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how does creative problem solving work

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How to Be a More Creative Problem-Solver at Work: 8 Tips

Business professionals using creative problem-solving at work

The importance of creativity in the workplace—particularly when problem-solving—is undeniable. Business leaders can’t approach new problems with old solutions and expect the same result.

This is where innovation-based processes need to guide problem-solving. Here’s an overview of what creative problem-solving is, along with tips on how to use it in conjunction with design thinking.

What Is Creative Problem-Solving?

Encountering problems with no clear cause can be frustrating. This occurs when there’s disagreement around a defined problem or research yields unclear results. In such situations, creative problem-solving helps develop solutions, despite a lack of clarity.

While creative problem-solving is less structured than other forms of innovation, it encourages exploring open-ended ideas and shifting perspectives—thereby fostering innovation and easier adaptation in the workplace. It also works best when paired with other innovation-based processes, such as design thinking .

Creative Problem-Solving and Design Thinking

Design thinking is a solutions-based mentality that encourages innovation and problem-solving. It’s guided by an iterative process that Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar outlines in four stages in the online course Design Thinking and Innovation :

The four stages of design thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement

Although user research is an essential first step in the design thinking process, there are times when it can’t identify a problem’s root cause. Creative problem-solving addresses this challenge by promoting the development of new perspectives.

Leveraging tools like design thinking and creativity at work can further your problem-solving abilities. Here are eight tips for doing so.

Design Thinking and Innovation | Uncover creative solutions to your business problems | Learn more

8 Creative Problem-Solving Tips

1. empathize with your audience.

A fundamental practice of design thinking’s clarify stage is empathy. Understanding your target audience can help you find creative and relevant solutions for their pain points through observing them and asking questions.

Practice empathy by paying attention to others’ needs and avoiding personal comparisons. The more you understand your audience, the more effective your solutions will be.

2. Reframe Problems as Questions

If a problem is difficult to define, reframe it as a question rather than a statement. For example, instead of saying, "The problem is," try framing around a question like, "How might we?" Think creatively by shifting your focus from the problem to potential solutions.

Consider this hypothetical case study: You’re the owner of a local coffee shop trying to fill your tip jar. Approaching the situation with a problem-focused mindset frames this as: "We need to find a way to get customers to tip more." If you reframe this as a question, however, you can explore: "How might we make it easier for customers to tip?" When you shift your focus from the shop to the customer, you empathize with your audience. You can take this train of thought one step further and consider questions such as: "How might we provide a tipping method for customers who don't carry cash?"

Whether you work at a coffee shop, a startup, or a Fortune 500 company, reframing can help surface creative solutions to problems that are difficult to define.

3. Defer Judgment of Ideas

If you encounter an idea that seems outlandish or unreasonable, a natural response would be to reject it. This instant judgment impedes creativity. Even if ideas seem implausible, they can play a huge part in ideation. It's important to permit the exploration of original ideas.

While judgment can be perceived as negative, it’s crucial to avoid accepting ideas too quickly. If you love an idea, don’t immediately pursue it. Give equal consideration to each proposal and build on different concepts instead of acting on them immediately.

4. Overcome Cognitive Fixedness

Cognitive fixedness is a state of mind that prevents you from recognizing a situation’s alternative solutions or interpretations instead of considering every situation through the lens of past experiences.

Although it's efficient in the short-term, cognitive fixedness interferes with creative thinking because it prevents you from approaching situations unbiased. It's important to be aware of this tendency so you can avoid it.

5. Balance Divergent and Convergent Thinking

One of the key principles of creative problem-solving is the balance of divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the process of brainstorming multiple ideas without limitation; open-ended creativity is encouraged. It’s an effective tool for generating ideas, but not every idea can be explored. Divergent thinking eventually needs to be grounded in reality.

Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is the process of narrowing ideas down into a few options. While converging ideas too quickly stifles creativity, it’s an important step that bridges the gap between ideation and development. It's important to strike a healthy balance between both to allow for the ideation and exploration of creative ideas.

6. Use Creative Tools

Using creative tools is another way to foster innovation. Without a clear cause for a problem, such tools can help you avoid cognitive fixedness and abrupt decision-making. Here are several examples:

Problem Stories

Creating a problem story requires identifying undesired phenomena (UDP) and taking note of events that precede and result from them. The goal is to reframe the situations to visualize their cause and effect.

To start, identify a UDP. Then, discover what events led to it. Observe and ask questions of your consumer base to determine the UDP’s cause.

Next, identify why the UDP is a problem. What effect does the UDP have that necessitates changing the status quo? It's helpful to visualize each event in boxes adjacent to one another when answering such questions.

The problem story can be extended in either direction, as long as there are additional cause-and-effect relationships. Once complete, focus on breaking the chains connecting two subsequent events by disrupting the cause-and-effect relationship between them.

Alternate Worlds

The alternate worlds tool encourages you to consider how people from different backgrounds would approach similar situations. For instance, how would someone in hospitality versus manufacturing approach the same problem? This tool isn't intended to instantly solve problems but, rather, to encourage idea generation and creativity.

7. Use Positive Language

It's vital to maintain a positive mindset when problem-solving and avoid negative words that interfere with creativity. Positive language prevents quick judgments and overcomes cognitive fixedness. Instead of "no, but," use words like "yes, and."

Positive language makes others feel heard and valued rather than shut down. This practice doesn’t necessitate agreeing with every idea but instead approaching each from a positive perspective.

Using “yes, and” as a tool for further idea exploration is also effective. If someone presents an idea, build upon it using “yes, and.” What additional features could improve it? How could it benefit consumers beyond its intended purpose?

While it may not seem essential, this small adjustment can make a big difference in encouraging creativity.

8. Practice Design Thinking

Practicing design thinking can make you a more creative problem-solver. While commonly associated with the workplace, adopting a design thinking mentality can also improve your everyday life. Here are several ways you can practice design thinking:

Which HBS Online Entrepreneurship & Innovation Course Is Right for You? | Download Your Free Flowchart

Ready to Become a Creative Problem-Solver?

Though creativity comes naturally to some, it's an acquired skill for many. Regardless of which category you're in, improving your ability to innovate is a valuable endeavor. Whether you want to bolster your creativity or expand your professional skill set, taking an innovation-based course can enhance your problem-solving.

If you're ready to become a more creative problem-solver, explore Design Thinking and Innovation , one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses . If you aren't sure which course is the right fit, download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.

how does creative problem solving work

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Creative Problem Solving

Finding innovative solutions to challenges.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

how does creative problem solving work

Imagine that you're vacuuming your house in a hurry because you've got friends coming over. Frustratingly, you're working hard but you're not getting very far. You kneel down, open up the vacuum cleaner, and pull out the bag. In a cloud of dust, you realize that it's full... again. Coughing, you empty it and wonder why vacuum cleaners with bags still exist!

Creative problem solving (CPS) is a way of solving problems or identifying opportunities when conventional thinking has failed. It encourages you to find fresh perspectives and come up with innovative solutions, so that you can formulate a plan to overcome obstacles and reach your goals.

In this article, we'll explore what CPS is, and we'll look at its key principles. We'll also provide a model that you can use to generate creative solutions.

About Creative Problem Solving

Alex Osborn, founder of the Creative Education Foundation, first developed creative problem solving in the 1940s, along with the term "brainstorming." And, together with Sid Parnes, he developed the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process. Despite its age, this model remains a valuable approach to problem solving. [2]

The early Osborn-Parnes model inspired a number of other tools. One of these is the 2011 CPS Learner's Model, also from the Creative Education Foundation, developed by Dr Gerard J. Puccio, Marie Mance, and co-workers. In this article, we'll use this modern four-step model to explore how you can use CPS to generate innovative, effective solutions.

Why Use Creative Problem Solving?

Dealing with obstacles and challenges is a regular part of working life, and overcoming them isn't always easy. To improve your products, services, communications, and interpersonal skills, and for you and your organization to excel, you need to encourage creative thinking and find innovative solutions that work.

CPS asks you to separate your "divergent" and "convergent" thinking as a way to do this. Divergent thinking is the process of generating lots of potential solutions and possibilities, otherwise known as brainstorming. And convergent thinking involves evaluating those options and choosing the most promising one. Often, we use a combination of the two to develop new ideas or solutions. However, using them simultaneously can result in unbalanced or biased decisions, and can stifle idea generation.

For more on divergent and convergent thinking, and for a useful diagram, see the book "Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making." [3]

Core Principles of Creative Problem Solving

CPS has four core principles. Let's explore each one in more detail:

How to Use the Tool

Let's explore how you can use each of the four steps of the CPS Learner's Model (shown in figure 1, below) to generate innovative ideas and solutions.

Figure 1 – CPS Learner's Model

how does creative problem solving work

Explore the Vision

Identify your goal, desire or challenge. This is a crucial first step because it's easy to assume, incorrectly, that you know what the problem is. However, you may have missed something or have failed to understand the issue fully, and defining your objective can provide clarity. Read our article, 5 Whys , for more on getting to the root of a problem quickly.

Gather Data

Once you've identified and understood the problem, you can collect information about it and develop a clear understanding of it. Make a note of details such as who and what is involved, all the relevant facts, and everyone's feelings and opinions.

Formulate Questions

When you've increased your awareness of the challenge or problem you've identified, ask questions that will generate solutions. Think about the obstacles you might face and the opportunities they could present.

Explore Ideas

Generate ideas that answer the challenge questions you identified in step 1. It can be tempting to consider solutions that you've tried before, as our minds tend to return to habitual thinking patterns that stop us from producing new ideas. However, this is a chance to use your creativity .

Brainstorming and Mind Maps are great ways to explore ideas during this divergent stage of CPS. And our articles, Encouraging Team Creativity , Problem Solving , Rolestorming , Hurson's Productive Thinking Model , and The Four-Step Innovation Process , can also help boost your creativity.

