What is Creative Problem-Solving?

Before we define Creative Problem-Solving or (CPS) for short, let’s answer the question: what is creativity?

In my forty-five-plus years as a university professor teaching the creative process at the Center for Applied Imagination at Buffalo State University, an author of seven books on the creative process, and as a business innovation consultant, when I tell people what I do, the immediate response is “I am not creative.” Only people in the visual arts and musicians are creative people.”

That is just not true.

Creativity is complex and there are many definitions of it.

One of my favorite definitions of creativity is by Dr. Morris I. Stein.

Creativity: The production of something that is novel and useful.

That’s it. It’s that simple.

If that definition doesn’t do it for you. Then try these on for size.

Creativity is a student connecting what matters in his life to a career he can pursue with passion.
Creativity is making an already tight budget go even further.
Creativity is preparing a delicious meal from leftovers in the refrigerator.
Creativity is finding a better way to feed the homeless people in your city.
Creativity is making bedtime fun to get kiddos to sleep.
Creativity is finding a new way to tell someone that you love them.

Have you done any of those things? Of course, you have.

That’s what creativity really is.

You are one of many creative individuals in the world. And, there is no such thing as one creative personality. We are all creative and we all create in different and valuable ways.

However, creativity requires a creative mindset in order to develop creative solutions.

You can learn to become deliberately creative.

Learn to create innovative solutions at will

I have spent my professional life teaching a process called Creative Problem-Solving or CPS, for short. CPS provides a simple, repeatable process for defining problems, generating solutions, and then developing action steps for moving forward. All of this is targeted and focused on results.

The Origin of Creative Problem-Solving

Creative Problem-Solving (CPS) was originated by Alex Osborn for creatively approaching problems that he encountered as a partner in his advertising agency, BBDO. Osborn actually invented brainstorming in the late 1940s and, in collaboration with creativity scholar Sidney J. Parnes, continued to develop and refine the Creative Problem-Solving process. Here is the latest version of Creative Problem-Solving. It is called 21st Century Creative Problem-Solving. Think of this process as a recipe for deliberate creativity and innovation.

The beautiful thing about Creative Problem-Solving is that you don’t have to worry about how you are going to solve a tough problem. That’s already been worked out for you. The CPS process has been validated by over 70 years of research and practical application. The process is repeatable, deliberate, and shows you exactly how to approach a problem that might appear impossible to solve. And CPS can be applied to almost any tough problem that confronts us.

21st Century Creative Problem-Solving

Step 1: Clarify the problem
  1. Identify: Define a goal, wish, or challenge.
  2. Gather Data: Compile all that you know about your goal/wish/challenge, to look at the whole picture
  3. Redefine: Next, generate creative questions to redefine the problem.
  4. Choose: Select which creative question(s) best defines your problems.
Step 2: Generate Ideas
  1. Brainstorm many ideas for solving the problem selected.
  2. Choose the best ideas to refine and develop.
Step 3: Develop Solutions
  1. Push the best ideas further, to imagine how they can become solutions. 
  2. Evaluate the potential solutions for strengths, potential implications and weaknesses. This stage polishes out the rough spots! 
Step 4: Plan for Action
  1. Brainstorm all the possible actions to kick off your solution(s).
  2. Choose the best actions to implement your solution. 

The Essence of Creative Problem-Solving

Three types of thinking make the Creative Problem-Solving process work.

Divergent Thinking

Have an open mind and explore lots of possibilities. Generate ideas that are novel, new, ridiculous, foolish-sounding, weird, goofy, exciting. In the world of Creative Problem-Solving, picture a brainstorming group that is generating many ideas for solving a problem. Or, this could be you making a list of all of the vacation places you would like to visit in your lifetime, no matter what the cost.

Combinent Thinking

Combine ideas across areas of knowledge. Connect ideas that seem to be unrelated to the problem you are working on to generate novel ideas. This type of thinking is the essence of creativity. It is connecting things that are not usually connected to create a new idea. For example, the inspiration for the first Nike Shoe, the Nike Waffle Trainer was, yes you guessed it, a waffle iron. The inspiration for the pacemaker was a flashing traffic signal. You can learn to deliberately do combinent thinking.

Convergent Thinking

Most of us are pretty good at this. Select ideas, sort ideas, test and refine ideas. Make those ridiculous, foolish-sounding, exciting ideas USEFUL. Convergent thinking is considering all of the options presented to you: it is what program you are going to watch on television tonight, what car you are going to buy, or even what you are going to order from the menu at a restaurant.

 So first, diverge. Next, combine. Then, converge.

Creative Problem-Solving can be used for solving problems in any aspect of life.

Why is creativity important?

Students who have taken my classes have applied the Creative Problem-Solving process to start new businesses; begin a new career; create a life they never dreamed possible; improve their relationships with their children and partner; write books; ignite their students’ passion to develop their creative potential; write and introduce legislation in New York State to protect children from domestic violence.

The benefits of creativity are not only found when people apply the CPS process individually. The following examples highlight the importance of creativity in business.

My work is credited with helping Clorox solve a 77-year-old problem in 15 minutes; General Motors employees finding a way to save $50,000 a week in one aspect of their manufacturing processes; helping Western New York government agencies secure one billion dollars for economic development; teaching Mazda employees quality and creativity principles that saved over 60 million dollars; teaching University at Buffalo medical students to use Creative Problem Solving to improve diagnoses and save lives.

How to Apply the Creative Problem-Solving Process In a Group

Clearly defined roles are one of the most important aspects when applying Creative Problem Solving in a group, just as clearly defined roles are essential for a rescue squad or a sports team.

There are three essential roles for an effective CPS session: client, facilitator, and resource group.

Roles in CPS Session

One: Client

The person who owns the challenge and has primary decision-making authority on how it is to be dealt with is the client. Sometimes an entire team owns the challenge and all the members share the client role.


Two: Facilitator

Is the process expert who manages the Creative Problem-Solving process and keeps the group and the client moving toward a successful resolution to the challenge. The facilitator is never involved in the actual content of the session. For example, changes, modifications, or the facilitator’s attempt to improve ideas that the group generates are forms of judgment and will stifle and derail the creative process.

Three: Resource Group

The people who generate options or ideas to help deal effectively with the challenge are the members of the resource group. These individuals are trained in Creative Problem-Solving methods. I recommend that some of the resource group members be well-versed in the problem on which the group is working, but it is also helpful to have some people in the group who are not familiar with the problem at all. It is these people who bring a fresh perspective to the situation. These are the people who don’t know what can’t be done. They are unaware of the previous methods that have been applied to the problem, which may or may not have worked, and therefore don’t have those mental blocks. In the Breakthrough Lab, these are the “creative catalysts.”

Finally, Design Thinking is not the same as Creative Problem-Solving. The Design Thinking Process became popular in the early 2000s. The developers of design thinking borrowed liberally from the field of Creative Problem-Solving, often without attribution. Design Thinking works well if you are developing a new product like a computer mouse or a new shopping cart. However it does not work well with more ambiguous and ill-defined problems. This is where Creative Problem-Solving (CPS) delivers far superior results.

How To Enhance Your Personal & Professional Creative Problem-Solving Skills

I fell in love with creativity when I was 22 years old. Creative Problem-Solving has been my life’s work. Here are some ways that I can help you enhance your professional and personal creativity.

CPS Learns Model
CPS Learns Model

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Just as you follow a recipe to cook a great meal, there is a recipe to create great ideas. Create in a Flash is based on Dr. Roger Firestien’s 40 years helping companies unleash the innovation of their workforce.

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