Creative Solutions

Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - 08:55

Problem-solving is a critical skill for a manager. Michael Carman looks at how to find solutions to problems.

An oil executive wanted to make better use of the expensive, and wasted, real estate of petrol stations. His solution: add convenience stores. Despite criticism (who would buy petrol and coffee together?), there is now hardly a service station around without a convenience store attached worthy of the name.

This case shows that, if dealt with powerfully, problems can not only be solved, but turned into exciting opportunities.

If there's one thing you can be sure of in management it's that there's never a shortage of problems: marketing, strategy, cash flow, product development, branding and reputation, distribution, logistics, organisational structure, staffing… or under-utilised or wasted real estate.

Fortunately, managers have a number of tools to deal with these problems. A simple but effective four-step approach to solving problems follows.

  1. State the problem; write it down.
  2. Identify the causes of the problem.
  3. Identify solutions; use brainstorming to allow solutions to emerge.
  4. Choose the best solution. Implement.

The importance of defining a problem

While stating the problem and writing it down (step one), may seem obvious and unnecessary, it is in fact the most important part of the process. This is because problems rarely appear as clearly packaged, self-contained entities.

Rather, they are more likely to manifest as nebulous, with many and varied attributes. In addition, symptoms and causes can be hard to unpick. As noted management author Peter Drucker rightly observed: "Management may see a clash of personalities; the real problem may well be poor organisation structure... Management may see an organisation problem; the real problem may well be lack of clear objectives."

Don't be alarmed if identifying the problem is harder than first thought: the time spent grappling with defining the problem is well spent. If the problem can only be described as a multifaceted 'constellation' of issues and symptoms, then do so.

Identifying causes

Step two, where you must investigate the causes of the problem, can be seen as an extension of the problem-definition phase.

Take the example of the company whose staff were overwhelmed with the volume of work crossing their desks, and seemingly ineffective in the face of this. The problem could be any of:

  • not enough staff for the job
  • the wrong staff for the job
  • staff having the wrong skills for the job
  • too high a volume of work.

It is only an investigation of the causes of the problem, and the context in which they occur, that will reveal which possible cause is the one to address.

This also highlights why defining the problem clearly is so important, because it sets the direction for possible solutions. In our example, these could be:

  • putting on more staff
  • replacing staff with new, differently qualified staff
  • upskilling existing staff
  • rejecting some work or referring it elsewhere in order to reduce the volume of work.

You want to ensure that you solve the right problem. In fact, by addressing the wrong one you may open up a whole new range of problems.

Using creativity for problem solving

Now that the problem is defined and causes identified, this is the time for solutions to be scoped. In some cases, solutions will have already emerged from steps one and two, so step three can be straightforward.

In other situations, however, solutions need to be found, and this is where creativity and imagination come into play. The key here is in generating a number or range of solutions rather than simply picking one.

Brainstorming is one of the most effective and best-known means of generating creative solutions to problems. Simply take a blank piece of paper, write the problem as defined in step one and write down solutions. Keep doing this for a specified period of time or until you have generated a minimum number of possible solutions (say, 20).

Don't worry if the ideas are wild, outlandish or seem unworkable. It's important that the ideas not be evaluated or censored while they're being generated as this stymies creativity. (This is even more important in group brainstorming sessions where the extroverted or those with louder voices can dominate). It's by being forced to generate solutions that seem untenable that the constraints that have held the problem in place thus far are broken down.

Evaluation comes later, in step four. It's easier to evaluate than it is to generate, and it is the latter that is needed in step three. At this stage of the process the objective is to generate a large quantity of ideas; you can separate the wheat from the chaff later on.

A side note: our creative powers often work in roundabout ways, so don't be surprised if solutions emerge from strange places. Many solutions have occurred to people in their sleep (Einstein said his breakthrough about space and time occurred to him while he was sick in bed), or purely incidentally (major advances in the development of penicillin, radiography, and sound recording occurred by accident).

Choosing and implementing the solution

Choosing and implementing a solution is the final step in the process. Solutions need to be assessed in terms of their workability, resource requirements, risks and fit with existing operations. The top contenders can then be ranked.

Creative problem-solving doesn't bypass the need to manage implementation and its associated issues. The latter can, in fact, generate their own problems, to which a new round of creative problem-solving can then be applied.