as collateral, and the bank manager approved the loan. A year later, the Russian came back, repaid the loan and the 10 percent interest, and said he was ready to collect his car. The puzzled bank manager dared to ask him: “Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me: Did you really need that $10,000 so badly? In order to get the money, you left your luxury car with us for a whole year!” The Russian replied, “Where else in Geneva could I find such a great parking place for just $1,000 a year?”

Alex Osborn, founder of the Creative Education Foundation, developed the Osborn-Parnes creative problem-solving process with Sidney Parnes in the 1950s. You may not be familiar with those names, but you’ve applied their work before. For example, Osborn coined the term “brainstorming,” probably the most popular technique in problem-solving today. 

According to the Creative Education Foundation, two assumptions underlie the Osborn-Parnes creative problem-solving process. First, everyone is creative in some way; second, creative skills can be learned and enhanced over time. The four principles required for the effective use of this technique are outlined on the foundation’s website and quoted verbatim here:

Principle 1: Divergent and convergent thinking must be balanced. Keys to creativity are learning ways to identify and balance expanding and contracting thinking (done separately), and knowing when to practice them.

Principle 2: Ask problems as questions. Solutions are more readily invited and developed when challenges and problems are restated as open-ended questions with multiple possibilities. Such questions generate lots of rich information, while closed-ended questions tend to elicit confirmation or denial. Statements tend to generate limited or no response at all.

Principle 3: Defer or suspend judgment. As Osborn learned in his early work on brainstorming, the instantaneous judgment in response to an idea shuts down idea generation. There is an appropriate and necessary time to apply judgement when converging.

Principle 4: Focus on “Yes, and” rather than “No, but.” When generating information and ideas, language matters. “Yes, and” allows continuation and expansion, which is necessary in certain stages of CPS. The use of the word “but”—preceded by “yes” or “no”—closes down conversation, negating everything that has come before it.

Of all the problem-solving techniques discussed in this book, this one is hardest to describe. In simple terms, the expression “think outside the box” comes to mind, but it’s not that easy. Here’s how the model works, according to the Creative Education Foundation, with six steps spread across four stages.

Stage 1: Clarify.

Step 1: Explore the vision. Identify your goal, desire, or challenge.

Step 2: Gather data. Describe and generate data to enable a clear understanding of the challenge.

Step 3: Formulate challenges. Sharpen awareness of the challenge and create challenge questions that invite solutions.

Stage 2: Ideate.

Step 4: Explore ideas. Generate ideas that answer the challenge questions.

Stage 3: Develop.

Step 5: Formulate solutions. To move from ideas to solutions. Evaluate, strengthen, and select solutions for best “fit.”

Stage 4: Implement.

Step 6: Formulate a plan. Explore acceptance and identify resources and actions that will support implementation of the selected solution(s).

Even though the creative problem-solving process has this structure, there are no specific techniques or diagrams to follow. This explains why so many people have modified this framework over the years. The process has evolved into “the CPS Learner’s Model,” which includes additional concepts such as imagery and visualization. 

When I worked for global risk management company Aon, I was tasked with developing and rolling out a new brand to the firm’s communication teams and 500-plus marketers who were based in various business units and regions.

Here was a chance to apply creative problem-solving. First our team explored some of the more obvious solutions, but they all had significant impediments. We thought about creating a global-brand creative submission process, but the global team didn’t have the bandwidth to review the submissions, and the process would slow down the business units. We could have the global team do a majority of the creative work, but this was an unrealistic solution, because business units wouldn’t want to give up control and the global team couldn’t support the language needs of seventy-plus countries. We also thought about having regional creative teams report to the global brand team, but at the time, structural and political issues impeded such a solution.

Given these issues, our challenge was to push forward the new brand’s adoption in a way that required no changes to firm structure or organizational reporting. We had to build in some carrots and use the firm’s executive team to help us enforce the changes.

In addition to creating a 200-plus-page brand manual that included templates and assets that teams could customize, our team used the four principles of creative problem-solving to come up with two ideas that became instrumental in making changes. 

The first was building a brand quiz that every marketing and communications professional was required to take after attending a training session. They had to get a score of 85 percent to become officially “brand certified.” What happened if they didn’t pass the test? They had to take it again. The online quiz platform we used provided analytics about every team member. The quiz results became the proxy for the progress made in each market. We worked with the top seven regional marketing leaders of the company, whose conversation turned to how many people on their teams had passed the quiz. Some people were really into the quiz and had fun earning an official certificate, while others thought it ridiculous—we often heard, “You’re really going to require us to take a test?” Although it seemed silly to some, it was the only way to find out if people were paying attention to the training. Without the quiz results, we had no way of knowing if people understood the magnitude and the specifics of the changes they would be required to implement.

The other creative problem-solving idea for monitoring adoption was the creation of a central brand hub. Perhaps this seems obvious, but it hadn't been done in the past. Beyond having all the brand assets in one place, there was another reason we used the portal. We used single sign-on to track everyone who went to the site to download training documents, files, and videos. In other words, we could tell who was, and who was not, using the new brand assets. 

Our team’s conversations with firm leaders included data about who was accessing the brand portal. If a regional marketing leader told us that everything was going fine with implementing the new brand in his or her market (which is what most regional marketers told corporate), we checked the analytics to see if the story matched up. You can imagine the reactions when we said something like, “The team members in your business unit haven’t even accessed the brand portal yet. How could everything be going well?” Once they understood that these analytics were available to the global team, and were being shared with the CEO, the leaders took the project more seriously, understood what success looked like, and made sure it was achieved.

Without the utilization metrics from the brand hub and the post-training quiz results, it would have been much harder, perhaps impossible, for our global team to manage change throughout the company. The solutions weren’t obvious, and they helped the company evolve toward more consistently branded communication. 

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