A Creative Process: 7 steps to solving any of life’s problems
January is International Creativity Month, a perfect time to reflect on how to be more creative in our lives, to learn to recognize and act on opportunities for creative thinking, and to find (or thank) the muse that provides the inspiration for creating more great work. According to Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), in her very moving TED talk, “The big mystery is that creativity does not always behave rationally. […] This is one of the most painful reconciliations we have to make in a creative life. But maybe it doesn’t have to be so full of anguish. If you never have to believe in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. … it starts to change everything.”
Creativity, or more specifically, the creative process, happens to be a passion of mine and has been ever since the year I first entered the workforce as an engineer, nearly 15 years ago, and was given an opportunity to lead my first design project. I was thrilled at the opportunity, but at the same time, I was terrified because even though I had successfully completed a degree in electrical engineering, I didn’t feel quite qualified to lead a “real-world” design project from beginning to end. So began my quest to learn about the the creative problem-solving process.
In any case, as one who doesn’t ever like to admit that I don’t know what I’m doing, I set to work on my personal study of the creative process and have been learning about it ever since. During the years that followed, I’ve uncovered many very useful tools and suggestions that I use on a daily basis to solve problems, come up with ideas, make connections, etc. My research on the topic of creativity is the main reason I often proclaim that “The best engineers are creative engineers.” when speaking or writing for STEM educators. I truly believe that without the tools necessary to add creativity to our work, we all become simple cogs in the system, keeping the status quo moving. Innovation comes from the new ideas, the new processes, and all of this is made possible by the Creative Process.
In this post, I’d like to share my reflection on the very first book I ever read on the Creative Process, “The Universal Traveler: a Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem Solving, & the Process of Reaching Goals”. In my opinion this should be the guidebook for anybody looking for a way to think creatively. For a long time, it was my crutch as I muddled through my first ever ‘cradle-to-grave’ design project (and I have the highlighted, dog-eared paperback to prove it. ) I’ve delivered many a presentation with only the knowledge I gained from the book and the application to my life as a professional engineer.
- Step 1 – Acceptance: When it comes to work and life, I have several quotes I use almost as mantras and one of my more common ones goes something like this “The first step in solving a problem is identifying there is a problem.” Or a more recent humorous derivative: “The first step in solving the problem is admitting you are PART of the problem…” The key here is acceptance, defined by the authors as “self-motivation”. This is basically committing to devote time and resources to completing the 7 stages of the process to solve the given situation. It is important to note, however, that the mantra I use really only covers part of this process. I’m sure we all know that person who is identifying problems to no end: aka ‘The Complainer’ who sees more problems than can be solved, or better yet, ‘The Critic’ who can point out the flaws in any situation. Problems abound in their world. Do not confuse these characters with a true Creative. Because in order to actually complete the 7 stages of the creative process, it is necessary to not only identify the problem, but to also commit to solving it. A Creative does not identify problems for others to solve, but rather hunts for problems that only he or she can and will attempt to find a resolution. This is so critical to the process and the ability to look at a problem and determine if it is something that should be and can be solved is the mark of a Creative.
- Step 2 – Analysis: Once a problem has been identified as something that needs attention, the next step is to spend some time researching and analyzing the problem to better understand the context and components involved. This is also known as the “legwork” and is the process of taking a big picture look at the situation to see where there may be possible interrelationships with other subjects, to identify a list of attributes of the problem, and to follow the path of a similar problem. The traditional method of analyzing a problem involves ‘looking it up’ (or the contemporary method, ‘googling it’) but a true Creative does not rely on one source or even one category of information. Lateral thinking,( taking the wide view of a topic), morphological analysis (dividing wholes into parts), and making models of the problem (to examine a different point of view) are all creative ways to go about the analysis stage in the process. A commonly used method in engineering, TRIZ, was developed by Genrikh Altshuller, and is defined as the “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving”. The process identifies 40 different ways to analyze a problem, which when utilized properly, is thought to be able to solve any problem.
