#38 from R&D
Innovator Volume 2, Number 5
Creative Problem Solving
Kim, currently visiting at the University of Virginia, has served
on the faculty of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and as
director of the Knowledge Systems Program at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. In
1989, he received the National Science Foundation's Presidential
Young Investigator Award. He
is author of Essence of
Creativity: A Guide to Tackling Difficult Problems, Oxford
University Press, 1990.
For a researcher,
creative thinking is essential.
Fortunately, we can take deliberate steps to enhance
creative problem solving. In
the preparatory phase of a difficult task, we must carefully
consider the underlying problem and have a clear understanding of
Too often we
tackle tasks without an adequate definition of the true problem,
and discover too late that we have solved a trivial problem.
This article takes a very general view of a problem as any
goal-oriented task requiring decisions for its fulfillment.
Once the problem
is properly defined, I find it’s useful to partition the
"idea-enhancement" practices into three phases:
input, processing, and output.
requires quality input, or information. You must expose yourself to a rich spectrum of stimulating
ideas from colleagues, journals, and other sources.
Since it's usually not clear where to seek inspiration to
solve a difficult problem, so one recourse is to skirt the
perceived boundaries of the main problem and delve into related
fields. The history
of science demonstrates the fruitfulness of such an
to solve a problem doesn't necessarily arise from technical
know-how. Studies of
innovation in the industrial sector indicate that new products
often originate from potential users of a product.
For example, Chester Carlson, a patent attorney, invented a
way to copy documents to eliminate the errors and inconvenience of
retyping patent applications.
This led to xerography—and the rest, as they say, is
processing phase, new ideas are generated.
This phase requires a judicious mix of
"foreground" and "background" mental
processing. In the
former period, we use periods of solitude for quiet contemplation.
In the latter period , ideas arrive "in a flash,"
while we are driving or drifting off to sleep, whenever the mind
is not consciously engaged in a difficult foreground task.
These “subconscious” solutions to our toughest problems
are often unheralded, but we are unlikely to encounter great
insights while playing a strenuous game of tennis or struggling
A number of
techniques have been developed to enhance the creative process.
Among the most widely known are morphology, brainstorming,
systematically identifies all combinations of relevant
Identify the problem domain.
List all relevant attributes or dimensions.
Identify all possible combinations.
Evaluate each combination.
For instance, to
determine the best condition for extracting a pharmaceutical from
solution, we consider five solvents, under three temperature and
two pH conditions. Thirty
combinations must be examined to find the best one.
requires an enumeration and consideration of all potential
some modern challenges have so many possible combinations that
computational constraints usually preclude a complete search.
The morphological approach is therefore appropriate only
for problems of limited scope, where a manageable number of
variables can be identified in a relatively straightforward way.
is the well-known spontaneous generation of ideas by a group
of people, some of whom may know little about the problem.
The object is to use free association to generate all
possible solutions. Each proposal, however outlandish, is recorded during the
session and not evaluated until later.
However, this technique has limitations.
While the quantity of new ideas may be high, there is no
pressure at the generative stage to limit ideas to those with high
quality (those that are economically or technically feasible, for
is another small-group method that can be used by
individuals with diverse backgrounds.
Similar to brainstorming, synectics's structured approach
uses these principles:
Make the strange familiar.
Define the problem so everyone understands it.
Make the familiar strange.
Use analogy to view familiar objects in a new light.
For instance, a
person may imagine herself as the product (e.g. a new apparatus)
of the research program. She
would imagine actually being
that apparatus, in operation.
approach identifies the fundamental concepts of a situation; it
does not emphasize obvious characteristics.
This technique is especially useful for producing radical departures from traditional paradigms.
During the output
phase, we record ideas—whether they are still half-baked or
the complete solution appears suddenly from an unknown quarter, as
we merely try to clarify it on paper, or try to explain it to
someone. At other
times, new ideas occur while we are writing down a partial
solution or preliminary results.
Perhaps, while reading a preliminary draft, we find
deficiencies and opportunities that pave the way to the next
draft, with a better statement of the solution.
means, the solution must be expressed so others can appreciate it.
A marketing expert, for instance, will not understand your
idea if you explain it in chemists' jargon.
Thus a good idea may be ignored just because you could not
express it suitably. If
you state your idea in technical terms not appreciated by the
reader or listener, you haven't really expressed it.
Who needs to know about your idea?
How do you get that individual to buy into it and pursue
it? You may have to
play the game of "language-politics" to package your
idea in a way palatable to your customers and other stakeholders.
Some aspects of
creative problem solving will enhance all three of the above
phases. If your
colleagues are supportive and interactive, they will supply a
critical mass of experiences and attitudes to argue through a
strategy or provide information relevant to the project.
Often when one
person suggests an idea, it is refined by second, then further
developed by someone else. As
problems gain complexity, problem solvers should rely to a greater
extent on such synergies among colleagues.
difficult problems, a more focused approach is needed to handle
the myriad alternative avenues of investigation.
The procedure I call “directed refinement” has these
search. Globally scan the problem and develop general tactics to
search of the identified path.
Follow the narrowly defined path until specific information
arises to indicate a change in direction.
Evaluate the results to determine progress towards the
Decide if the goal requires a fundamentally different
approach. If so,
determine whether a breadth-first or depth-first search is again
By using directed
refinement, the problem solver can keep track of unexpected
developments and continually refine strategy to expedite the
The nature of a
complex problem may change over time.
While working on a problem, you continually gain new
concepts, knowledge, and techniques.
Which ones will prove most useful in the future?
If you have a choice, pursue general or enduring topics.
For instance, it may be more useful in the long run to
understand the concept behind a method than to be technically
super-competent with that method.
intuitively follow the types of procedures I have just described.
But many people will benefit by considering these
tactics—and diligently applying them to the toughest problems.