“There is a beauty and clarity that comes from simplicity that we sometimes do not appreciate in our thirst for intricate solutions.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf
It is important to generate as many solutions as possible to the problem before analyzing the solutions or trying to implement them. There are many different methods for generating solutions. This blog begins with some ground rules for brainstorming sessions. Then it presents several idea-generating techniques, including free-association style brainstorming, brainwriting, mind mapping, and Duncker Diagrams. We will also be looking at additional tools and information to consider when generating solutions as part of the creative problem solving process.
In order to come up with a good idea, the team must come up with many ideas. The first rule of brainstorming is to come up with as many ideas as the team possibly can.
Some of the ideas will not be good. If the team starts analyzing the ideas while they are generating them, the creative process will quickly come to a halt, and they may miss out on some great ideas. Therefore, the second rule for brainstorming sessions is to defer judgment.
Allow creativity and imagination to take over in this phase of the process. The next rule for brainstorming is to come up with the wildest, most imaginative solutions to your problem that the team can. Often the team might not consider a solution because of assumptions or associational constraints. However, sometimes those solutions, even if they do not end up implementing them, can lead them to a successful solution. So along with deferring judgment, allow those ideas that might be considered crazy to flow. One of those crazy ideas might just contain the seeds of the perfect solution.Finally, use early ideas as springboards to other ideas.
Basic brainstorming is a free-association session of coming up with ideas. Use the other team member’s ideas to trigger additional ideas. One member of the team should make a list of all of the ideas.
Brainwriting and Mind Mapping
Brainwriting and Mind Mapping are two additional tools to generate ideas.
Brainwriting is similar to free-association brainstorming, except that it is conducted in silence. This method encourages participants to pay closer attention to the ideas of others and piggyback on those ideas.
Before a brainwriting session, create sheets of paper with a grid of nine squares on each sheet. You will need as many sheets as there are participants in the brainwriting session with one or two extra sheets. Plan to sit the team members in a circle or around a table. Determine how long the session will last, and remind participants that there is no talking. Remind participants of the other rules for brainstorming, especially deferring judgment.
For the session itself, state the problem or challenge to be solved. Each participant fills out three ideas on a brainwriting grid. Then he or she places that brainwriting sheet in the center of the table and selects a new sheet. Before writing additional ideas, the participant reads the three ideas at the top (generated by a different participant). The hope is that these items will suggest additional ideas to the participants. The participants should not write down the same ideas they have written on other sheets. This activity continues until all of the grids are full or the time runs out. At the end of the activity, there should be many ideas to consider and discuss.
Mind mapping is another method of generating ideas on paper, but can be conducted alone.
The problem solver starts by writing one main idea in the center of the paper. Write additional ideas around the sheet of paper, circling the idea and connecting the ideas with lines. This technique allows for representing non-linear relationships between ideas.
A Duncker diagram generates solutions by creating possible pathways from the present state to the desired state. However, the Duncker diagram also addresses an additional pathway of solving the problem by making it okay not to reach the desired state.
Duncker diagrams can help with refining the problem as well as generating ideas for solutions. The diagram begins with general solutions. Then it suggests functional solutions that give more specifics on what to do. The diagram can also include specific solutions of how to complete each item in the functional solutions.
For example, Michael wanted to address the problem of his job being too stressful. He is responsible for managing up to 1500 work hours per month. He cannot find a way to complete all of his tasks within a desired work week of no more than 45-50 hours per week. He has over 10 years’ experience in public account and is interested in moving into industry. However, he is so busy, that he does not even have time to look for a new job.
The present state and desired state statements are:
- Present State: Job requires more demands on my time than I am willing to dedicate to a job I do not really care about.
- Desired State: Work a job I care about with adequate free time to spend with family and pursuing personal interests
The Morphological Matrix
Fritz Zwicky developed a method for general morphological analysis in the 1960s. The method has since been applied to many different fields. It is a method of listing examples of different attributes or issues to an item (or problem), and randomly combining the different examples to form a solution. Depending on the number of issues or attributes identified, there can be quite a large number of possible combinations.
The Morphological Matrix is a grid with several different columns. The problem solvers enter a specific attribute or issue about the item or problem at the top of each column. Then for each column, problem solvers generate a list of examples for that attribute. Once there are many different ideas in the columns, the solutions can be combined strategically or randomly. While some combinations naturally are incompatible, problem solvers should not rule out ideas until they reach the analysis phase of the problem-solving process.
As an example, let’s look at the traffic problems experienced at a new elementary school. The administrative staff of the school has identified the problem statement as: “Get approximately 500 students to class safely, on time, and with no more than a five minute wait for parents and drivers in the neighborhood.” A few sample attributes to this problem are safety, timeliness, pedestrians, and drivers.
This matrix can help identify different considerations of the problem. It can also help formulate comprehensive solutions to complex problems.
The Six Thinking Hats
Dr. Edward de Bono introduced a concept for thinking more effectively in groups in his book, Six Thinking Hats. The premise of this idea is that the brain thinks about things in a number of different ways.
The identified different categories of thought are assigned to a color-coded “hat,” as described below. The hats provide a structured way to think about different aspects of a problem.
- White hat – Facts and Information: This hat includes Information collected or identified as missing.
- Red Hat – Feelings and Emotion: This hat includes feelings, including gut reactions to ideas or items identified in another area.
- Black Hat – Critical Judgment: This hat includes details about obstacles to solving the problem or other negative connotations about an item or idea. Since people are naturally critical, it is important to limit black hat thinking to its appropriate role.
- Yellow Hat – Positive Judgment: This hat is the opposite of the black hat. It includes details about the benefits of an idea or issue, or thoughts about favoring an idea. It is still critical thinking and judgment, as opposed to blind optimism.
- Green Hat – Alternatives and Learning: This hat concerns ideas about new possibilities and thinking about implications rather than judgments. Green hat thinking covers the full spectrum of creativity.
- Blue Hat – The Big Picture: This hat serves as the facilitator of the group thinking process. This hat can be used to set objectives both for the problem solving process and the thinking session itself.
The six thinking hat methodology allows a deliberate focusing during problem solving sessions, with an agreed-upon sequence and time limit to each hat. It ensures that everyone in the team is focused on a particular approach at the same time, rather than having one person reacting emotionally (red hat) while others are being objective (white hat) and still another is wearing the black hat to form critical judgments of ideas.
The green hat is the main thinking hat for generating solutions in the problem solving process. The other hats can be used as a reminder of the rules of productive brainstorming sessions, such as limiting critical judgment (positive and negative – yellow and black hats).
The Blink Method
Malcolm Gladwell popularizes scientific research about the power of the adaptive unconscious in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell’s premise is that in an age of information overload, our decisions based on limited information are often as good as or better than decisions made with ample critical thinking.
In the examples and research Gladwell presents, experts and average subjects alike are better able and happier with choices made through what he calls “thin-slicing,” or coming to a conclusion with limited information. An example presented is the case in which many experts identify a statue as a fake, when the museum that spent money on the statue did not identify it as such with weeks of research.
Gladwell also presents the cautions of the adaptive unconscious. Our power to make effective decisions by tapping into this power can be corrupted by personal likes and dislikes and stereotypes. Rapid, intuitive judgment can have disastrous consequences, as presented in his example of an innocent man shot on his own doorstep 41 times by New York policemen.
Gladwell summarizes the dilemma between when to tap into our unconscious, and when to use a more critical approach as thus: “On straightforward choices, deliberate analysis is best. When questions of analysis and personal choice start to get complicated – when we have to juggle many different variables – then our unconscious thought process may be superior.”