Creative Problem Solving is a Superpower

There seem to be many problems in the world at the moment. Which often feel overwhelming and even insurmountable. How can we save the environment? What will happen if our economy fails? How do we survive a pandemic? How do I keep my business afloat in these troubling times? How can I afford to live if I lose my job? How can I be happy with less? How can I live with uncertainty? How can I have a high quality lifestyle that heals rather than harms our global eco-system?

Problem solving cat [Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash]
The good news is that you are a natural born problem solving machine. After 7 million years of evolution, you and your siblings are the pinnacle of 350,000 generations in your family line. [Using an average yield time of 20 years per generation]. As a result, your physiology, genetics, mental capacity and general fitness for survival is superior to all those ancestors before you.

Given your superior ability and the tools at your disposal; your prospects of succeeding are ever-improving. The greatest of these tools is your creative mind—and its fine capacity to innovate—to come up with something new that will free you from harmful traditions and speed you towards safety.

In this module you will learn how to put your mind into top gear; using the creative problem solving process. This is a superpower that will help you to invent a high-quality, sustainable lifestyle and change the world for the better.

Running experiments

“Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.”

Piet Hein

Humans have an excellent way to solve problems and learn from their experience and mistakes—they run experiments.

Experiments help us to test what will work best, going forward.

You see little children, even babies doing this instinctively. For example, a baby will adjust the noise it makes to get it’s parents to pay attention and do things for it. If a high pitched yell doesn’t work, then choking-type sounds will certainly have them galloping into the bedroom in the middle of the night. Clever babies register such results and reuse effective sounds until they stop producing the desired results. Since this is the main way they control their world—through the sounds they make—babies are really inventive in the audio realm. If you went into a maternity ward or a creche and observed: you would hear the most amazing range of audio experiments being conducted—inciting squads of adults to action.

Over time this experimental approach to problem solving for humans has crystallized into what we now call “the scientific method of inquiry”. Simply speaking this method involves five steps:

  1. Question: Ask “I wonder what would happen if…?”
  2. Hypothesize: Formulate a theory about what is going to happen.
  3. Experiment: Do it. Make it happen. Test your theory.
  4. Analyze: What happened? Did it match your theory?
  5. Conclude: What do you conclude and what should happen next?

This approach is a time-honoured method that shows up in all fields of human endeavour. Science, engineering, academia, design, medicine—you name it. It has taught us nearly everything we know.

It is very scientific, but also very practical. Anyone can be systematic and follow the above procedure. Especially when the stakes are high.

It is also fun and fascinating. For example, you can watch hours of experiments using this method on the Mythbusters TV series. In her book “Crash Test Girl” Kari Byron, from the Mythbuster series, describes “how to crash test your way through life, no lab coat required.” She thinks the scientific, experimental approach is the perfect way to solve everyday issues.

Creative problem solving

But where is the creativity in all of this? Well we are not machines or computers so we have lots of scope to use our imagination. [Trying a choking noise to control your parents, as a baby, when you are not actually choking is pretty imaginative, don’t you think?]

The scientific method is augmented by creative thinking approaches.

This is what designers and other creatives do when they problem solve. This type of creative problem solving is also known as designing.

How do you get really good ideas?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein

The value and effectiveness of the creative problem solving process depends upon the quality of the ideas being explored. Predictably, crappy ideas for experiments will result in crappy outcomes—and a waste of time. We need to solve big problems, so we need big brilliant ideas.

In the end, we want to design solutions that will work not only for individuals and the economy but also for communities, society, the future and the planet. In other words: solutions that are truly sustainable.

The design process

People in creative professions adopt the design process to make sure their ideas bring real value. The process involves the following six stages (not always in this order):

The design brief: Create a clear statement of the problem and the design goals. If done from the onset this helps to set you on the path to success. The design brief offers an essential baseline and navigation tool as you go exploring ideas and running your experiments. It helps you to find your way as your imagine takes you on a journey into the unknown.

Research: Begin your inquiry into the problem. Design is a search for inspiration. Keeping your mind open to new ideas, right up to the end of the project, takes courage. Under the pressure of a deadline, client expectations, traditions and the status quo: the designer must feed their creative mind so that it is stimulated and becomes capable of having sudden brilliant or timely ideas. This is done by investigating and coming to understand every part of the problem space.

Ideation: Run sessions (alone or in groups) to rapidly and exhaustively generate and brainstorm many ideas. Rather than settling on the first idea that comes to mind—this approach loosens up the imagination and gets the creative juices flowing. Rapid visualization methods such as sketching and mind mapping help greatly.

Concept selection: Strategically select the pick of the litter. Among your brainstorm ideas will be some real gems worth pursuing. It is important to refer back to the goals and requirements of the brief. Designers tend to limit the selection to three options at a time; to avoid confusion.

Concept development: Run experiments to test your ideas. Making mock-ups, models and functional prototypes then running experiments to see if and how they work. Through a process of analysis, elimination and refinement you will arrive at the final design. At any point you can return to the brainstorm, if your ideas fail to make the grade.

Concept development is the engine room of experimentation. Each idea passes through iterations of development till one emerges as the superior option. The tests to which you subject your ideas determine how robust and fit for purpose they are. So it is important to be as creative and imaginative about the tests as you are in coming up with the ideas themselves. Creative testing expedites development. Presenting to clients, users and critics to seek their feedback is a critical test in the development of a concept.

Implementation: Specify how the finished product will work and be made. Describing the form and function of the finished product. How your idea will manifest in the world. What is visible, apparent and readily perceived by others. For example, if you are designing a new way to manage your finances—the finished product may comprise a set of budget goals and rules; an expense recording system; and a tailored savings and investment portfolio.

