How can you and your team be more creative in attacking the problems that you face on a daily basis?
In our work today, we face difficult problems, which can seem intractable.
“We need a high quality solution here, but it has to be delivered at almost no cost!”
“We have to finish this work very quickly, but remain 100% error-free!”
“Our budget has been cut 25%, but we’re expected to keep revenue flat!”
Sound familiar? In these situations, we often need to step back from the swirl of activity we’re in and get a new perspective that can help us break through to new ideas.
A recent post on LinkedIn had some great advice for people looking to turbo-charge their creativity – Thomas Stat wrote that the only 4 things you need to worry about are Empathy, Pattern Recognition, Synthesis, and Storytelling. Read his post – it’s got some great advice — and I bet if most of us focused on those four attributes/qualities/skills we’d make a BIG dent in our thorniest problems.
In my last job, I got called ‘creative’ a lot, and it was mainly because I always figured there was a solution out there somewhere, we had just not gotten to it yet. And when I brought people together to solve a big problem, my attitude was always that the only useful energy in the room is energy that is moving us closer to the right answer, or at least a new answer that could be right at some point. So I focused mostly on challenging the perspectives of the people in the room (myself included), to see if we could find a new route to the desired outcome. And in most cases, we cracked it — by not letting our established perspective get in the way of a new way of operating.
We all need ways to attack the big challenging issues that face us. So what are some ways to get to that fresh perspective?
- Define what you’re facing. It’s startling how often we tackle problems without a clear definition of what we’re facing and what we’re trying to do about it. This is a common situation when someone asks you to solve a problem and then immediately tells you how to do it. Jumping to the solution too early stifles creativity, and rarely gives you the chance to think creatively about a new solution. Use the time spent on defining the problem to make sure you aim in the right direction, and eliminate distractions that can get in the way of truly solving the problem.
- Understand the real constraints. Now that you know where you’re digging, there’s some real work to do in defining constraints or requirements for how you can operate. You want to nail down the barriers that must be overcome. What’s tricky here is knowing what is true and what is convenient. For instance, you want to know the difference between a guardrail that is there to help you clarify (“We have 7 weeks until the sale starts”) and fake guardrails that tell you how the problem has been solved in the past (“We have to buy local radio advertising. Do we?”). Force yourself to throw out fake guardrails and even posit some solutions based upon their opposite (“What if we CANNOT buy local radio advertising?”). In my experience building solutions for consumers, the best constraints and inputs to use in creative sessions are those that are firmly grounded in the customer experience. I try to keep the end-user and their unmet needs in front of me and question everything else that gets in the way of the right experience for them.
- Encourage free debate, but eliminate cynics. You want everyone involved to look for solutions, not more problems. So we have to encourage an environment of child-like “How can we…” rather than a skeptical “I don’t see how we can…” In some cases, the very experts that you rely on for their technical knowledge can be a hindrance here, so make sure to work with them carefully. You’ll want them pushing for possibilities, not potential areas of failure. If someone simply can’t remove their critical eye from the ideation process, then gently ease them out of that process and let them know that you’ll gladly welcome them back on the team when it is time to talk about feasibility and operationalizing the idea. They’ll be invaluable then!
- Add other ‘newness.’ Change your walls if you can. Literally, get the heck out of the conference room you’re in and take yourself and/or the team to a new location for part of the work. Perspectives have been proven to be changed just by taking a short walk, so try this trick is you get stuck. Then invite a new team member in for a quick download of their thoughts. This can be especially helpful if you think you’re on to something as a solution, and you need to do a check-in on it. Another method you can use to add newness is to use new tool in your process, like mind mapping, or post-it note sessions, or Systematic Inventive Thinking. Don’t assume that the method you used to solve a problem yesterday is the same way you should solve another one today.
- Don’t try to create statements, create scenarios instead. When you get to the point where you are defining what the solution will be, I recommend that you stage it for your boss or client as a story, which can explain the scenario of how and why the solution will work. People respond better to stories than grand statements or bullet points, and it will force you to think about how and why the solution will fit into the life of your end user or client. In some cases my team starts off the whole process by creating a persona of our users, and putting together their story about the tension or frustration that they face. Then when we get to the end of our process, we review the same story to see if we’ve solved the challenge for that persona.
Lastly, remain positive. You want to get the best from yourself and your team, so keep your attitude upbeat and thankful for all the input you get, and all the ideas that you generate. Even weaker ideas can sometimes be made stronger with a little work.
We all can be more creative in solving our toughest challenges, if we’re willing to take on a different perspective.
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