Last month I wrote about the Creative Problem Solving process (CPS) and its importance in tackling complex problems. Picking up from there, I will now review the first stage of the CPS process, which is to gain an understanding of the problem. This stage consists of a divergent followed by a convergent phase as shown in the diagram here.
This is crucial because often the wrong problem is ‘solved’ if there is not enough time spent on determining the true nature of the problem.
A typical example could be the following:
You have been told that there is a problem with the productivity of a team who also have a high level of absenteeism. The team leader has assumed that the problem is to do with levels of motivation. She has asked for them to be offered an increase in pay as a solution as this team are crucial in the setting up of a new product line. After a process of fully exploring the problem, it is established that the levels of motivation are low. However this is considered to be an effect, not the cause of the problem. The cause is that the team have been recruited with a low level of competencies needed for the current tasks they are performing.
So how do we get to understand the problem fully?
Words can often constrain or limit our thinking, and therefore I strongly believe that in the divergent phase of opening up to understand a problem, images do a better job. They allow the intuition to work, and tap into our tacit knowledge.
My favourite technique for imaging the problem to gain an understanding is the Rich Picture.
This is a visual map of all aspects of a problem and their relationship with one another. They can often get very messy as we can see from this example of an attempt to map the problem of climate change.
However, by having a visual map of the problem it becomes easier to see the whole picture. This helps to start to understand the issues involved, and their connectedness. It is a little like a visual mind map.
Producing a Rich Picture
There are different ways of facilitating developing a Rich Picture, and these are just a few.
- As a team effort, at the beginning of the exploration stage of the CPS process, to gain an understanding of the problem. The team needs to combine all perceptions and create a common rich picture.
- As an individual exercise to allow differing perceptions of the problem to emerge. These individual perceptions are then shared.
- Pairing up someone who is very familiar with someone with little or no knowledge of the problem can be valuable. The picture can be drawn by the person with experience of the problem. The second person acts as a coach, asking questions to gain more insight and help the picture creation process. This is also a way of using the concept of ‘fresh eye’ which is a great way of checking our our assumptions.
Once an understanding of the problem is agreed, the next phase in the CPS stage 1 process is to determine the problem statement. It is helpful if this is framed as a ‘how to’ statement. In the example I gave earlier, the problem may be stated as ‘how do we ensure that we have a team with the right competencies for the task.’ This is beginning to look a lot less messy as a problem. Its always good at the next stage, however, to check back as to whether this was the best interpretation of the problem.
There are other techniques that can be helpful at this stage in the process. You will find more of these in the book Creativity Cycling.
Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.