See our Brainstorming resources within our Creativity section for more on this.

Formulate Solutions

This is the convergent stage of CPS, where you begin to focus on evaluating all of your possible options and come up with solutions. Analyze whether potential solutions meet your needs and criteria, and decide whether you can implement them successfully. Next, consider how you can strengthen them and determine which ones are the best "fit." Our articles, Critical Thinking and ORAPAPA , are useful here.

4. Implement

Formulate a plan.

Once you've chosen the best solution, it's time to develop a plan of action. Start by identifying resources and actions that will allow you to implement your chosen solution. Next, communicate your plan and make sure that everyone involved understands and accepts it.

There have been many adaptations of CPS since its inception, because nobody owns the idea.

For example, Scott Isaksen and Donald Treffinger formed The Creative Problem Solving Group Inc . and the Center for Creative Learning , and their model has evolved over many versions. Blair Miller, Jonathan Vehar and Roger L. Firestien also created their own version, and Dr Gerard J. Puccio, Mary C. Murdock, and Marie Mance developed CPS: The Thinking Skills Model. [4] Tim Hurson created The Productive Thinking Model , and Paul Reali developed CPS: Competencies Model. [5]

Sid Parnes continued to adapt the CPS model by adding concepts such as imagery and visualization , and he founded the Creative Studies Project to teach CPS. For more information on the evolution and development of the CPS process, see Creative Problem Solving Version 6.1 by Donald J. Treffinger, Scott G. Isaksen, and K. Brian Dorval. [6]

Creative Problem Solving (CPS) Infographic

See our infographic on Creative Problem Solving .

how does creative problem solving work

Creative problem solving (CPS) is a way of using your creativity to develop new ideas and solutions to problems. The process is based on separating divergent and convergent thinking styles, so that you can focus your mind on creating at the first stage, and then evaluating at the second stage.

There have been many adaptations of the original Osborn-Parnes model, but they all involve a clear structure of identifying the problem, generating new ideas, evaluating the options, and then formulating a plan for successful implementation.

[1] Entrepreneur (2012). James Dyson on Using Failure to Drive Success [online]. Available here . [Accessed May 27, 2022.]

[2] Creative Education Foundation (2015). The CPS Process [online]. Available here . [Accessed May 26, 2022.]

[3] Kaner, S. et al. (2014). 'Facilitator′s Guide to Participatory Decision–Making,' San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Puccio, G., Mance, M., and Murdock, M. (2011). 'Creative Leadership: Skils That Drive Change' (2nd Ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[5] OmniSkills (2013). Creative Problem Solving [online]. Available here . [Accessed May 26, 2022].

[6] Treffinger, G., Isaksen, S., and Dorval, B. (2010). Creative Problem Solving (CPS Version 6.1). Center for Creative Learning, Inc. & Creative Problem Solving Group, Inc. Available here .

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creative problem solving

How You Can Use Creative Problem Solving at Work

Reading time: about 4 min

Posted by: Lucid Content Team

How many times have you tried to solve a problem only to get stuck in the process? In a business setting, this is a common occurrence. You’re faced with issues that traditional problem solving methods can’t solve. But you still need to find a way to fix the issue to move a project forward or resolve a conflict. This is when you may need to get creative to solve the problem at hand.

What is creative problem solving?

The definition of creative problem solving (CPS) will vary between organizations. At its core, CPS involves approaching a problem in an imaginative, innovative, and unconventional way. The process encourages you to find new, creative ways of thinking that can help you overcome the issue at hand more quickly.

7 steps of the creative problem solving process

The CPS process can be broken down into seven steps.

creative problem solving process overview

1. Identify the goal

Before solving the problem, you need to fully understand the problem you’re trying to solve. You may have overlooked or misunderstood some details. Take some time to analyze the conflict and clear up any confusion.

2. Gather data

Once you know what the problem is, you need to learn all you can about it. Who does the problem affect? Who is involved in solving the issue? Gather all the knowledge you can to gain a better understanding of the issue and to solve it.

3. Formulate challenge questions

After you’ve gathered the details, turn the problem into a question. Word the question in a way that encourages suggestions or ideas. It should be short, concise, and only focus on a single issue. Once you’ve created one or two questions, start trying to answer them.

4. Explore ideas

This step is where the brainstorming begins. You’ll be creating possible ideas or solutions to the problem you’re facing. This is usually when the creativity really starts to flow. With so many ideas flowing, it’s crucial that you write each of them down—even the stupid ones. Even if the idea you come up with has little to no chance of working, write it down. Trying to sort out bad ideas from the good ones during this step can squash creativity.

To keep your ideas organized, consider using flowcharts or mind mapping templates from Lucidchart. They’ll capture all your ideas and help you zero in on the perfect solution.

5. Come up with solutions.  

Weed out the average ideas from the winners by testing each one. See if the possible solution actually solves the problem and if you can implement it successfully. If the potential solution doesn’t resolve the issue, move on to the next idea. Evaluating each idea will help you zero in on the perfect solution.

6. Create an action plan 

Now that you have the perfect solution, you’ll need to create an action plan outlining implementation steps. Consider what resources you’ll need and how long it will take. Then write it all down. Once you create the plan, communicate the approach to the rest of the team so they’re aware of what’s happening.

To help you create an organized and detailed plan, you can use swimlanes in Lucidchart.

7. Take action

With your plan created and your team on board, it’s time to implement your solution and resolve the problem.

CPS techniques

Just knowing the process behind CPS isn’t enough. You’ll want to know about the common creative problem solving ideas or techniques that you can use to be more successful during each phase. Below are a few of the techniques you can use to help you through the CPS process:

Synectics:  This technique helps to inspire thoughts that you might not be aware of. It is a way to approach creativity in a logical, rational manner.

TRIZ methodology (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving):  This problem solving methodology is based on logic, data, and research—not intuition. It involves adapting existing solutions to your particular problem.

Brainstorming:  Using this technique allows you to collect a number of ideas that can be a potential solution to a problem and can be used in either a group or individual setting.

Mind mapping:  Mind mapping helps keeps your ideas organized by representing them in a graphical manner.

mind map

Reversal of problem:  Trying to solve a problem using traditional problem solving methods can sometimes end in roadblocks.This technique forces you to think about a problem from a new perspective.

Looking beyond something’s function:  Thinking about how you can use something beyond its typical function is a common CPS technique.

SCAMPER:  This acronym can help you come up with new ideas. Each letter stands for a way you can manipulate an original idea to come up with something new:

Why use CPS

No matter what profession you’re in, you will face challenges. There will be times when traditional problem solving techniques just don’t do the trick. That’s when you can take advantage of CPS to help uncover the best solution to your problem.

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Portions of the material in this section are based on original work by Geoffrey Graybeal and produced with support from the Rebus Community. The original is freely available under the terms of the CC BY 4.0 license at https://press.rebus.community/media-innovation-and-entrepreneurship/.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

Creativity can be an important trait of an entrepreneur, as the chapter on Creativity, Innovation, and Invention discussed. In that discussion, we learned about creativity’s role in innovation . Here, we will look in more depth at creativity’s role in problem solving . Let’s first formally define creativity as the development of original ideas to solve an issue. The intent of being an entrepreneur is to break away from practical norms and use imagination to embrace quick and effective solutions to an existing problem, usually outside the corporate environment.

The Steps of the Creative Problem-Solving Process

Training oneself to think like an entrepreneur means learning the steps to evaluating a challenge: clarify, ideate, develop, implement, and evaluate ( Figure 6.9 ).

Evaluating a challenge involves 5 steps: clarify, ideate, develop, implement, and evaluate.

Step 1: Clarify

To clarify is the critical step of recognizing the existence of a gap between the current state and a desired state. This can also be thought of as having need awareness , which occurs when the entrepreneur notes a gap between societal or customer needs and actual circumstances. Clarifying the problem by speaking with clients and developing a detailed description of the problem brings the specifics of a problem to light. Failure to identify the specifics of a problem leaves the entrepreneur with the impossible task of solving a ghost problem, a problem that is fully unknown or unseen. To establish and maintain credibility, an entrepreneur must clarify the problem by focusing on solving the problem itself, rather than solving a symptom of the problem.

For example, a farm could have polluted water, but it would not be enough to solve the problem only on that farm. Clarifying would involve identifying the source of the pollution to adequately tackle the problem. After gaining an understanding of a problem, the entrepreneur should begin to formulate plans for eliminating the gap. A fishbone diagram , as shown in Figure 6.10 , is a tool that can be used to identify the causes of such a problem.

A fishbone diagram showing a quality problem along a horizontal line and various main causes of the problem shown as lines labeled a, b, c, and d extending from the main horizontal line. Other secondary lines extend from lines a, b, c, and d.

In the case of our water pollution example, a fishbone diagram exploring the issue might reveal the items shown in Figure 6.11 .

Fishbone diagram showing farm water pollution as the main horizontal line. Causes include livestock (with secondary causes of overgrazing, and manure and animal waste), pesticides and fertilizer (with secondary causes of irrigation carried to river streams and algal blooms that deplete oxygen and harm aquatic life), soil erosion (with secondary causes of inefficient farming practices, soil buildup in streams, and wind and water erosion), and other chemicals (with a secondary cause of industrial and agricultural waste).

Step 2: Ideate

To ideate is the step of the creative problem-solving process that involves generating and detailing ideas by the entrepreneur. After collecting all information relevant to the problem, the entrepreneur lists as many causes of the problem as possible. This is the step in which the largest variety of ideas are put forth. Each idea must be evaluated for feasibility and cost as a solution to the problem. If a farm does not have clean water, for example, the entrepreneur must list causes of toxic water and eliminate as many of those causes as possible. The entrepreneur must then move forward investigating solutions to bring the water back to a safe state. If, say, nearby livestock are polluting the water, the livestock should be isolated from the water source.

