Can you align your approach to creating new work to the four
stages of the creative problem solving process?
When I first learned the creative problem solving process, I
had a prejudice against processes.
“You can’t confine me to steps and stages!” my mind
“I must maintain my natural creative inspiration!” it
“My crazy thinking isn’t linear like this!” it rebelled.
If you’re used to being naturally creative it can feel
confining or false at first to quantify creative thinking into
stages. To learn creative problem solving (CPS), you have to
apply the tools from each stage in a linear fashion. It wasn’t
my style and I demanded that the graphic should be a
three-dimensional spiral. But once I accepted that I wanted to
learn it, using CPS really did supercharge my ability to be
creative on demand. Over time, my productivity soared.
Before you came across the article that you are now reading, it
passed through the four distinct stages of creative problem
solving, which I like to think of as the scientific
method for innovation. Just as the scientific method helps
us be deliberate and pragmatic in matters of scientific
inquiry, CPS provides strategies and tools that drive creative
thought. If you need new thinking at work like I do, CPS can
become your new best friend. Here’s how this article went down,
stage by stage.
Stage 1: Clarify
When I set out to write an article, I have to first figure out
what you want to read about. What questions do I get
asked all the time? How might creativity help people overcome
struggles at work? What problem do I want to
solve? There are a lot of topics on my brainstorm
list, but this time “creative problem solving process” rises to
Once I decide on the general topic—creative process—I consider
all the possible angles. I jot down several thoughts. Then,
I gather information from
conversations, research, and colleagues. I’ve noticed that when
I explain it this way, people really perk up. They get
I formulate a challenge question to
guide my writing:
“How might I demonstrate that creative problem solving is
like the scientific method for innovation, a natural process
that can guide and supercharge creativity and lead to new
Stage 2: Ideate
I have my guiding question and now I think up all
the different ways to approach this
- tell a story from one of my interviews
- tell a funny story
- make up an example of a work scenario that uses CPS
- use Chuck the entrepreneur’s story
- flashback to my past poem writing process from childhood
and how CPS helped me be more prolific
Arguably, I should continue my brainstorm to push toward more
outlandish ideas. Crazy ideas take us past the
obvious and get us into truly original territory. They
can always be refined and tamed down if needed.
Instead, I start writing a draft using one of these options
(the poem one, if you must know). Midstream I realize I can use
our shared experience—you reading this article that I will have
As a writer, my best brainstorming often happens in the context
of a messy draft. I often just start writing, knowing the messy
draft is part of the ideation process. Once I hit upon the
approach I’m using now, I leave the messy draft behind and
start a new page in my notebook. I have decided on
my approach. If this article were an animation,
you would see my pencil moving steadily across and down the
page in real time.
Stage 3: Develop
The draft is now complete. It is handwritten in a throwback
Barclay Cursive Writing Tablet notebook with my
new recycled newspaper pencil from my favorite
store in New York City (ooh, a future article topic: Why I
Collect Pencils and Write My First Drafts by Hand). I let the
draft sit for a day and come back to it the following morning
to begin to develop it to make it better.
Now it’s time to type it up. Again, if this article were an
animation, you would see the words appearing on my computer
screen in real time. As I type, I edit.
Then, I print it out and let it sit again.
I’ve found that I enjoy the process so much more if I build
variation into this stage. When I’m ready, an hour or a day or
a week later, I choose one of my pencils and edit the paper
Finally, I type up the hand-marked changes. Sometimes I share
it with a pre-reader for feedback and further changes.
Stage 4: Implement
Now it’s time to get my article out into the
world. I copy and paste it into my blog and hit
“publish.” Today I’ll cross-post it on The Creativity
After years of randomly sharing each blog post when I can
remember to do so, I now have a rough implementation strategy.
I brainstorm about which groups would find this article most
- LinkedIn connections?
- Email list?
- Facebook groups?
- Specific clients who asked a related question?
- Specific friends who asked a related question?
- An expert whose work is mentioned in the article, or is
related to the topic?
I choose the most appropriate for the topic, and post
Reflections on a Process
When I was ready to take my creative problem solving training
wheels off, I had the basic skills necessary to adapt it over
time to make it my own.
Through tools like the FourSight preference survey,
I developed self-awareness about which stages of the process I
have more energy for and where I tend to get blocked up. There
was a distinct pattern and I have deliberately strategized my
process to remove blocks.
Now if I don’t have a brilliant idea immediately, I have steps
I can jump into to get there. Best of all, I can train others
to work better and smarter by leveraging their own thinking
strengths. I can train teams to work more effectively and
collaborate more productively.
Here’s a challenge for you. Can you align your
approach to creating new work to the four stages of the
creative problem solving process? Which stages
tend to excite you? Which drag you down? Starting with this
simple bit of self-knowledge about how you approach creative
problems can make a big difference in your work.
Creative Problem Solving was born as a distinct process in the
early 1950s. Over the past seven decades, it has been applied,
improved, and empirically studied. I was trained in CPS by
several of the masters, including Roger Firestien. He provides
on his website a complete
and detailed timeline of the evolution of this process. As
you will see, I have presented here the simplified FourSight
model, on which my graphics (designed by Jane
Harvey) are based.
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