Chris Croft's Personal Blog

February 7, 2011

Problem Solving techniques

Filed under: Lists, Managing People — chriscroft @ 9:45 pm

Here’s the list I sent out as a tip earlier:

The nearest I have got to a system for being creative is the following list of methods to help stimulate whatever creativity we already have within us. It’s a long list, but if just one of the following ideas works for you then it’s been worth it.

1. Daydream – It’s OK to let your mind wander. The best way to tap into your subconscious is to release your mind, either when relaxed, or half asleep, or thinking about something else.

2. Reversal – Think about how to make it worse, then do the opposite. Think about doing the opposite to what you’d planned; are there any ideas to be gained?

3. Dictionary linking – Pick a word at random from a dictionary, and then think about how this word could be used in a possible solution to the problem.

4. 20 Ideas – Force yourself to write down twenty solutions, however ridiculous. Then, later, review them for the beginnings of ideas.

5. Looking back – Visualise the problem already solved, then think about what you did to get there. Imagine yourself saying “It was easy, all I did was…”

6. What-if – Follow some possible sequences of events, based on different starting points. What if the people were different, or if you changed the product, or the timing, or the method, or the promotion. What might happen? List the main features, then think about changing each one in turn.

7. Sleep on it – Just before you go to sleep, consciously and formally ask your sub-conscious for an answer to the question, to be given in its own time, when it is ready.

8. Matrix – Ensure that all combinations have been covered by drawing out a matrix combining the variables, for example, people with places, products with customers, markets with methods of promotion, etc.

9. Mind Map – Draw the problem out as a picture, and make sure you have fully explored all the branches.

10. Other people: one to one – Explain the problem to someone else. If doing this isn’t enough to make you come up with new solutions, go through each of your ideas and describe the pros and cons of it. Describe what the ideal solution would be like.

11. Other people: group – Brainstorm ideas, as many as possible, writing them all on a board without judging any of them.

12. Question the problem – do you really need to solve it? Do you really want to solve it? Is there a different problem you could solve, or a way to live with it?

13. Define the solution in clear detail – visualise it. How does it feel? What does it look like. Get every detail. Live through the sequence of how it feels to have it solved.

14. Sit with your mind absolutely blank. You are not allowed to think about the problem at all!

15. Keep going after the first solution, however good it may seem.

16. What are the rules / the system / the convention? What if you didn’t follow them?

17. What would other people do? How would they approach it? Make a list of people and their different approaches.

18. “Morphological analysis” – list the attributes of your starting point, usually as verb + noun (e.g. travelling on wheels, or powered by petrol). List alternative nouns for each verb. Make new phrases and combinations of these phrases.

19. Innovation transfer: transfer your situation to a different trade or market (e.g. butcher, doctor or teacher wants to cut costs, sell more, etc.). Brainstorm for them, then translate the ideas back into your own context.

20. Consult a fool – they could give you a new angle on the situation. The “fool” could be an untrained person, or perhaps a child / some children.

21. Think of some silly, fun solutions. Fun opens up the creative section of the brain. Do a brain-storm where only silly solutions are allowed.

22. Become more creative by changing yourself as a person. Visualise and self-talk- “I can…” “I am…” “I do…”

23. Cut out newspaper headlines, maybe cutting and mixing them to produce weird mixtures. TV listings can do the same. Use these to give you new ideas on your problem.

24. Take a random CD and pick a random track. Are the lyrics helpful?

25. Scribble / doodle / sketch / make patterns:- what does it bring to mind? Group members look at each others’ drawings and get ideas.

26. What if the problem was a good thing? Where would that lead? e.g. what if it was good to be slow, or heavy?

27. Sacred cows: what are the fixed restrictions that will always be there? Now wheel these into the abattoir. How does that change things?

28. Nature – how do animals and plants cope with this type of problem? Bees swarm and leave to make a new nest, bears hibernate until the spring comes, etc.

29. Write a film script about a person who solves your problem. How do they do it?

30. Cacophony – all mill around and shout your ideas out, loudly, at once, while sort of listening too. Having heard bits of other people’s, everyone pauses, writes down some new combined versions, and then we go back to another round of shouting.

31. Pick two random nouns (from a dictionary or from other teams) and then think about how they combine.

32. When selecting possible ideas or plans from a list – give each person £100 to spend on whichever of the options they like – divided in any proportions. See which ideas get the most money. Or, quicker, give each person 5 coloured stickers to spread around (they could give all 5 to one plan if they want).

33. What is the second best solution? This forces you not to take the obvious or first choice. How can the second best solution be improved to make it the best?

34. Use adjectives from another noun, e.g using cat on ships: cuddly ships, dead mouse ships, ships that stay out at night, ship flaps…

35. Chunking up or down: orange juice goes up to drink, down to beer, up to alcohol, down to Vodka, up to Made in Russia, down to fur coats…

36. How would the Chief Exec approach the problem? What about the lowliest worker? What about a plumber or a brain surgeon or a farmer? This isn’t about them solving it in their job, it’s them solving it in your job, if you asked them for advice.

37. Thesaurus – start with your current plan, however inadequate, and surf the Thesaurus on the key words.

38. Type the key words of your problem into an internet search engine.

39. Aim much higher than normal, e.g. to sell 100 times as much, or charge 10x as much, or employ 100,000 people. Now, how could you do this?

40. If you had an army of 1000 people to help you, how would you do it?

41. State the problem as “How to…” (e.g. not “we’re not selling as much” but “how to sell more”) and then restate it without using any of the same words. Then restate it again.

42. Mud-slinging: pick the best / most successful product and generate a list of ways that it’s rubbish / doesn’t meet the market needs. Use these to improve your other products or services.

43. Get random pictures from a photography book or newspaper, generate associations from the pictures and apply them to your problem.

44. Give out 2 digital cameras and get teams to photograph unusual objects around the place. Each team gives its pictures to the other team who use these as a source of ideas.


1 Comment »

  1. Great list. The one essential i always come back to is that the first idea(s) a person or group comes up with are the obvious and tried. If you want something new you MUST go beyond into territory that is unexplored and full of ideas most of which will turn out to be rubbish.

    The corollary Is that if your organization does not from time to time have people talking about and exploring rubbish, there is no chance that true innovation will occur.
    Most people are uncomfortable with rubbish – they suspect (often rightly) that managers will not appreciate, or even punish this part of the process.
    Second corollary: one of the key roles of management is to give people permission to explore the ragged edge.

    All your ideas are great ways of sparking rubbish-and-brilliance generation.


    Comment by chriscroft — February 7, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

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