Step 3: Develop

To develop is the step in which the entrepreneur takes the list of ideas generated and tests each solution for feasibility. The entrepreneur must consider the cost of each idea and the obstacles to implementation. In the preceding example, adding a chemical to the water may not be a feasible solution to the farmer. Not every farmer wants additional chloride or fluoride added to the water due to the effect on both humans and livestock. These tradeoffs should be addressed in the feasibility assessment. The farmer might prefer a filtration system, but the cost of that solution might not be practicable. The entrepreneur should identify and assess alternative solutions to find one that is most cost-effective and feasible to the customer.

Step 4: Implement

To implement is the step in which the solution to the problem is tested and evaluated. The entrepreneur walks through the planned implementation with the client and tests each part of the solution, if a service, or thoroughly tests a developed good. The entrepreneur implements the solution and goes through a structured system of follow-up to ensure the solution remains effective and viable. In the water example, the solution would be reducing runoff from toxic insecticides by adding prairie strips, buffers of grass, and vegetation along banks of streams.

Step 5: Evaluate

To evaluate is the step in which the final solution is assessed. This is a very important step that entrepreneurs often overlook. Any fallacy in the implementation of the product or service is reassessed, and new solutions are implemented. A continual testing process may be needed to find the final solution. The prairie strips, buffers of grass, and vegetation along banks of streams chosen in the farming water example should then be analyzed and tested to ensure the chosen solution changed the content of the water.

Are You Ready?

Implementing creative problem solving.

Removing waste is a problem, and it can also present an entrepreneurial opportunity. Try to examine ways in which waste products that you usually pay to have hauled away can now generate revenue. Whether it’s recycling aluminum cans or cardboard, or garbage that could be used to feed animals, your task is to come up with solutions to this entrepreneurial-oriented problem.

Using Creativity to Solve Problems

Entrepreneurs are faced with solving many problems as they develop their ideas for filling gaps, whether those opportunities involve establishing a new company or starting a new enterprise within an existing company. Some of these problems include staffing, hiring and managing employees, handling legal compliance, funding, marketing, and paying taxes. Beyond the mundane activities listed, the entrepreneur, or the team that the entrepreneur puts in place, is indispensable in maintaining the ongoing creativity behind the product line or service offered. Innovation and creativity in the business are necessary to expand the product line or develop a groundbreaking service.

It is not necessary for the entrepreneur to feel isolated when it comes to finding creative solutions to a problem. There are societies, tools, and new methods available to spur the creativity of the entrepreneur that will further support the success and expansion of a new enterprise. 14 Learning and using entrepreneurial methods to solve problems alleviates the stress many startup owners feel. The entrepreneur’s creativity will increase using collaborative methodologies . Some entrepreneurial collaborative methodologies include crowdsourcing, brainstorming, storyboarding, conducting quick online surveys to test ideas and concepts, and team creativity activities.


Professor Daren Brabham at the University of Southern California has written books on crowdsourcing and touts its potential in for-profit and not-for-profit business sectors. He defines it simply as “an online, distributed problem-solving and production model.” 15 Crowdsourcing involves teams of amateurs and nonexperts working together to form a solution to a problem. 16 The idea, as cbsnews.com’s Jennifer Alsever has put it, is to “tap into the collective intelligence of the public at large to complete business-related tasks that a company would normally either perform itself or outsource to a third-party provider. Yet free labor is only a narrow part of crowdsourcing's appeal. More importantly, it enables managers to expand the size of their talent pool while also gaining deeper insight into what customers really want. The challenge is to take a cautionary approach to the ‘wisdom of the crowd,’ which can lead to a ‘herd’ mentality.” 17

Link to Learning

Read this article that discusses what crowdsourcing is, how to use it, and its benefits for more information.

This new business prototype, similar to outsourcing, features an enterprise posting a problem online and asking for volunteers to consider the problem and propose solutions. Volunteers earn a reward, such as prize money, promotional materials like a T-shirt, royalties on creative outlets like photos or designs, and in some cases, compensation for their labor. Before proposing the solution, volunteers learn that the solutions become the intellectual property of the startup posting the problem. The solution is then mass produced for profit by the startup that posted the problem. 18 The process evolves into the crowdsourcing process after the enterprise mass produces and profits from the labor of the volunteers and the team. Entrepreneurs should consider that untapped masses have solutions for many issues for which agendas do not yet exist. Crowdsourcing can exploit those agendas and add to the tools used to stimulate personal creativity. This type of innovation is planned and strategically implemented for profit.

For example, Bombardier held a crowdsourced innovation contest to solicit input on the future of train interiors, including seat design and coach class interior. A corporate jury judged the submissions, with the top ten receiving computers or cash prizes. Companies are often constrained, however, by internal rules limiting open source or external idea sourcing, as they could be accused of “stealing” an idea. While crowdsourcing outside of software can be problematic, some products such as MakerBot ’s 3D printers, 3DR’ s drones, and Jibo ’s Social Robot have used developer kits and “makers” to help build a community and stimulate innovation from the outside.

Work It Out

A crowdsourced potato chip.

In an effort to increase sales among millennials, PepsiCo turned to crowdsourcing to get new flavor ideas for their Lay’s potato chips (called Walker’s in the UK). Their 2012 campaign, “Do Us a Flavor,” was so successful that they received over 14 million submissions. The winner was Cheesy Garlic Bread, which increased their potato chip sales by 8 percent during the first three months after the launch.

Amazon ’s Mechanical Turk is an online crowdsourcing platform that allows individuals to post tasks for workers to complete. In many instances, these tasks are compensated, but the payment can be less than one dollar per item completed. Mechanical Turk is one of the largest and most well-known crowdsourcing platforms, but there are a number of other more niche ones as well that would apply to smaller markets. In the case of innovation contests and outsourced tasks from corporations, those tasks may be hosted internally by the corporation.


Brainstorming is the generation of ideas in an environment free of judgment or dissension with the goal of creating solutions. See Creativity, Innovation, and Invention to refresh yourself on this technique. Brainstorming is meant to stimulate participants into thinking about problem solving in a new way. Using a multifunctional group, meaning participants come from different departments and with different skill sets, gives entrepreneurs and support teams a genuine chance to suggest and actualize ideas. The group works together to refine and prototype potential solutions to a problem.

Brainstorming is a highly researched and often practiced technique for the development of innovative solutions. One of the more successful proponents of brainstorming is the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) . UNICEF faces unique problems of solving resource problems for mothers and children in underdeveloped nations. See how UNICEF practices brainstorming to solve problems including child survival, gender inclusion, refugee crises, education, and others.

The setting for a brainstorming session should remain as informal and relaxed as possible. The group needs to avoid standard solutions. All ideas are welcome and listed and considered with no censorship and with no regard to administrative restrictions. All team members have an equal voice. The focus of brainstorming is on quantity of ideas rather than on the ideal solution provided in every suggestion. A classic entrepreneurial brainstorming activity, as popularized by business software developer Strategyzer , is known as the “silly cow” exercise. Teams come up with ideas for new business models pertaining to a cow, with the results often outrageous, ranging from sponsored cows to stroking cows for therapeutic release. Participants are asked to identify some aspect of a cow and develop three business models around that concept in a short time period, typically two minutes or fewer. The activity is designed to get creative juices flowing.

Watch this video from ABC’s Nightline that shows how IDEO designed a new shopping cart for an example of a design process that involves brainstorming.


Storyboarding is the process of presenting an idea in a step-by-step graphic format, as Figure 6.12 shows. This tool is useful when the entrepreneur is attempting to visualize a solution to a problem. The steps to the solution of a problem are sketched and hung in graphic format. Once the original graphic is placed, images of steps working toward a solution are added, subtracted, and rearranged on a continual basis, until the ultimate solution emerges in the ultimate graphic format. For many years, entrepreneurs have used this process to create a pre-visual for various media sequences.

Photo of a storyboard, showing sample designs of smartphone screens taped to a whiteboard.

Team Creativity

Team creativity is the process whereby an entrepreneur works with a team to create an unexpected solution for an issue or challenge. Teams progress through the same creative problem-solving process described already: clarify, ideate, develop, implement, and evaluate. The main advantage of team creativity is the collaboration and support members receive from one another. Great teams trust in other team members, have diverse members with diverse points of view, are cohesive, and have chemistry.

Team members should work in a stress-free and relaxing environment. Reinforcement and expansion of ideas in the team environment motivates the team to continually expand horizons toward problem solution. A small idea in a team may spark the imagination of a team member to an original idea. Mark Zuckerberg , cofounder of Facebook , once said, “The most important thing for you as an entrepreneur trying to build something is, you need to build a really good team. And that’s what I spend all my time on.” 19

Entrepreneur In Action

Taaluma totes 20.

Young entrepreneurs Jack DuFour and Alley Heffern began to notice the beautiful fabrics that came from the different countries they visited. The entrepreneurs thought about what could be done with the fabrics to create employment opportunities both in the country from which the fabric originated and in their home base of Virginia. They decided to test producing totes from the fabrics they found and formed Taaluma Totes ( Figure 6.13 ). DuFour and Heffern also wanted to promote the production of these fabrics and help underserved populations in countries where the fabric originated maintain a living or follow a dream.

Photo of a person looking at many different fabric prints hanging on a wall.