- Step 3 – Definition: Didn’t we already define the problem in step 1? Well, no, not exactly… In Step 1, all we did was determine there was a problem, and we committed to taking steps to attempt to solve it. But during Step 1, we didn’t have enough information to actually ‘define the problem’. In this stage, we set the expectations, for ourselves and anyone invested in the solution to the problem. We have gathered lots of information during the analysis stage, now we need to extract meaning and awareness out of what we have gathered. In this stage, we are ‘getting our bearings’, clarifying our objectives and establishing the criteria for a good ending and a successful solution. The challenge is not so much in finding definition as much as it is selecting the single meaning that feels good enough to live with for the rest of the problem solving journey. During this step, I often find myself flipping between several creative thinking methods such as prioritization (listing, categorizing, and prioritizing all relevant pieces of data) , essence finding (boiling down the many parts of a thin to capture its true underlying essence), and synectics (developing insight from the outside looking in).
- Step 4 – Ideation: Although often confused with creative process, the ideation stage is not in itself a problem-solving process. Ideas are ways; to go places and to do things. Ideas are options, ultimately to solve a problem. But to begin the ideation stage before adequately ‘defining the problem’ (step 3), is a bit like buying a plane ticket without a destination. Before we can develop a list of possible ideas we must be sure we have completed the definition stage. Then and only then can we start the fun part – ‘Brainstorming’! If you’ve ever participated in a good team brainstorming session, then you know how exciting it is to feed off the creative energy of a group. The reality is, however, that brainstorming is only one way to generate ideas, albeit the most well-known. Other strategies include using manipulative verbs or the SCAMPER method, analogical thinking through forced connections, and mind-mapping, all methods that can be used individually or with a group. (the video below is a great tutorial on mind-mapping, which is extremely helpful when teaching yourself how get your ideas out of your head and onto the page. )
- Step 5 – Idea-Selection: So, if ideation were the fun part of creativity, then idea-selection is the worst! At least it always has been for me. And I would venture to guess that this is true for most creatives, because in order to select an idea to try, you have to leave the rest behind. Not an easy task if you think the list is any good. Nevertheless, a prolific Creative knows that in order to solve a problem, something needs to be chosen for trial. An experienced engineer will jump right in because he or she knows that ‘the first trial
neverhardly ever works!’ (Sidenote: I used to deliver this piece of wisdom to elementary students before I unleash them on an engineering challenge, because I’ve witnessed many a very dissappointed kindergartener who was sure his or her idea was going to work. That was until I visited a class of 5th and 6th graders in this past year and observed a quiet, but brilliant pair of students attack the challenge using exactly this process. While the rest of the children haggled about whose idea was best, these two very respectfully listened to the constraints, followed the instructions, and solved the problem in their first try, forcing me to re-evaluate my use of the word ‘never’.) Strategies for selecting the best idea? Well, that really is a personal decision, but for me decision trees, criteria-based ranking, and negative selection are my go-to methods for selection. But, truth be told, there is no right way to do this. At the end of the day, I’ve relied as much on my intuition as on any other method. (In my opinion, the strategies above are often more useful in justifying your selection when presenting or communicating an ultimate solution)
- Step 6 – Implementation: Now that you’ve picked a path to success, it is time to take action on your plan and ultimately begin the journey that will take you to your destination (a solution to the problem). Theoretically, if you’ve followed the preceding 5 steps systematically, you will at least see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, it is not always a smooth journey. And often this stage is the true test of how well you’ve accomplished Stage 1 (acceptance / committing to solving the problem). In my work as an engineer, implementation is followed by several iterations of evaluating the solution against the criteria for success and then repeating Steps 3-6, until the solution is reached. But in the context of an creative solution to a subjective problem, this stage could be as simple as communicating the idea to the stakeholders of the problem. This could take the form of a formal presentation, a report, graphs, charts, diagrams, models and many more forms of artistic representation. The key here is to be sure the product truly represents a solution and that the audience has enough information to understand it.
- Step 7 – Evaluation: How often do we complete a project or solve a problem only to never think about it again? Too often, in my opinion. The evaluation step is critical to the development of your creative skills, whether you are an engineer, an artist, a business person, a teacher, or a parent. How else will we know if we are meeting our goals, improving our world, or teaching our students? At the very least we should take the time to reflect on the process we took to reach our solution -did we skip any steps? what was difficult? what felt comfortable? – so that when (not if) we are faced with our next challenge we can be confident that we have the skills to solve it. Truly, this is how we develop our creative muscle, and how you can have a Creative Life!
As Ms. Gilbert says, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job! Contine to show up for your piece of it, whatever that may be. […] If the divine cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, then, ‘Ole!’ to you. But if not, then do your dance anyhow, and ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless. Just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.” Yes, that is the secret to a creative life!