Creative Problem Solving

Article excerpt

Creative Problem Solving

"Excellence" and "renewal" are two important management concepts of the eighties. Excellence is defined by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in In Search of Excellence in terms of performance, profits, and innovativeness. Renewal is defined by Robert Waterman in The Renewal Factor in terms of what companies need to do to become excellent and keep their competitive edge.

"I know what excellence and renewal are in terms of my corporation," a manager in a Fortune 500 company told me, "I just don't see how to apply this to my work unit. I'm too low in the hierarchy to have much influence on overall policy and procedures. It would take me many years to change that, if I ever could. So what can I do when my subordinates complain about how we all impact on each others' creativity?"

Another manager from another Fortune 500 company told me, "I have a lot of power to run my unit as I see fit. How do I use it to boost creativity so we can move toward excellence?"

This series of articles will attempt to answer both questions by exploring the role of on-the-job creativity in problem solving. This series will look at three sure-fire ways to solve problems creatively for excellence and renewal, however defined, in your work unit: first, by using creativity techniques so new ideas appear; second, by changing the climate so new ideas flourish; and third, by changing work unit structures and leadership approaches so you stop pigeonholing people and provide a quick response with resources to test or implement new ideas.

Why all this fuss to solve problems more creatively? It's important if you want your work unit to produce better new products and services or to use better processes and procedures than the ones you are now using. You also want to turn your complacent group into a dynamic unit. And a key way to accomplish this is to solve problems creatively.

As a manager, you can really achieve excellence and renewal in your work unit if you accept some new ideas. First, you can enhance the on-the-job creativity in your work unit. Second, the habits that spoil on-the-job creativity and doom the creative climate can be changed. Third, you can manage and help motivate people in your work unit for greater applied creativity when needed. Fourth, specific techniques do help on-the-job creativity when applied to work unit problems. These may represent key changes in attitude. But without such changes, creativity training is futile.

Understanding on-the-job

creativity

Many managers underestimate the creative potential of their work unit, believing that creativity is an inherited gift. Not so. Creativity is simply the ability to generate new and useful ideas. And most of us have this ability and use it everyday. We just don't call it creativity or even see it as something special. But whether we call it tinkering, fooling around, imagination, or making suggestions, it is creativity.

Further, people often wrongly think that the only role of creativity in innovation is the first step--that is, the generation of the idea. Actually, creativity is needed and used to solve problems throughout the entire process of innovation. Gifford Pinchot, in his book Intrapreneuring (Harper and Row, 1985) suggests that the innovation process begins with background research, from which the big idea develops. The idea then goes through a process that includes getting customer feedback, developing a prototype and preparing a business plan, trying the plan, making rapid adjustments to reality, growing the effort with incremental changes, then maintenance. On-the-job creativity is a daily, ongoing process of transforming old ideas into new ones, and that process is useful in all the steps identified by Gifford.

Making remote associations

How creativity takes place is not known. But I agree with the notion that it is a process in which experiences, known ideas, and the diverse elements in the mind are mixed then transformed into new combinations--a process that has been called "making remote associations. …