Creative Problem Solving and Innovation

Creative problem solving (CPS) is an idea whose time has come— once again. A popular topic in the 1950s and early 1960s, CPS faded from the scene as many users became disenchanted with the inconsistent results the then-existing methods seemed to produce. Now, however, CPS is being seen in a more positive light; more techniques have become available, and managerial problems have increased in both complexity and in scope.

A growing number of conferences, workshops, films, books, articles, newsletters and consultant services are available today for managers in¬terested in improving their CPS skills. Furthermore, the media have begun to emphasize the need for more creativity and innovation in Ameri¬can business and industry.

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In spite of all this attention, CPS methods still have not been as widely used as they might be. A general re¬sistance to change may be one reason for the underuse of this potentially valuable resource. More likely, how¬ever, is the fact that most managers and trainers are not fully aware of the many techniques currently available in convenient form for use as CPS tools.

Most managers probably are at least vaguely familiar with such popular CPS techniques as brain-storming or synectics. It’s doubtful, however, that very many actually use these or other similar methods on a regular basis. Understandably, many managers consider themselves too overburdened to learn a new problem-solving skill.

And, in truth, such an attitude can be easily de-fended, given the relatively high leader-skill requirements of the most well-known group CPS techniques.

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There are, however, several techniques available that require very little in the way of special skills on the part of the group leader. While many of these methods have been around for some time, many others have been developed recently both here and abroad. Nevertheless, the distinguishing feature of most of these methods is their ability to gen¬erate a large number of ideas in a rel¬atively short period of time without requiring extensive training.

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In general, the group approaches to CPS can be classified as using either brainstorming or brainwriting proce¬dures. Brainstorming methods in¬volve verbal generation of ideas, while brainwriting procedures in¬volve silent, written generation of ideas. In addition to the classical brainstorming procedure developed by Alex Osborn, numerous variations have been developed, including the Gordon/Little technique, Phillips 66, SIL Method, Synectics and the Buffalo method.

Brainwriting methods in¬clude Battelle-Bildmappen-Brainwriting, the Brainwriting Pool, Collective Notebook, Crawford Slip Writing, Delphi, Method 6-3-5, Nom¬inal Group Technique and Pin Cards. In choosing either type of proce-dure, you should consider certain factors. Brainstorming, for example, will be more appropriate when the group is relatively small, there are no time constraints, status differences are minimal among the group members, and the group is comfortable with verbal discussions.

Brainwriting, in contrast, will be more appropriate when the group is large, only a lim¬ited amount of time is available, status differences are likely to create conflict, and the group is comfortable with minimal verbal interaction. It also should be noted that brainwrit¬ing groups typically will produce more—but not necessarily more orig¬inal— ideas than brainstorming groups and that a less-skilled group facilitator is required for most brain-writing methods.

Given these differences between the two types of procedures, most managers probably will find the brainwriting methods more conve¬nient to use. Others, in contrast, will often express frustration at not being able to engage in a verbal discussion since that’s their most familiar type of problem-solving interaction. The ultimate choice of either type of proce¬dure will depend upon such factors as the amount of time available, the perceived importance of the problem and the commitment of the group to using one procedure over another.

To provide some insight into the differences between these procedures, consider these two examples of rela¬tively unknown brainstorming and brainwriting techniques: The SIL Method and Pin Cards. Both these techniques were developed by the Battelle Institute in Frankfurt, Ger¬many and require very little time or special leader skills.

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SIL is a German acronym for “Suc¬cessive Integration of Problem Ele-ments.” Although it is classified as a brainstorming procedure, the first step involves the silent, individual generation of ideas in writing to a previously stated problem. In the next step, two group members read one of their ideas; then the rest of the group attempts to integrate the ideas into ‘one practical solution.

Finally, a third member reads an idea, and the group attempts to integrate it with the so¬lution produced from integrating the first two ideas. This procedure con-tinues until all the ideas are read and integrated. While it may not be pos¬sible to integrate all ideas, at least they will be given a fair hearing with this method.

In contrast to the SIL Method, the Pin Cards technique requires with¬holding all forms of verbal discussion. After being presented with a problem, each group member is given a stack of cards and instructed to write down one idea on each card. The cards are then passed to the person on the right, who examines the idea for stimula¬tion in generating new ideas. This card, along with those produced by the writer, are then passed on, and the process thus continues until time is called (usually after 20 to 30 min¬utes).

After the writing period, the cards are collected, examined for du¬plicates, categorized into major theme areas, and pinned to a large pinboard, with each area headed by a title card. Finally, the group examines all the cards, asks clarifying questions and notes any new ideas that might be suggested.

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