Finding Solutions—Creatively

Collective knowledge is a powerful way to find alternative answers

by Peter Merrill

Albert Einstein was so insightful when he said, "No problem can be solved with the same level of consciousness that created it."1

Typically, we start problem solving by collecting data to understand the problem, and we process map to get a picture of the processes concerned. The shortcoming is that we analyze the data and get solutions that are within the context of the status quo—a broken step in the process or an inadequate understanding of requirements.

Traditional problem solving tends to focus on immediate cause and effect. Creative problem solving, on the other hand, recognizes that in a complex environment, there are many degrees of separation of an effect from the original causes.

The innovator recognizes the butterfly effect—that is, a butterfly flapping its wings in Singapore can cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. Problem solvers in the innovation process find solutions in completely new environments.

Henry Ford saw meat hanging on hooks, for instance, as the transfer of material between work stations. This visual gave Ford the solution to transferring car parts between work stations at his own factory.

Innovators, like Ford, must step out of the box and look for a completely new process compared with the present process.

Defining the problem

The first step in solving any problem is defining the problem. Quoting Einstein again, "If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution."2

Learn from the experiences of people who suffer from the problem—whether they are internal or external customers—and be prepared to make a shift as new discoveries occur. This is the preferred hierarchy of the learning interface:

  • Analyze data.
  • Talk to the customer.
  • Observe the customer.
  • Be the customer.
  • Involve the customer in the solution.

Both internal and external customers will express their pain in terms of:

  • Cost and time.
  • Effort and emotion.
  • Risk and worry.
  • Obstacles.

Connecting to the solution

Creative techniques called ideation or idea creation can unlock the subconscious mind, and you become more creative.

Somewhere, someone probably has already thought of the solution you’re looking for, but in a different context. This means connecting to other business environments, and networking is one important way of doing this. The fundamental point is that breakthroughs occur at the intersection of bodies of knowledge—the spark of ingenuity. That is the power behind networking for collective knowledge.

Another interesting fact about problem solving is that there is no correlation between intelligence and problem solving. (There is hope for us all, thankfully.)

Scott Page, a Caltech professor, researched this in the 1990s. He assembled a group of Mensa-level people as well as a group of ordinary people he called the brown socks group.

Both groups were given a series of problems to solve. The Mensa group was repeatedly beaten by the brown socks group, which was diverse and had additive knowledge. The Mensa group had identical knowledge, which was not additive.3 This suggests having diversity is a must.

There are several techniques available to harness collective knowledge, and the best known is brainstorming.


Over the years, the brainstorming process has been developed and flows thus. Loosening up is the first step in creating what Edward de Bono calls lateral thinking.4

I like to use the improvisation approach that you find in theater. Someone makes a statement such as, "It’s a great day out there." Importantly, this is not a question. The next person replies, "Yes … and … I think I will go for a walk." A third person might add, "Yes … and … I think I will wear my new shoes." And so it continues. Each statement builds on the previous one and each statement is positive, which creates a great mood of creativity.

Research shows the average adult thinks of three to four alternatives for any given problem. Get 12 to 20 people and have them first write three or four ideas on their own. Then have everybody turn to their right and share ideas with their neighbor on that side. Have them add ideas to their lists. Next, have everybody do the same with neighbors to the left. Finally, everybody turns back to the person to the right and builds a final list.

From perhaps originally struggling to find three ideas, every pair of people now has a minimum of 10 ideas, and some have as many as 12 to 18. We then capture the ideas of everyone in the room. To be successful, it is essential that team members listen to others’ ideas. By listening well, we allow other people’s ideas to trigger subconscious ideas and experiences of our own. We will have 30 to 40 ideas compared to the original list of about three per person.

The key issue with all of this work is volume. Linus Pauling said, "The best way of having a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."5

There are many variations, such as BrainWriting, word association and the technique of the Japanese Broadcasting Corp. NHK that involves the use of cards or spreadsheets. The commonality for these methods is that they allow people to make crazy suggestions in private and perhaps avoid ridicule, but gradually they can share those ideas and build on them.