Designing is creative experimentation in the real world. It is so commercially effective that the entire economy is invested in it. Every effective product, service or system on the market has been designed—using the above process.

Now it is time for you to become a designer by adopting the design process to change your life for the better. But how do you make it better for more than just yourself? How might you invent a high-quality, sustainable lifestyle and change the world at the same time?

Life is an ever-improving experiment

“All life is problem solving.” Karl Popper

Looking at the historical improvements in the life expectancy of humans (shown in the chart below) we can see clear evidence that our experiments are paying off. And each of these experiments was started by an individual and eventually taken up by the whole human race. That’s a superpower right there!

For example—looking at the lines below—in the 1870’s we (the human race) found ways to improve health care for mothers and babies—which significantly reduced infant mortality. In the 1930’s we discovered antibiotics. In the 1950’s we introduced vaccinations. Each of these interventions began as an experiment by a designer/scientist and was then adopted by the rest of society.

Life expectancy [Source ourworldindata.org]

Very encouraging! But now we must solve the problems that naturally arise when you keep more people alive for longer.

As the population grows the dynamic between individuals intensifies. Which means that every lifestyle choice we make as individuals has an increasingly significant impact in the wider world.

Take for example the recent rush on toilet paper in Australia, in the early days of the Covid19 pandemic:—

In the beginning, each person decided to get a few extra packets of loo roll to tide them through a period of isolation at home. A simple, individual decision. But most people made this decision.

As a consequence, within one day every supermarket ran out of stock on their shelves. So people—seeing empty shelves—got scared and decided to stockpile a few extra rolls the next time they were available. Another simple individual decision. Again, made by most people. But then every supermarket ran out of stock in their storerooms.

Some customers started to complain and fight for the limited supply. Which led the supermarkets to introduce security measures and put pressure on their distribution centres; who then put pressure on suppliers, who put pressure on manufacturers; who put pressure on paper mills; all the way down the line through to the timber industry. 

All of a sudden (and this only took 21 days) a noticeable impact was felt on the environment because the timber industry had to increased its logging of trees to fuel market demand. These plantations were already under stress due to recent destruction by bush fire. Hence, there is now a significant depletion of plantation stock for the future. Which may lead to environmentally detrimental practices of taking trees from heritage sources or using recycled paper [National Geographic].

This type of chain reaction has cumulative, exponential power. So that the pressure felt by the logging companies was far greater than the pressure exerted by the consumer. (Except when they started throwing punches).

Here we see how the seemingly minor lifestyle choices of individuals lead to significant impact on the wider world and environment.

If exponential growth is not interrupted or moderated it will quickly get out of control. Watch the following simulation of exponential growth which shows the intensifying dynamic between individuals.

Coronavirus simulation. [Source: Stevens, Harry. (2020) Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve. Washington post.]

Good ideas are contagious

“Pay attention to the inner voice that tells you when something feels right. Much of your creative problem-solving occurs at an unconscious level.” Nita Leland

We need creative ways to interrupt, moderate and counteract the behaviours that cause the big issues. To be effective, these new ways will have to work at the individual level.

If an idea works well at the individual level, it is likely to be attractive to other individuals. If it is a really brilliant or timely idea it also will gain exponential power—to create change for the better.

To illustrate this point: return to the above life expectancy chart for a minute. Notice that each dot on the upturning lines represents a change in the pattern of mortality. This represents an event, intervention or innovation in health care. As you can see, the rate of innovation and intervention is obviously increasing in all parts of the world, as shown by the frequency and closeness of the dots. You can imagine how access to the internet to share ideas speeds things up.

This is encouraging. It indicates that while we may start slowly, we can fix big problems with increasing speed when it matters to a lot of people.

Scientist are predicting a pretty challenging time for the human race over the next 100 years.

“We are at an extraordinary crossroads in human history and our actions, or failure to act, will determine the fate of the earth and human civilization for centuries to come.” James Martin, the Meaning of the Twenty First Century

In his book, The Meaning of the 21st Century, Jame Martin as you to “think of the 21st century as a deep river canyon with a narrow bottleneck at its centre. Think of humanity as river rafters heading downstream. As we head into the canyon, we’ll have to cope wit the rate of change that becomes much more intense—a white-water raft trip with the currents becoming much faster and rougher… At the narrow part of the canyon, the world’s population will be at its highest and worlds resources under their greatest stress. In these coming decades, as we are swept towards the canyon bottle neck we must unlock extraordinary new technology… and find ways to get the whole of humanity through with as little mayhem as possible into what we hope will be smother waters beyond… Solutions exist, or can exist, to most of the serious problems of the 21st century…

Which leaves the ball in your court. In our court as individuals.

Getting started

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

—Mark Watney, the Martian

Let’s get you to run an experiment and use the creative problem solving approach. If it works this time, you can use it again and again, until you solve enough problems and we all get safely through the canyon. If it doesn’t work, try again till it does. Don’t give up on us baby.

Pick a problem that you would really like to fix in your life right now. Download Creative problem solver worksheet and fill in the blanks.

Thinking through problems in this systematic way is always helpful. Whether you completely solve any given problem—you will be better off in the end for having given the issue some creative attention.

If the experiment does not entirely solve the problem the first time—be like a designer and simply run a new experiment. Till you do solve the problem. And then the next problem. And the next. In this way you take your superpower and turn it into a lifestyle.

In this way you will be part of the bigger solution, no longer part of the problem: because you will be thinking creatively instead of just consuming and living mindlessly and worrying yourself to death.