The team continued to test the process and gathered original fabrics, which they sent to Virginia to create totes. They trained individuals with disabilities in Virginia to manufacture the totes, thus serving populations in the United States. The entrepreneurs then decided to take 20 percent of their profits and make microloans to farmers and small business owners in the countries where the fabric originated to create jobs there. Microloans are small loans, below $50,000, which certain lenders offer to enterprising startups. These startups, for various reasons (they are in poor nations, at poverty level), can’t afford a traditional loan from a major bank. The lenders offer business support to the borrower, which in turn helps the borrower repay the microloan. The microloans from Taaluma are repaid when the borrower is able. Repayments are used to buy more fabric, completing Taaluma’s desire to serve dual populations. If the process proved unsuccessful, the co-owners would revise the process to meet the plan’s requirements.

DuFour and Heffern now have fabrics from dozens of countries from Thailand to Ecuador. The totes are specialized with features to meet individual needs. The product line is innovated regularly and Taaluma Totes serves a dual purpose of employing persons with disabilities in Virginia and creating employment for underserved populations in other countries.

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Life and work in the beginning of the twenty-first century has been described as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In this fast changing, innovation-driven environment, Creative Problem-Solving has been identified as a fundamental skill for success. In contrast to routine problem-solving, with straightforward and repeatable solution paths, today’s problems are described as being complex and wicked. To generate the possibilities that can effectively address complex problems, individuals need to draw on the highest level of human thought – creativity. Creative Problem-Solving explicitly draws on, and promotes, effective creative thinking. The purpose of this entry is to describe and distinguish Creative Problem-Solving from other forms of problems-solving. Moreover, as Creative Problem-Solving is a deliberate creativity methodology, this chapter also provides a description of the more specific thinking skills that are embodied by the higher-order skill of creative thinking and are explicitly called on in Creative Problem-Solving. Complex problems require complex thinking, and Creative Problem-Solving provides a structured process that allows individuals to more easily and efficiently deploy their creative thinking skills.

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Creative Education Foundation

What is CPS?

Cps = c reative p roblem s olving, cps is a proven method for approaching a problem or a challenge in an imaginative and innovative way. it helps you redefine the problems and opportunities you face, come up with new, innovative responses and solutions, and then take action..

how does creative problem solving work

Why does CPS work?

CPS begins with two assumptions:

Osborn noted there are two distinct kinds of thinking that are essential to being creative:

Divergent thinking.

Brainstorming is often misunderstood as the entire Creative Problem Solving process.   Brainstorming is the divergent thinking phase of the CPS process.   It is not simply a group of people in a meeting coming up with ideas in a disorganized fashion. Brainstorming at its core is generating lots of ideas.  Divergence allows us to state and move beyond obvious ideas to breakthrough ideas. (Fun Fact: Alex Osborn, founder of CEF, coined the term “brainstorm.” Osborn was the “O” from the ad agency BBDO.)

Convergent Thinking

Convergent thinking applies criteria to brainstormed ideas so that those ideas can become actionable innovations.  Divergence provides the raw material that pushes beyond every day thinking, and convergence tools help us screen, select, evaluate, and refine ideas, while retaining novelty and newness.

To drive a car, you need both the gas and the brake.

But you cannot use the gas and brake pedals at the same time — you use them alternately to make the car go. Think of the gas pedal as Divergence , and the brake pedal as Convergence . Used together you move forward to a new destination.

Each of us use divergent and convergent thinking daily, intuitively. CPS is a deliberate process that allows you to harness your natural creative ability and apply it purposefully to problems, challenges, and opportunities.

how does creative problem solving work

The CPS Process

Based on the osborn-parnes process, the cps model uses plain language and recent research., the basic structure is comprised of four stages with a total of six explicit process steps. , each step uses divergent and convergent thinking..

how does creative problem solving work

Learner’s Model based on work of G.J. Puccio, M. Mance, M.C. Murdock, B. Miller, J. Vehar, R. Firestien, S. Thurber, & D. Nielsen (2011)

Explore the Vision.   Identify the goal, wish, or challenge.

Gather Data.   Describe and generate data to enable a clear understanding of the challenge.

Formulate Challenges. Sharpen awareness of the challenge and create challenge questions that invite solutions.

Explore Ideas. Generate ideas that answer the challenge questions.

Formulate Solutions. To move from ideas to solutions. Evaluate, strengthen, and select solutions for best “fit.”

Formulate a Plan.  Explore acceptance and identify resources and actions that will support implementation of the selected solution(s).

Explore Ideas. Generate ideas that answer the challenge question

Core Principles of Creative Problem Solving

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Turn your team into skilled problem solvers with these problem-solving strategies

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Picture this, you're handling your daily tasks at work and your boss calls you in and says, "We have a problem." 

Unfortunately, we don't live in a world in which problems are instantly resolved with the snap of our fingers. Knowing how to effectively solve problems is an important professional skill to hone. If you have a problem that needs to be solved, what is the right process to use to ensure you get the most effective solution?

In this article we'll break down the problem-solving process and how you can find the most effective solutions for complex problems.

What is problem solving? 

Problem solving is the process of finding a resolution for a specific issue or conflict. There are many possible solutions for solving a problem, which is why it's important to go through a problem-solving process to find the best solution. You could use a flathead screwdriver to unscrew a Phillips head screw, but there is a better tool for the situation. Utilizing common problem-solving techniques helps you find the best solution to fit the needs of the specific situation, much like using the right tools.

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4 steps to better problem solving

While it might be tempting to dive into a problem head first, take the time to move step by step. Here’s how you can effectively break down the problem-solving process with your team:

1. Identify the problem that needs to be solved

One of the easiest ways to identify a problem is to ask questions. A good place to start is to ask journalistic questions, like:

Who : Who is involved with this problem? Who caused the problem? Who is most affected by this issue?

What: What is happening? What is the extent of the issue? What does this problem prevent from moving forward?

Where: Where did this problem take place? Does this problem affect anything else in the immediate area? 

When: When did this problem happen? When does this problem take effect? Is this an urgent issue that needs to be solved within a certain timeframe?

Why: Why is it happening? Why does it impact workflows?

How: How did this problem occur? How is it affecting workflows and team members from being productive?

Asking journalistic questions can help you define a strong problem statement so you can highlight the current situation objectively, and create a plan around that situation.

Here’s an example of how a design team uses journalistic questions to identify their problem:

Overarching problem: Design requests are being missed

Who: Design team, digital marketing team, web development team

What: Design requests are forgotten, lost, or being created ad hoc.

Where: Email requests, design request spreadsheet

When: Missed requests on January 20th, January 31st, February 4th, February 6th

How : Email request was lost in inbox and the intake spreadsheet was not updated correctly. The digital marketing team had to delay launching ads for a few days while design requests were bottlenecked. Designers had to work extra hours to ensure all requests were completed.

In this example, there are many different aspects of this problem that can be solved. Using journalistic questions can help you identify different issues and who you should involve in the process.

2. Brainstorm multiple solutions

If at all possible, bring in a facilitator who doesn't have a major stake in the solution. Bringing an individual who has little-to-no stake in the matter can help keep your team on track and encourage good problem-solving skills.

Here are a few brainstorming techniques to encourage creative thinking:

Brainstorm alone before hand: Before you come together as a group, provide some context to your team on what exactly the issue is that you're brainstorming. This will give time for you and your teammates to have some ideas ready by the time you meet.

Say yes to everything (at first): When you first start brainstorming, don't say no to any ideas just yet—try to get as many ideas down as possible. Having as many ideas as possible ensures that you’ll get a variety of solutions. Save the trimming for the next step of the strategy. 

Talk to team members one-on-one: Some people may be less comfortable sharing their ideas in a group setting. Discuss the issue with team members individually and encourage them to share their opinions without restrictions—you might find some more detailed insights than originally anticipated.

Break out of your routine: If you're used to brainstorming in a conference room or over Zoom calls, do something a little different! Take your brainstorming meeting to a coffee shop or have your Zoom call while you're taking a walk. Getting out of your routine can force your brain out of its usual rut and increase critical thinking.

3. Define the solution

After you brainstorm with team members to get their unique perspectives on a scenario, it's time to look at the different strategies and decide which option is the best solution for the problem at hand. When defining the solution, consider these main two questions: What is the desired outcome of this solution and who stands to benefit from this solution? 

Set a deadline for when this decision needs to be made and update stakeholders accordingly. Sometimes there's too many people who need to make a decision. Use your best judgement based on the limitations provided to do great things fast.

4. Implement the solution

To implement your solution, start by working with the individuals who are as closest to the problem. This can help those most affected by the problem get unblocked. Then move farther out to those who are less affected, and so on and so forth. Some solutions are simple enough that you don’t need to work through multiple teams.

After you prioritize implementation with the right teams, assign out the ongoing work that needs to be completed by the rest of the team. This can prevent people from becoming overburdened during the implementation plan . Once your solution is in place, schedule check-ins to see how the solution is working and course-correct if necessary.

Implement common problem-solving strategies

There are a few ways to go about identifying problems (and solutions). Here are some strategies you can try, as well as common ways to apply them:

Trial and error

Trial and error problem solving doesn't usually require a whole team of people to solve. To use trial and error problem solving, identify the cause of the problem, and then rapidly test possible solutions to see if anything changes. 

This problem-solving method is often used in tech support teams through troubleshooting.

The 5 whys problem-solving method helps get to the root cause of an issue. You start by asking once, “Why did this issue happen?” After answering the first why, ask again, “Why did that happen?” You'll do this five times until you can attribute the problem to a root cause. 

This technique can help you dig in and find the human error that caused something to go wrong. More importantly, it also helps you and your team develop an actionable plan so that you can prevent the issue from happening again.

Here’s an example:

Problem: The email marketing campaign was accidentally sent to the wrong audience.

“Why did this happen?” Because the audience name was not updated in our email platform.

“Why were the audience names not changed?” Because the audience segment was not renamed after editing. 

“Why was the audience segment not renamed?” Because everybody has an individual way of creating an audience segment.

“Why does everybody have an individual way of creating an audience segment?” Because there is no standardized process for creating audience segments. 

