Techniques for structuring problem-solving and creativity

 I don’t like to make New Year’s resolutions. I don’t need an external authority to rebel against; I can rebel against my own authority!  So no resolutions, like “I am going to learn to process information better so I can make better decisions this year.”  What a hope.

However, I am capable of being intrigued by the promise of methods for bringing order out of chaos. So I finally tackled two books that have been calling to me on and off for longer than I can remember.  Both promised to teach me tricks for better creativity and decision making.  So, what did they deliver?

Rapid Problem Solving with Post-it Notes, Davidrapid problem solving Straker, DaCapo Press, 1997.

As a former professional trainer and training program manager, I have long used sticky notes as a way to get people to generate ideas quickly and then to share and group them.  Getting people to write their ideas on sticky notes is much faster than having them verbalize them, because the process of idea generation isn’t interrupted by the reactions and criticisms of others.  You also get a sense of how much overlap as well as variety there may be in a group, as the anonymity afforded by the process usually encourages people to be frank and creative. Once people have written their ideas, one to a sticky note, you can send them off for a break and have a few volunteers help post them on a wall, grouping the similar ones together. This way, you generate categories inductively from the concerns of the group.

What does this have to do with personal knowledge management?  I  create sets of sticky notes when I have a messy  constellation of ideas that I can’t seem to get straight.  While I can use mapping software, I often prefer the fluidity of writing with an actual pen on scraps of paper and moving them around by hand until I have the arrangement right.  If I have a large number of ideas, a wall or large table can display  more than a computer screen.  I have shown this technique to students in the early stages of developing research ideas as well as to colleagues preparing presentations, and many have found it helpful.

I hoped this book would show me more techniques, and it did.  I found that I had developed some sensible ways of using sticky notes, but Straker has systematically thought through hows and whys to make my uses and explanations more methodical.  Straker’s focus is on group decision making, but for the most part the techniques can be applied to individual information processing as well.

The basic skill for using sticky notes is the ability to chunk information, limiting what is written on each note to one chunk.  In organizational problem solving this is often an adjective – noun pair, according to Straker.   When working with academic research, the basic chunk may be meatier, but I suspect that sentences typically will not be effective. Straker also recommends labeling each sticky note as to whether it is a fact, an opinion, or a guess – and identifying these properly is another skill.  All of the exercises should be done within the context of established objectives, of course.

The types of visual processing depend on the nature of the problem, and Straker presents six tools for dealing with six different situations.  Just trying to collect all the relevant information often means assembling information from different sources (often different people) and creating a map that groups like ideas near each other in some rational way (a tool he refers to as a post up).  Straker describes a tool called the swap sort for listing and prioritizing ideas. Top-down trees are used to break problems down into constituent parts with increasing levels of detail and are useful when the problems is fairly well known at a broad level, but complex.

bottom-up tree is useful when you have lots of bits of information and need to develop a coherent picture of the whole.  Straker says that this type of diagram is useful when you start with vague ideas or l ots of seemingly unrelated buts of information and no clear path forward. While the top-down tree is very structured, the bottom-up tree can be less so, with discovery of the structure being as much the task as discovery of the solution.

Information maps are useful when the relationships between the chunks of information are complex rather than strictly hierarchical.  Arrows will be needed to show relationships (in fact, Straker’s information maps are concept maps without labels to indicate the nature of the relationships).  Information maps help to understand causal relationships. Action maps are prepared for plans and processes; they show sequences and chains of dependent activities and tasks.

For each type of tree or map, Straker discusses in detail how to produce the visual representations, describing room set up, preparation, and suggested group process, including how to use the sticky notes.  He has documented the procedures well so that anyone who wants to use the six tools should be able to do so easily.    

In 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques (New Management Publishing Company, 2006), James Higgins presents techniques for use by both individuals and teams.  While the book is business – oriented, I found it applicable to situations faced in academia as well.  I am thinking, for example, of students in a research design class who had to come up with research proposals very early in their doctoral program.  This was hardly a business innovation process, but it did have features that called for creativity, and I can imagine students benefiting from the structured creative process which Higgins describes.

Higgins looks at how emotions and intuition need to be joined with rationality in problem solving.  His Creative Problem Solving Process (CPS) has 8 steps:

  • Analyzing the environment101 creative
  • Recognizing a problem or opportunity
  • Identifying the problem or opportunity
  • Making assumptions
  • Generating alternatives
  • Choosing among alternatives
  • Implementing solutions
  • Controlling for results

The techniques presented are matched to steps in the process. There are far more techniques for generating alternatives than for any of the other steps, and Higgins divides this category into two chapters, those for individuals and those for groups (and he indicates which can be used by both).  A quick reference chart at the end lists the techniques and the circumstances under which is most effective.  He also lists his personal favorites.

Some techniques, such as the fishbone diagram, will probably already be known to most. Some of his suggestions are already so much a part of my routines that I was surprised to find them listed as techniques – such as listening to music.

Many were new to me, particularly the visual activities such as using pictures and imagined field trips (excursions) to help think through problem areas.  In academia, where problems can so easily become abstract, such techniques may be quite useful.  Since the book is meant for problem solving in business, the explanations and instances are usually product oriented, less frequently process or user focused, so you may have to stretch to imagine applying them to academic workflows.  It’s easier to imagine using many of them to improve library workflows, products and processes.

Higgins has put together an impressive array of techniques, but inevitably m any of the descriptions lack depth.  Consensus building as a way of identifying problems is dealt with in two sentences.  Clearly that is not enough to guide groups to consensus, and presumably anyone seriously interested in consensus would see another source as a guide.  This is a book to consult on occasions when you need inspiration; once you find a technique of interest, you might well have to look elsewhere for more guidance on exactly how to use it.  Its usefulness lies in pointing you in a desired direction.

There are many, many similar books and tools available.  Perhaps I had a New Year’s resolution after all, one that was hidden even from myself – to finally deal with these two books that have been lurking on my shelf for quite some time now.  I am glad I did, because there are techniques I can use in meetings I organize, and I can suggest some of them to graduate students I work with as well.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email