Generating more ideas is NOT the key to innovation. So what is?

by | Dec 2, 2019 | Blog | 7 comments

Most people believe that Creative Problem-Solving is coming up with a great idea. Not so. In fact, the key to creativity and innovation is solving the right problem. We have been taught that the initial impression or definition of a problem is the real problem. We have good reason for this — school already sets up the problem for us.  2+2?  4. What is the capital of Poland?  Warsaw.

In my entire career, facilitating thousands of Creative Problem-Solving sessions, there has only been one occasion when the original definition of the problem was the actual problem. One out of thousands.

As a leader, it’s crucial that you challenge your first impression of what you think is the problem. Don’t generate ideas first. Generate ideas after you have clearly identified the best – the correct – problem to solve.

Leaders in organizations often loathe spending time clarifying their problem. They want to leap to generating ideas. Think about this. It does absolutely no good to generate ideas for solving the wrong issue. The problem we see is the problem we solve. Invest the time identifying the true problem.

Albert Einstein was once asked, “If some imminent disaster threatened the world and you had one hour in which you knew you could save it, how would you spend your time?” Einstein replied, “I would spend the first 55 minutes identifying the problem and the last five minutes solving it. For the formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

So, how do you identify the real problem?

Ask lots of questions. Those questions begin before the idea phase. Most people associate creative thinking with brainstorming and generating lots and lots of ideas. However, we know that it doesn’t do any good to generate lots of ideas for solving a problem that doesn’t address the heart of your issue. So, it’s critical to invest time in developing many different ways to define the problem at hand. Then you can generate solutions for the best definition of the problem.

For example, you are doing a Google search. What is the most important thing to do? Ask a good question.

You have a tough problem to solve. What is the most important thing to do? Ask a creative question.

When you ask a good question, you get good results. Ask a lousy question you get lousy results. Ask a creative question, you get creative results.

To make this very clear: the language you use to describe a problem is going to determine whether you create a good question, a lousy question or a creative question. It also dictates the kinds of solutions you will generate. For example, “We don’t have enough money.” Good or bad question? Answer: Bad question. In fact, it’s a statement.

When you hear that statement, your brain says, “OK, we don’t have any money.” Decision made. Move on. However, we can frame our problem another way: “How might we raise the money for this project?” “How might we reduce the cost of this project?”  Good and creative questions.

Questions framed in this way provoke your mind to search for solutions. They tell your brain. “Let’s go find some answers. And because we are using the word ‘might,’ these can be any answers. We haven’t made any decisions yet. Look for options.” Saying, “We don’t have enough money,” blocks your thinking and sends a message to your brain — “there aren’t any ideas out there, don’t bother looking.” A creative question puts forth what you want to create. Not what you want to avoid.

Give it a try. Next time you need to solve a tough problem, back up a step. Brainstorming is a common tool for generating creative ideas for solving a problem, but it’s just as useful for generating ways to redefine the problem you’re trying to solve.

Generating Creative Questions

Use these guides to generate creative questions:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Strive for quantity
  3. Seek wild and unusual questions
  4. Combine and build on other questions

Use the phrases below to begin your questions. Then generate lots of questions to get a different view of the problem.

  • How might…
  • How to…
  • What might be all the ways to…
  • In what ways might I…

When you are redefining the problem, you want questions that open up your thinking.

So, when you have a challenge to tackle, write down at least 15 different creative questions for redefining your problem. Then select the question that describes the main obstacle keeping you from your goal. Only then, begin generating ideas to solve your problem.

Coming up with over 15 ways to restate your problem with creative questions should only take five to ten minutes. It is time well spent – guaranteed.

If you want creative ideas, you need creative questions. Lots of them. Why not start now? 
What are some of your best/favorite questions to generate new ideas? Leave a question in the comments below.


Excerpted from Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation.

Photos Courtesy of the City of Fort Collins, CO

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  1. Peter Loehr

    Roger, well done! And, yes, identifying the RIGHT problem is essential before brainstorming solutions. At Buff State the freshmen attrition rate has increased each of the past 6 years! It’s now 41.8% for the freshmen entering fall 2018. It will probably be even higher for those entering fall 2019. The administration (without assistance from the CS faculty/experts) have identified “the” problem as retention. That’s the wrong problem. The problem is ATTRITION — and what causes it to continue to increase?
    When the problem is identified as RETENTION people will think of why retained students (those who return for their sophomore year) return — they are in sports, engage in campus activities, seek advising on a regular basis, etc. So the “problem-solvers” will advocate for increasing such resources. However, if the problem is ATTRITION, then the causes might be entirely different.
    Buff State recently hired a Retention Czar (VP level reporting to the provost) with little experience with ATTRITION. I predict the college will invest more than $1 million in four years with this position (including clerical support, conferences, copyright materials, etc) and not reduce the attrition rate. (And, yes, I informed my food chain incl Kate of this.) We’ll see….
    Buff State cannot continue to exist with a freshmen attrition rate which is annually increasing and now at 41.8%.
    To date the college has NO “hard data” on why students do not return for their sophomore year. For 16 years I’ve proposed a freshmen survey (to be administered in freshmen English/Writing classes for maximum response rate). I’ve even volunteered to pay all costs. Pres. Kate turned the offer down a year ago because students might get “survey fatigue” and the results might confused others on campus.
    An example of not identifying the correct problem to begin with. With dental health of young people (ages 8-20) is the problem “In what ways can people maintain healthy teeth?” or is the problem “In what ways can cavities be prevented?” I vote for the latter as the place to begin brainstorming.

    • Roger Firestien

      Peter: Thank you for those thoughts. It looks like you have clearly pointed out the need for some more creative questions here. Perhaps the new innovation initiative might help.

  2. Andrew Wilkins

    Hi Roger – nice article – but H2 remember to also include the focusing guidelines to guide the selection of from what has been generated. You’ve only talked about half the heartbeat!

    • Roger Firestien

      Andrew: You are absolutely right. That is why we recommend the highlighting technique. I demonstrate highlighting in the videos that accompany my new book, Create in a Flash: A leader’s recipe for breakthrough innovation. The videos and PDF worksheets that accompany the videos are free. Take a look and look particularly for the videos that focus on selecting creative questions or selecting ideas. Thank you for your comment. Roger — Here is the link

  3. Harry

    Roger, I like your piece… a lot! After 30+ years in qualitative research I can tell you that asking the right questions takes practice, experience and talent.
    Even a simple flipping of words like “how creative are you?” Versus “ how are you creative?” Can give you dramatically different questions.
    I would love to see you write part two where you deal with the art of questioning to encourage the problem owner to understand the real issue. E.g. why is this a problem? What do you look for in… etc. you know where I am going!

    • Roger Firestien

      Hi Harry: Thanks for the comment. Actually we do look at techniques for identifying the real problem by asking “Why.” I am sure you are familiar with the “why, what’s stopping me” technique. You can read more about it in my new book, “Create in a Flash: A leader’s recipe for breakthrough innovation.” In addition to the book, there are 20 videos that actually show you how to do the techniques. The videos are free and so are the downloadable PDF’s. We do demonstrate the “Why, What’s stopping me’ technique in the book and the videos. You can use the book and videos for your university classes. Here is the link:

      Take a look and let me know what you think. Thank you so much Harry!


  4. sameer

    i value your article highlighting how important getting to the ” right ” question is. How might one recognize the right question as it is generated along with multiple other ” not so right ” questions?


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