“Why is there no standardized process for creating audience segments?” Because the team hasn't decided on a way to standardize the process as the team introduced new members. 

In this example, we can see a few areas that could be optimized to prevent this mistake from happening again. When working through these questions, make sure that everyone who was involved in the situation is present so that you can co-create next steps to avoid the same problem. 

A SWOT analysis

A SWOT analysis can help you highlight the strengths and weaknesses of a specific solution. SWOT stands for:

Strength: Why is this specific solution a good fit for this problem? 

Weaknesses: What are the weak points of this solution? Is there anything that you can do to strengthen those weaknesses?

Opportunities: What other benefits could arise from implementing this solution?

Threats: Is there anything about this decision that can detrimentally impact your team?

As you identify specific solutions, you can highlight the different strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of each solution. 

This particular problem-solving strategy is good to use when you're narrowing down the answers and need to compare and contrast the differences between different solutions. 

Even more successful problem solving

After you’ve worked through a tough problem, don't forget to celebrate how far you've come. Not only is this important for your team of problem solvers to see their work in action, but this can also help you become a more efficient, effective , and flexible team. The more problems you tackle together, the more you’ll achieve. 

Looking for a tool to help solve problems on your team? Track project implementation with a work management tool like Asana .

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What Is Creative Problem Solving and Why Is It Important?

how does creative problem solving work

Numerous studies, including ones from the US Department of Education , World Economic Forum , and Bloomberg indicate that tomorrow’s jobs will demand “creative problem solving skills.” But what exactly are creative problem solving skills? And are they being taught effectively to the next generation who will face competition for jobs from automation? To learn more about creative problem solving in the classroom, Adobe conducted a new study to understand how educators and policymakers think about creative problem solving skills, how critical these skills are to future jobs, and how they are currently being nurtured in schools today.

We asked educators and policymakers to talk to us about creative problem solving based upon the following definition: “Creative Problem Solving is the process of redefining problems and opportunities, coming up with new, innovative responses and solutions, and then taking action.” We wanted to know how skills like independent learning, learning through success or failure, and working with diverse teams are critical to a students’ ability to succeed in the future workforce.

What we discovered was extremely illuminating. Three quarters of the educators surveyed believe that students need to develop these skills to protect their futures, as the professions that require creative problem solving are less likely to be impacted by automation. However, it isn’t just job-protection where creative problem solving makes a difference. Almost 90 percent of respondents believe students who excel at creative problem solving will have higher-earning job opportunities in the future, and 85 percent agreed that these same skills are in high demand by today’s employers for senior-level and higher-paying careers.

how does creative problem solving work

Knowing that 90 percent of educators believe creative problem solving should be integrated across all curricula, and that policymakers are in vehement agreement, it’s reasonable to assume that schools are already providing opportunities for students to develop these skills. Alarmingly though, this critical skillset is not emphasized enough in schools today due to the barriers educators face – from tight budgets and lack of resources to outdated testing requirements. Coupled with the fact that more than half of educators explain that they do not have the training or knowledge to help students develop creative problem solving skills, the challenge that educators and students face is vast.

Adobe believes that we need to support educators who are teaching creative problem solving, get technology into the hands of schools and students, and inspire young people to create. While technology alone is not the answer, it plays a key role. That is why Adobe is working to update its licensing models, so students – including those under the age of 13, consistent with U.S children’s privacy regulations – can access Creative Cloud in the classroom and at home using just their school I.D. to log in. This will reap benefits for the users, as the educators surveyed who use Creative Cloud in the classroom report that their students are more prepared for the jobs of the future .

Adobe is also constantly developing new storytelling tools like Spark, so students can easily create high quality, visually compelling reports, research papers, posters, writing assignments, presentations and so much more. Lastly, Adobe recognizes that it is critical to challenge students and encourage them to create and to have a positive social impact. That is why we created Project 1324 , which works with emerging creatives and leading youth arts organizations around the world to showcase artists who create the art and change they want to see in their communities.

To read the full study findings, and to learn more about how Adobe is working to get much-needed technology into the hands of students and educators, support educators in teaching creative problem solving skills, and inspire students to create, please visit Creative Problem Solving .

Creative problem solving: basics, techniques, activities

Why is creative problem solving so important.

Problem-solving is a part of almost every person's daily life at home and in the workplace. Creative problem solving helps us understand our environment, identify the things we want or need to change, and find a solution to improve the environment's performance.

Creative problem solving is essential for individuals and organizations because it helps us control what's happening in our environment.

Humans have learned to observe the environment and identify risks that may lead to specific outcomes in the future. Anticipating is helpful not only for fixing broken things but also for influencing the performance of items.

Creative problem solving is not just about fixing broken things; it's about innovating and creating something new. Observing and analyzing the environment, we identify opportunities for new ideas that will improve our environment in the future.

The 7-step creative problem-solving process

The creative problem-solving process usually consists of seven steps.

1. Define the problem.

The very first step in the CPS process is understanding the problem itself. You may think that it's the most natural step, but sometimes what we consider a problem is not a problem. We are very often mistaken about the real issue and misunderstood them. You need to analyze the situation. Otherwise, the wrong question will bring your CPS process in the wrong direction. Take the time to understand the problem and clear up any doubts or confusion.

2. Research the problem.

Once you identify the problem, you need to gather all possible data to find the best workable solution. Use various data sources for research. Start with collecting data from search engines, but don't forget about traditional sources like libraries. You can also ask your friends or colleagues who can share additional thoughts on your issue. Asking questions on forums is a good option, too.

3. Make challenge questions.

After you've researched the problem and collected all the necessary details about it, formulate challenge questions. They should encourage you to generate ideas and be short and focused only on one issue. You may start your challenge questions with "How might I…?" or "In what way could I…?" Then try to answer them.

4. Generate ideas.

Now you are ready to brainstorm ideas. Here it is the stage where the creativity starts. You must note each idea you brainstorm, even if it seems crazy, not inefficient from your first point of view. You can fix your thoughts on a sheet of paper or use any up-to-date tools developed for these needs.

5. Test and review the ideas.

Then you need to evaluate your ideas and choose the one you believe is the perfect solution. Think whether the possible solutions are workable and implementing them will solve the problem. If the result doesn't fix the issue, test the next idea. Repeat your tests until the best solution is found.

6. Create an action plan.

Once you've found the perfect solution, you need to work out the implementation steps. Think about what you need to implement the solution and how it will take.

7. Implement the plan.

Now it's time to implement your solution and resolve the issue.

Top 5 Easy creative thinking techniques to use at work

1. brainstorming.

Brainstorming is one of the most glaring CPS techniques, and it's beneficial. You can practice it in a group or individually.

Define the problem you need to resolve and take notes of every idea you generate. Don't judge your thoughts, even if you think they are strange. After you create a list of ideas, let your colleagues vote for the best idea.

2. Drawing techniques

It's very convenient to visualize concepts and ideas by drawing techniques such as mind mapping or creating concept maps. They are used for organizing thoughts and building connections between ideas. These techniques have a lot in common, but still, they have some differences.

When starting a mind map, you need to put the key concept in the center and add new connections. You can discover as many joints as you can.

Concept maps represent the structure of knowledge stored in our minds about a particular topic. One of the key characteristics of a concept map is its hierarchical structure, which means placing specific concepts under more general ones.

3. SWOT Analysis

The SWOT technique is used during the strategic planning stage before the actual brainstorming of ideas. It helps you identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of your project, idea, or business. Once you analyze these characteristics, you are ready to generate possible solutions to your problem.

4. Random words

This technique is one of the simplest to use for generating ideas. It's often applied by people who need to create a new product, for example. You need to prepare a list of random words, expressions, or stories and put them on the desk or board or write them down on a large sheet of paper.

Once you have a list of random words, you should think of associations with them and analyze how they work with the problem. Since our brain is good at making connections, the associations will stimulate brainstorming of new ideas.

5. Storyboarding

This CPS method is popular because it tells a story visually. This technique is based on a step-creation process. Follow this instruction to see the storyboarding process in progress:

7 Ways to improve your creative problem-solving skills

1. play brain games.

It's considered that brain games are an excellent way to stimulate human brain function. They develop a lot of thinking skills that are crucial for creative problem-solving.

You can solve puzzles or play math games, for example. These activities will bring you many benefits, including strong logical, critical, and analytical thinking skills.

If you are keen on playing fun math games and solving complicated logic tasks, try LogicLike online.

We created 3500+ puzzles, mathematical games, and brain exercises. Our website and mobile app, developed for adults and kids, help to make pastime more productive just in one place.

2. Practice asking questions

Reasoning stimulates you to generate new ideas and solutions. To make the CPS process more accessible, ask questions about different things. By developing curiosity, you get more information that broadens your background. The more you know about a specific topic, the more solutions you will be able to generate. Make it your useful habit to ask questions. You can research on your own. Alternatively, you can ask someone who is an expert in the field. Anyway, this will help you improve your CPS skills.

3. Challenge yourself with new opportunities

After you've gained a certain level of creativity, you shouldn't stop developing your skills. Try something new, and don't be afraid of challenging yourself with more complicated methods and techniques. Don't use the same tools and solutions for similar problems. Learn from your experience and make another step to move to the next level.

4. Master your expertise

If you want to keep on generating creative ideas, you need to master your skills in the industry you are working in. The better you understand your industry vertical, the more comfortable you identify problems, find connections between them, and create actionable solutions.

Once you are satisfied with your professional life, you shouldn't stop learning new things and get additional knowledge in your field. It's vital if you want to be creative both in professional and daily life. Broaden your background to brainstorm more innovative solutions.

5. Develop persistence

If you understand why you go through this CPS challenge and why you need to come up with a resolution to your problem, you are more motivated to go through the obstacles you face. By doing this, you develop persistence that enables you to move forward toward a goal.