To be successful with ideation, we need:

  • Knowledge—Do people know the problem?
  • Diversity—Will solutions get challenged?
  • Disruption—Are disruptors present?

We also should include customers and suppliers. It is like the old think-tank technique of mixing disciplines to create that spark of genius.

Ideation searches the subconscious, and this takes time. An important component is soak time: Relaxing between sessions is essential, and often, the epiphany will come unexpectedly. That’s why ideation is not a one-off 20-minute session done once a year. In fact, epiphanies are the last piece to the jigsaw puzzle and they arise from previously working on a problem. Archimedes’ famous exclamation "Eureka!" came after working for a long time on how to establish the density of the gold in the king’s crown.

You also must determine what aspects of your present product or service could be blocking the solution. Organizations that have developed successful innovations had the courage to remove sacred attributes of their existing products.

As noted earlier, Pauling said the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. One is not enough. At this stage, you must find alternative solutions. You will stay with the concept and evaluate the concept. Call it prototyping if you like, but at a very conceptual level. You are not yet developing a working process, product or service.

Selecting the solution

Having generated volume, we now must identify solutions most likely to fulfill customer needs and, at the same time, be most difficult for competitors to copy. Still working as a group, we use old-fashioned storyboards (which still work for group critique) and sticky notes. We must collect data to support our choices, however.

W. Edwards Deming said, "In God we trust, all others (must) bring data."6 This is not easy to follow for some creative people, so include developers who are data people. Some of the areas in which we need data (and most won’t be crisp) include:

  • The time needed to develop a working solution. At this stage, we are only at concept.
  • The probability of being able to produce a working solution.
  • The cost of producing a working solution.
  • Do we have the in-house competencies to produce the solution?
  • Which new suppliers are needed, and what is the risk attached to those suppliers?
  • What are the delivery chain choices and the attendant risk?

It is critical that the attached risk is measured and managed.

There is a key lesson here for the innovator: People can copy your offering and even steal your technology, but it is much more difficult for them to steal your unique competencies. Always choose solutions in your area of greatest competency.

Test your ideas

After you have short-listed your solutions, you will follow with testing, information gathering and changes in direction (pivoting) as the solution is revised to arrive at the final, validated version. Typically, the conceptual solution changes radically as testing unfolds.

Fail early. Clearly, the more you can weed out weak offerings in the creative phase, the better the cost outcome. You find what works, stop the things that don’t and resource the things that do.

The future of problem solving

We are increasingly seeing virtual ideation software as workgroups operate remotely. Artificial intelligence (AI) has developed rapidly since 2000 as computing power has increased.

AI will accelerate problem solving. Humans, however, are still far more capable of fast, intuitive judgement because of one remarkable attribute: common sense. And this unique trait is based on the enormous body of knowledge and experience a person carries.

The World Economic Forum’s report on the "Future of Jobs" shows some interesting trends from 2015-2020 in skills needed.7 Creativity is in 10th place in 2015 and third in 2020. Complex problem solving remains at No. 1 on both charts. This is what employers will want in their employees. Both of these skills are attributes of an innovator.

Sow the seeds

Connectors are those who find conceptual solutions and must include developers who can build a working solution. Using collective knowledge is the most powerful way of finding alternative solutions and is built on previous experiences.

Somebody will be sure to say, "You can’t do that," so be prepared to sacrifice sacred aspects of your current process or product. Ideation, even though it is loose, follows a definite process, and an epiphany is really the last piece to the jigsaw puzzle.

Sow the seeds of creative problem solving at a level where you know you can succeed.


  1. Albert Einstein, BrainyQuote, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins130982.html.
  2. Albert Einstein, AZ Quotes, www.azquotes.com/quote/811850.
  3. Peter Merrill, Innovation Never Stops, ASQ Quality Press, 2015.
  4. Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, Harper Colophon, 2015.
  5. Linus Pauling, BrainyQuote, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/l/linuspauli163645.html.
  6. W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog, "Large List of Quotes by W. Edwards Deming," https://blog.deming.org/w-edwards-deming-quotes/large-list-of-quotes-by-w-edwards-deming.
  7. World Economic Forum, "The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution," January 2016, www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank.

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