Practice persistence in daily routine or at work. For example, you can minimize the time you need to implement your action plan. Alternatively, some problems require a long-term period to accomplish a goal. That's why you need to follow the steps or try different solutions until you find what works for solving your problem. Don't forget about the reason why you need to find a solution to motivate yourself to be persistent.

6. Improve emotional intelligence

Empathy is a critical element of emotional intelligence. It means that you can view the issues from the perspective of other people. By practicing compassion, you can understand your colleagues that work on the project together with you. Understanding will help you implement the solutions that are beneficial for you and others.

7. Use a thinking strategy

You are mistaken if you think that creative thinking is an unstructured process. Any thinking process is a multi-step procedure, and creative thinking isn't an exclusion. Always follow a particular strategy framework while finding a solution. It will make your thinking activity more efficient and result-oriented.

Develop your logic and mathematical skills. 3500+ fun math problems and brain games with answers and explanations.

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March 19, 2020

The importance of creative problem-solving in the workplace

by University of Jyväskylä


Provided by University of Jyväskylä

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Creativity in problem solving to improve complex health outcomes: Insights from hospitals seeking to improve cardiovascular care

Amanda l. brewster.

1 Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley California, USA

Yuna S. H. Lee

2 Health Policy and Management, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, New York New York, USA

Erika L. Linnander

3 Global Health Leadership Initiative, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven Connecticut, USA

Leslie A. Curry

4 Health Policy and Management, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven Connecticut, USA

Associated Data


Improving performance often requires health care teams to employ creativity in problem solving, a key attribute of learning health systems. Despite increasing interest in the role of creativity in health care, empirical evidence documenting how this concept manifests in real‐world contexts remains limited.

We conducted a qualitative study to understand how creativity was fostered during problem solving in 10 hospitals that took part in a 2‐year collaborative to improve cardiovascular care outcomes. We analyzed interviews with 197 hospital team members involved in the collaborative, focusing on work processes or outcomes that participants self‐identified as creative or promoting creativity. We sought to identify recurrent patterns across instances of creativity in problem solving.

Participants reported examples of creativity at both stages typically identified in problem solving research and practice: uncovering non‐obvious problems and finding novel solutions. Creativity generally involved the assembly of an “ecological view” of the care process, which reflected a more complete understanding of relationships between individual care providers, organizational sub‐units, and their environment. Teams used three prominent behaviors to construct the ecological view: (a) collecting new and diverse information, (b) accepting (rather than dismissing) disruptive information, and (c) employing empathy to understand and share feelings of others.


We anticipate that findings will be useful to researchers and practitioners who wish to understand how creativity can be fostered in problem solving to improve clinical outcomes and foster learning health systems.


Improving performance often requires health care teams to employ creativity in problem solving, a key attribute of learning health systems. Creativity is defined the process of generating approaches that are both novel and useful. 1 , 2 Incorporating creativity into problem solving can help to address unique, site‐specific complexities that influence performance in health care, 3 , 4 and to enhance the positive impact of evidence‐based strategies adapted from outside the organization. 5 While some advances in health care can be applied generically across settings, researchers have documented the importance of innovation and adaptation by local implementation teams, 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 and customization to patients and context is a key part of patient‐centered, high‐quality care. 10 These observations from health care cohere with management research from other industries, which posits that when innovation depends on complex contextual information that is difficult to codify and transfer, innovation‐related problem solving needs to occur where that information is held, 11 and by the individuals who have agency to act on these solutions. 12 That is, key innovations must be made by staff located at each implementation site.

Despite the known importance of creativity in problem solving, relatively few studies detail how workers incorporate creativity into problem solving during the natural course of work—in health care or in other industries. 13 Prior research on creative problem solving in the workplace has been largely theoretical, 14 , 15 with some empirical research deriving from industries such as new product development 16 , 17 where novelty is an explicit goal of work. Such research also focuses on creative outcomes while neglecting processes that incorporate creativity as habit and routine, that is, as part of the organizational culture. 18 , 19 , 20 , 21 Detailed studies of front‐line problem solving in the automotive industry provide a useful framework for considering the dimensions of problem solving—including an important distinction between problem definition and generation of solutions 22 —but do not focus on creativity and innovation. More research is needed to better understand how creativity manifests during complex problem solving in health care. 18

Prominent learning and quality improvement models in health care assume that both problem definition and generation of solutions can be important sites of creativity. Models including Lean/Six‐Sigma, 23 the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) Model for Improvement, 24 the strategic problem‐solving process, 25 and user‐centered design 26 focus on uncovering nonobvious problems through an emphasis on root cause analysis and understanding user experience. More research is needed to understand the process by which creativity manifests when grappling with the complexity and customization that health care demands. 20

Even as more health care organizations seek to become learning organizations by implementing structured improvement interventions, 23 reports of such efforts highlight the fact that these improvement interventions do not always achieve intended results. Health care teams must overcome distinctive and substantial barriers to creativity, including strong hierarchies, aversion to risk, highly specialized professionals, and emphasis on standardization of care to promote reliability and quality. 27 , 28 There can be tension between creativity and health care performance improvement, as health care delivery often seeks to minimize variation, and the core of creativity is enhancing variation. 29 Yet, influencing performance in health care often requires moving beyond stability and the status quo, a process well served by incorporating creativity. 27 Accumulating grounded evidence on how creative problem solving manifests in a variety of health care contexts is important for advancing understanding of this phenomenon. 30


To describe in detail how creativity emerges as health care workers engage in problem solving, we sought to characterize the processes through which creativity emerged in problem solving within hospitals seeking to reduce mortality from acute myocardial infarction (AMI) as part of a 2‐year performance improvement collaborative called leadership saves lives (LSL). Mortality for AMI, now publicly reported and included in the value‐based purchasing bundle, 31 is influenced by components of care delivery that cross multiple boundaries within and outside of the hospital. 32 , 33 One important contributor to lower AMI mortality is clinicians' ability to resolve open‐ended problems through creative thinking. 34 Creative problem solving is especially relevant to AMI care teams working to reduce mortality because of the multifaceted nature of the problem, which spans multiple units and levels of hierarchy within the hospital, and extends past hospital boundaries to pre‐hospital and post discharge systems. Each care setting is unique in numerous important ways, making it essential for teams to develop novel solutions that work in their own contexts (ie, apply creativity).

The LSL collaborative involved 10 hospitals in which AMI care teams engaged in a curriculum designed to foster group learning and problem solving. While teams were encouraged to be creative in their problem solving, the limitations of prior evidence meant that the intervention could not be prescriptive about exactly how creativity was expected to be cultivated. As described elsewhere, 35 participating hospital teams reported increased capacity for learning and problem solving, and their hospitals experienced significant decreases in risk‐stratified mortality rate (RSMR) over the course of the study period, suggesting that these hospitals would be an ideal context for examining multiple instances of creative problem solving and distilling common patterns. We anticipate that findings will be useful to researchers and practitioners who wish to understand how creativity can be fostered in problem solving to improve clinical outcomes.

3.1. Study design and setting

We conducted a qualitative study to understand how creativity was fostered during problem solving in the 10 hospitals that took part in the LSL collaborative from 2014 to 2016. As previously described, 35 hospitals were selected for participation from the membership of the Mayo Clinic Care Network (MCCN), a national group of medical systems committed to quality improvement through collaboration. From the 21 MCCN members (as of January 2014), hospitals were identified as candidates if they met all three eligibility criteria: (a) at least 200 AMI discharges per year to ensure sufficient experience in caring for patients with AMI, (b) average or below average national performance on 30‐day RSMR between January 07, 2009 and June 30, 2012 as reported by Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Hospital Compare in Spring 2014, suggesting opportunity for improvement, and (c) the largest hospital in the system, for hospitals in multihospital systems. From the list of 18 hospitals that met eligibility criteria, random sampling with a purposeful component 36 as used to select hospitals that were diverse in geography and teaching status. The first 10 hospitals were approached to determine receptivity; two declined and were replaced with sites similar in geography and teaching status. Hospital characteristics are presented in Table  1 .

Hospital characteristics (n = 10 hospitals)

3.2. LSL intervention

The LSL intervention, previously described in detail, 37 was implemented from June 2014 to June 2016. LSL was designed to foster reductions in AMI mortality by supporting the implementation of evidence‐based strategies and fostering improvements in domains of organizational culture related to hospital performance. Each hospital established a guiding coalition of approximately 15 staff involved in care of patients with AMI, representing multiple departments, and including senior executives as well as front‐line staff. Guiding coalition members participated in four, 1‐day workshops in which they were coached through a strategic problem‐solving methodology 25 to define a shared problem (ie, RSMR is too high) and objective (ie, reduce RSMR), and then use root cause analysis to generate, implement, and evaluate strategies designed to achieve the defined objective. Erika Linnander led intervention workshops at multiple LSL hospitals, and Erika Linnander and Leslie Curry engaged with guiding coalitions in three annual workshops that convened representatives of all 10 hospitals participating in LSL. LSL coalitions were encouraged to develop strategies that fit their unique contexts, through both tailoring existing evidence‐based practices and introducing completely novel approaches. The evidence‐based practices include monthly meetings with emergency medical services personnel to review AMI cases, identification of both physician and nurse champions for AMI care, nurses dedicated to the catheterization lab (not cross‐staffing from other units), pharmacist rounding on all inpatients with AMI, and creative problem solving. As noted earlier, the intervention did not prescribe specific approaches to cultivate creativity. Guiding coalitions were also encouraged to foster improvements in hospital culture related to AMI performance, focusing on domains of: learning environment, 38 psychological safety, 39 senior management support, 40 commitment to the organization, 41 and time for improvement efforts. 39

3.3. Data collection

We collected qualitative data about the use of creativity in problem solving in LSL hospitals using in‐depth, in‐person interviews 36 at the start of the LSL intervention, and at 6 months and 18 months into the 2‐year intervention. A team of interviewers who included individuals with backgrounds in qualitative research, health care management, and clinical care conducted interviews with staff involved in the guiding coalition as well as other clinicians and hospital executives, using a standardized interview guide ( Data S1 ). The interview guide asked about implementation of creative problem‐solving strategies as part of a broader set of interview questions examining the hospital's experience with LSL. Amanda Brewster and Leslie Curry were members of the team that conducted interviews. Interview participants were aware of the LSL intervention and aware that research was being conducted to understand the process of implementing the LSL intervention as well as its impact. Interviews took place at the hospitals where participants worked, generally in a quiet room. A total of 197 individuals participated in one or more interviews, with 162 interviews at baseline, 118 at 6 months, and 113 at 18 months into the intervention, for a total of 393 interviews (Table  2 ). The number of individual interviewees per hospital ranged from 15 to 26. Interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes and were audiotaped and professionally transcribed. The research procedures were reviewed and determined to be exempt by the Yale University Institutional Research Board.

Interview participant characteristics

3.4. Data analysis

Interview transcripts were analyzed by a 6‐member multidisciplinary team using the constant comparative method of analysis. 42 The current analysis of creative problem solving focused on content in which participants discussed work processes that they self‐identified as creative or promoting creativity, that is, ideas that were both novel and useful. Participants did not have to use the terms “creative” or “creativity” explicitly. Content could be coded as referring to creative problem solving if participants were providing examples in response to the structured interview questions on creative problem solving strategies, or if participants discussed processes for generating novel and useful ideas in response to other interview questions. We considered that participants would be best positioned to assess whether something was creative in the context of their environments, and therefore relied on participants' own judgements regarding novel and useful elements of the phenomenon. Each transcript was coded independently by at least three analysts, with discrepancies reconciled through negotiated consensus. A hybrid coding approach 43 in which we began with a small number of a priori codes based on key LSL program elements and added new codes as additional themes emerged during coding. Iterative coding and analysis occurred across each wave of data collection, with refinement and review by the full team of six analysts, until a final code structure was established and reapplied to the full dataset. We used Atlas.ti to facilitate coding and organization of data. The analysis team included members with diverse perspectives, representing expertise in health services research, management, organizational theory, social work, nursing, medicine, and anthropology. We sought to generate recurrent themes that characterize essential aspects of creative problem solving in hospital contexts, examining instances in which creativity emerged in uncovering nonobvious problems or finding novel solutions.

Across hospitals, participant descriptions of creativity in problem solving generally entailed the use of three prominent behaviors: (a) collecting new and diverse information, (b) accepting (rather than dismissing) disruptive information, and (c) employing empathy (ie, to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position). Each of the three behaviors appeared at times sufficient to advance creative problem solving by fostering a broad, inclusive new view of AMI care, which we term an “ecological view” (Figure  1 ). The following sections detail the three behaviors, followed by the emergent concept of an ecological view of AMI care.

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Concepts identified as important to creative problem solving. Working from the right‐hand side of the figure, creativity in problem solving was promoted by the assembly of a new, ecological view of AMI care. At least one of three behaviors was typically used by LSL coalitions to foster this ecological view

4.1. Collecting new and diverse information

Collecting new and diverse information was a behavior that routinely contributed to creativity in problem solving for LSL coalitions. Sometimes the new information came from assembling new data or analyzing data in new ways; for example, conducting new analyses of mortality data helped LSL coalitions at several hospitals to expand their conception of their AMI mortality challenges to include non‐STEMI patients (patients with non‐ST segment elevation myocardial infarction). This was a significant shift, as most prior quality improvement efforts had focused exclusively on STEMI patients. As an example, a cardiologist on one hospital's team undertook a close and systematic review of AMI deaths, as part of a root cause analysis recommended in the LSL intervention, and noticed that non‐STEMI care seemed to offer greater opportunities for improvement, explaining:

With STEMI's there was never any waiting… but in non‐STEMIs [there were] delays… STEMI's, they all die after you've revascularized them. You've done everything you could… But the non‐STEMI's are coming in. Somebody thought they were stable, and then they deteriorate which makes you think you've got really more of an opportunity with them. (Hospital J, Physician).

In other cases, new and diverse information came from the LSL coalitions engaging personnel who had not previously been involved in problem solving related to AMI mortality. For example, an emergency medicine physician in one hospital described how input from personnel outside the LSL coalition informed plans for introducing a dedicated cardiology physician assistant (PA) role that would remain on site at all times. After the hospital's LSL coalition coalesced around the idea to add this role, the coalition sought out opinions from different stakeholders elsewhere in the organization, who brought to light a wide range of issues that would need to be worked out in order to successfully implement this solution. A physician on the LSL coalition described:

Then [a senior administrator] presented the other stuff, that I never thought of. Who technically has ownership of that PA?… How does the funding for that position come from everyone, if the revenue goes through one of our different cardiology groups?… I never thought of that. I said, “Give me a body, and have them there 24/7.”…Then the cardiologists say, “Well, it's great. What we do with the PAs when they're not in the cath lab?… That creative problem solving comes from listening to everyone's different opinions, and having the ability to separate me from the project. Taking out my own biases. (Hospital B, Emergency Medicine Physician).

Synthesizing diverse views allowed the team to gain a more accurate understanding of implementation challenges, enhancing the practical utility and likely impact of their ideas.

4.2. Accepting (rather than dismissing) disruptive information

Leveraging new and diverse information sources for creative problem solving typically required a second, distinct behavior: accepting (rather than dismissing) disruptive or unwelcome information. In describing instances where new information contributed to the development of novel and useful solutions, participants routinely described processes to overcome resistance to new information. For example, after the LSL coalition at Hospital J shifted to thinking about non‐STEMI care as a potential problem to address, team members identified another problem: high‐risk non‐STEMIs were difficult to identify. After getting input from other physicians and nurses and reviewing non‐STEMI risk guidelines from the American College of Cardiology, the LSL coalition recommended two major changes to improve care for patients with non‐STEMI AMI: a new protocol to equip nurses to initiate care for inpatients with evolving AMIs, and a new set of algorithms and procedures for attending cardiologists to more consistently review at‐risk cases. These new procedures met with initial resistance from other cardiologists within the hospital, but the opponents “knew that they couldn't just blow it off completely,” according to an LSL coalition member, because the LSL coalition had carefully documented a previously unrecognized pattern of non‐STEMI deaths pointing to the need for change. The LSL coalition helped to engineer this acceptance of information that diverged from prior beliefs by employing data, methodology, and a respected cardiologist as the messenger that would be compelling to the cardiologists.

In other situations, accepting disruptive information involved elevating the weight given to input from frontline personnel lower in the organizational hierarchy. The LSL guiding coalitions included perspectives not traditionally included in hospital process improvement discussions, such as EMS representatives external to the hospital. The perception that these representatives occupied positions that were more peripheral to the hospital and lower in the organizational hierarchy could have set up their perspectives to be dismissed. This risk was exemplified by the concerns of a paramedic on one LSL coalition, who reported initially feeling skeptical about the value he could add to a group that included high status individuals such as cardiovascular surgeons and department heads, who were seen as intimidating. (“I'm like, what's pre‐hospital's role? I mean this is a big, huge hospital system.”) Over time though, this paramedic saw that his perspective was actively accepted, and he was empowered to share his opinions with the group. Intentional emphasis on the importance of EMS by the LSL intervention facilitator aided this effort:

One of the first things [the team facilitator] brought up was the statistics on pre‐hospital, how much they're involved… Then I have [a physician] sitting right next to me, who looks at me and says, “What do you think about it? What can we do to improve the pre‐hospital side of things?” To me that brought me right into the team. (Hospital A, Paramedic).

Although hospital leaders were generally aware of the need to improve pre‐hospital processes, listening to and valuing the input from the EMS representative was key for the LSL coalition at Hospital A to understand the specific problems occurring at the interface of pre‐hospital and hospital care, a situation seen at other LSL hospitals as well. Once the problems had been identified, solutions could be introduced. In the case of Hospital A, the solution was for the hospital to hire an EMS liaison with experience as a paramedic to manage communication between pre‐hospital, emergency department, and other staff from the hospital who need to be activated to care for AMI patients. This solution was so widely recognized as effective in facilitating coordination across these systems that the hospital leadership agreed to fund a second liaison position.

Experience at another hospital illustrated how the hospital's senior management played an important role in getting team members to take new information seriously and thereby spurred creativity in problem solving. As part of the LSL project, this hospital started documenting the wait times for EKG results. These new data showed that slow EKG results routinely delayed AMI care. The EKG wait time measure represented new and disruptive information for the hospital, because EKG wait time had not previously been tracked or understood to delay AMI care. Senior managers within the hospital held firm on the need to substantially reduce EKG wait times, even after multiple barriers to solving this problem were identified: from limitations on which staff could perform EKGs, to transmission of results being slowed by wireless connectivity drops in different parts of the floor, to EKG results being printed in an area where they weren't immediately noticed. The stance of leaders, who were encouraging but very firm about the need to improve on the EKG wait time measure, forced ED teams to develop creative solutions rather than accept the inevitability of delays. The introduction of new, disruptive information about EKG wait times, coupled with active endorsement by multiple managers, represented a departure from previous quality improvement efforts in which teams were seen to resign themselves to the status quo. One manger explained:

[In earlier improvement efforts] I would hear an answer from one team that says, “No. This can't be done.” [Now] I think we have leaders who… are very good at saying, “Why not?” Then when we start looking at “why not,” we often find that, oh yeah, maybe it's possible… If [the leader] says I'm satisfied with, “This can't be done,” then you're not going to have much creative thinking. (Hospital I, Manager).

Taking the data on EKG wait times as a serious indicator of problems led to a variety of creative solutions being implemented in the ED over the course of the LSL project, including training new categories of staff members to perform EKGs, putting existing communication technologies to new uses, establishing a new space where EKGs could be performed when the ED was full, and printing EKGs in a new location, near the physicians who needed to interpret them. The changes were effective: the proportion of at‐risk patients receiving EKGs within the target time of 10 minutes rose from under 30% to 80%.

4.3. Employing empathy

Employing empathy—having problem‐solving staff consciously shift their mindsets to empathize with the experiences of colleagues or patients—was the third behavior regularly observed to foster creative problem solving for LSL coalitions. An example of empathizing with colleagues at referring facilities was reported by participants from Hospital F, which served as a referral center for AMI patients across a large region. As part of the LSL initiative, a nurse from the LSL coalition visited facilities that frequently transferred AMI patients to the hospital and followed the transfer process alongside providers at one referring facilities, which allowed her to experience the frustration of transfers from the referring facility's perspective (ie, empathize). She described the experience as follows:

I got myself involved in [a patient transfer] with their emergency physician, trying to help coordinate the transfer of that patient [from the outlying facility to our hospital]. It was amazing how complicated our system had made it to get a patient transferred. I was able to be that advocate and see it from that view and then experience that frustration from that provider standpoint. (Hospital F, Nurse).

Seeing transfers from the perspective of referring facilities revealed several flaws in the process, which were delaying patient care and led to the development of new approaches to streamline communication with referring facilities.

Another example of empathizing with colleagues was seen at Hospital D, where the director of cardiac services discussed the importance of understanding, in detail, the perspective of EKG technicians in order to address problems with EKG processes. He encouraged his team to go observe the EKG techs at work, to understand “steps to their job” and consider how to help them:

The first part is, don't be afraid to call and say, “I have a problem.” The second part is…go back, and [ask] what does the EKG tech do? They didn't know….[I said] maybe you ought to go with them for a while. You gotta go figure out…what are the steps to their job, and how can we make it more efficient, help them in quality? We learned together. We problem solve together. (Hospital D, Physician).

An example of empathizing with patients motivating creative problem solving was reported by a nurse coordinator explaining what happened when the LSL coalition reviewed the hospital's discharge education materials for patients with AMI. It was clear that the materials were inadequate to help patients effectively discharge (“It was horrid. I can't even believe that's what we were giving patients”). The team knew that improved materials were needed, but felt overwhelmed by the range of options. Ultimately, they took an approach of trying to put themselves in the patient's shoes, which led to the development of a patient education resource that was regarded as the best patient education tool in the hospital:

We just had to sit down and really problem solve and be the patient in the matter. What is going to make a difference? What's going to grab my attention as a patient to better adhere to my discharge instructions and understand them? All the praise goes to [three team members] because they put together the best patient education tools that we have in the hospital. (Hospital F, Nurse).

4.4. Ecological view

While we observed three distinctive behaviors fostering creative problem solving, as described in the sections above, the behaviors tended to accomplish the same thing: the assembly of a broad, inclusive new view of AMI care, which we term an “ecological view.” This ecological view, fostered by teams collecting new and diverse information, accepting (rather than dismissing) disruptive information, and employing empathy, routinely contributed to LSL coalitions creatively uncovering nonobvious problems and finding novel solutions. Figure  1 outlines our concept of how creativity in problem solving was driven by development of an ecological view of the care process.

We adopt the biological metaphor of ecology, which is often used in the study of organizations (Freeman 2006), 44 to connote the development of a shared understanding of AMI care that reflected the relationships among a wide range of different individual care providers, organizational sub‐units, and their environment. Organization scholars commonly analyze populations of organizations in an ecological context. We use the term “ecological view” to describe the emergence of self‐awareness inside the organization of this ecological context, as some of these providers and relationships were previously unknown, or known to only some but not all team members. The ecological view, in turn, infused the problem‐solving process with creativity—allowing team members to see the contours of problems that not previously been identified and to develop novel solutions.


In instances where creativity emerged during the problem‐solving process within LSL hospitals, a characteristic process was observed in which team members generated an ecological view of the AMI care process, reflecting a more complete understanding of relationships between care providers, organizational sub‐units, and their environment. The ecological view of AMI care sparked teams to define previously unrecognized problems, and to develop novel, tailored solutions. The experiences of the LSL hospitals indicated that identifying nonobvious problems represented an important site of creativity in the problem‐solving process. While our results stem from an initiative to improve AMI mortality, they could apply to initiatives to improve outcomes for other complex conditions involving care that spans disciplines, departments, and organizations, such as stroke, heart failure, and diabetes.

The emergence of the ecological view that supported creativity in problem solving was regularly fostered by at least three different behaviors: collecting new information, accepting disruptive information, and employing empathy. Although the role of the ecological view in creative problem solving was not theorized during the development or delivery of the LSL intervention, several of the LSL intervention components explicitly encouraged behaviors that we observed to promote an ecological view, and could be helpful for other hospitals seeking to promote creativity in problem solving. Specifically, the LSL intervention team facilitated the development of guiding coalitions with diverse membership, advised hospital teams to conduct root cause analyses, which fed the collection of new information, and coached on group processes to promote psychological safety to foster the process of surfacing disruptive information from individuals whose perspectives might not be known. Efforts to encourage empathy were not an intentional component of the LSL intervention although raising awareness of psychological safety could have heightened participants' focus on the feelings of others. Empathy—the exercise of intentionally placing oneself in a new perspective—emerged as an especially powerful tactic to leverage exposure to new information. This is consistent with prior research on problem solving in manufacturing, which identifies advantages of observing, first‐hand, a mechanical part in the situation where it is malfunctioning, as a way of getting richer information. 22 In the context of our study, the immersive quality of exercises in empathy may have provided richer information, and also emotional cues, which enhanced LSL coalition members' motivation to act on novel ideas that would have dissipated in the face of less compelling experiences. Intrinsic motivation has been theorized as an important contributor to individual creativity. 1

The behaviors we identified promoting an ecological view are not new to the quality improvement literature—other commonly used quality improvement models such as Lean and Six Sigma emphasize collection of new data and inclusion of diverse perspectives in understanding variability, waste, and poor performance. 45 , 46 Empathy for end‐users features as a component of the design‐thinking process, which is being used by some health care organizations for quality improvement. 26 Our results, however, provide real‐world examples of how these concepts foster creative problem solving in the context of a quality improvement intervention that targeted an outcome measure influenced by complex processes. While we reported the three behaviors that featured most prominently in participants' descriptions of examples where an ecological view emerged to promote creativity in problem solving during the LSL intervention, it is possible that other behaviors and supporting structures may promote the emergence of an ecological view in different settings. Notably, in the hospitals we studied, these three behaviors depended on support from a critical mass of team members in diverse clinical and managerial roles as well as hospital senior leadership. It is hard to say whether individual clinicians or staff members could enhance their own creative problem‐solving capabilities by applying these behaviors in isolation.

Our results should be interpreted in light of several study limitations. First, with 10 hospitals, our sample was relatively small, although hospitals were selected to be diverse in terms of geography, size, and teaching status, and each hospital tackled several dimensions of AMI care, thus accumulating a larger number of examples of problem solving. Further, the robust, longitudinal qualitative design allowed for deep characterization of the improvement process in each hospital. Second, hospitals in the study were exposed to a leadership development curriculum that encouraged a structured approach to problem solving; the process of creativity in problem solving may proceed differently in hospitals that had not been supported in this way. Third, we were not able to collect data on whether particular interventions introduced by the LSL hospitals were effective, or sustained over time beyond the study period, which prevents us from concluding whether solution quality was improved by creative problem solving in this study. We do know that LSL hospitals reduced AMI RSMR more quickly than the national average over the same time period, 35 suggesting that LSL hospitals did make changes that improved RSMR during the study period.

Our results provide a refined depiction of the creative problem‐solving process based on empirical observations across multiple hospitals. These findings suggest that health systems seeking to promote creative problem solving could encourage the three behaviors we have documented to advance an ecological view of care processes. As exploratory research, these findings point toward several opportunities for further study. First, it would be useful to examine the creative problem‐solving process in a different set of hospitals, working to improve a different outcome, to confirm the generalizability of our findings. A next step could include quantitatively testing the hypothesis that forming an ecological view is indeed constitutive of the creative problem‐solving process, and improves solution quality. Doing this could involve developing a survey‐based measure of the extent to which quality improvement teams have developed an ecological view of their target process, and evaluating the creativity and effectiveness of their solutions.


Creativity is crucial to performance improvement in health care, and evidence from other industries has linked individual traits such as motivation and values, as well as organizational traits such as leadership style, team climate, and decentralized structure to creative performance. 14 , 18 , 47 Seeking to illuminate the process by which creative problem solving occurs in health care, we observed a characteristic process that occurred across different hospitals, in which distinctive patterns of acquiring and processing new information contributed to creativity. These distinctive behaviors can be fostered by health care leaders seeking to improve performance on consequential clinical outcomes, including AMI mortality.


The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Supporting information

Data S1. Qualitative interview guide


Funding for the Leadership Saves Lives (LSL) collaborative and its evaluation was provided through a research grant to Yale University from The Medicines Company, Parsippany, New Jersey. The authors thank the hospitals and guiding coalition members that participated in LSL for their time and dedication.

Brewster AL, Lee YSH, Linnander EL, Curry LA. Creativity in problem solving to improve complex health outcomes: Insights from hospitals seeking to improve cardiovascular care . Learn Health Sys . 2022; 6 ( 2 ):e10283. 10.1002/lrh2.10283 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]

Funding information Medicines Company


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