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Creativity and problem solving


Problem solving techniques

Individuals and teams can use a variety of techniques to make decisions. Thinking through a problem or discussing with others, will often work, but sometimes decision making techniques can be useful.


Brainstorming can be done by one person, but is more usually done in groups.

It takes anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and there is no need to prepare in advance.

  • Agree how to record your ideas - flip charts are useful
  • Write down all the ideas you can think of - mind maps might help
  • If one idea triggers a slight variation or a new idea, write that down too
  • Don't censor or denigrate ideas
  • Don't stop to consider the good or bad points of any suggestions
  • Set a time limit

Put forward all ideas, however extraordinary or impossible they seem. If your team does not come up with any strange or unusual ideas it is probably censoring itself.

Now review all the suggestions. Divide them into the following:

  • Impossible - cross out the ones which are unrealistic
  • Maybe - put an M next to those you might consider
  • Definite - those that strike you as creative, realistic or appealing

Review and refine the solutions. Choose at least one.

The Delphi technique

This technique uses written communication and group members do not need to meet face to face. Group members should have some expertise or experience relevant to the problem.

Questionnaires are distributed to group members about a particular problem or issue. Responses are collected, summarised and fed back to the team for further consideration. Team members review the new information and suggest another solution. This process is repeated until the solutions converge to the satisfaction of the team.

The Delphi technique is time consuming, requiring team members to possess relevant expertise and good communication skills. But it is claimed that this technique eliminates interpersonal difficulties and uses time effectively.

The Devil's Advocate technique

One member of the team plays 'Devil's Advocate', and argues against a particular suggestion.

This person criticises the suggestion and suggests reasons for it to be rejected. The rationale is that a good suggestion will stand up to close scrutiny. If it does not, then better alternatives should be considered.

Team members cannot take criticism of ideas personally - and the person playing Devil's Advocate cannot make personal attacks.

There is a risk of discarding good suggestions because of the skills of the Devil's Advocate, rather than weaknesses in the suggestion.

Dialectical problem solving

The dialectical problem solving technique is a structured method which prevents teams focusing too quickly on one alternative.

The group starts with a comprehensive statement of the problem to be solved.

Then they:

  • Generate several favoured but competing suggestions
  • Identify explicit and implicit assumptions underlying each suggestion
  • Form into sub-groups to explore each suggestion
  • Present the advantages and disadvantages of each suggestion to the whole team

Then the team chooses one of the alternative suggestions, or they merge some of the alternatives into a new suggestion or proposal.

The advantages of this technique are that suggestions have been comprehensively examined and are understood by all members of the team. The team is likely to feel very confident about the decision reached.

The disadvantage of this technique is that a compromise might be agreed to avoid difficult choices. Or a suggestion could be chosen on the basis of a good presentation, rather than on its merits.

The following diagram illustrates Dialectical Problem Solving.

Dialectical problem solving diagram

Dialectical problem solving

The following list is the text version of a diagram showing the dialectical problem solving.

After the final step, the process can feedback into any previous step and continue forward through the others.

  1. Problem

    Sub-groups evaluate separate suggestions, so if there are three suggestions then there would be three sub-groups.

    First sub-group:

    • Suggestion A generated
    • Assumptions underlying A identified
    • Presentation of pros and cons of A

    Second sub-group:

    • Suggestion B generated
    • Assumptions underlying B identified
    • Presentation of pros and cons of B

    Third sub-group:

    • Suggestion C generated
    • Assumptions underlying C identified
    • Presentation of pros and cons of C
  2. Choice

    A suggestion is chosen e.g. one of:

    • A
    • B
    • C
    • Compromise of A and B, B and C, A and C or all three
    • New alternative
Dialectical problem solving diagram - text version above

Nominal group technique

The nominal group technique can be used to ensure the equal participation of each team member. It prevents some team members from dominating discussions.

First the issue or problem is described to the team.

  • Team members spend about five minutes thinking of ideas and writing them down
  • Each team member presents his or her ideas to the group, without discussion
  • The leader notes all the ideas on a flip chart or white board
  • Team members ask for more information about each idea
  • Team members privately rate each idea from 'not important' (0) to 'most important' (10)
  • The leader collects the ratings and records a cumulative rating for each idea
  • The team discuss the highest rated idea(s) in more detail
  • The voting cycle might be repeated if necessary until a solution is reached

Force field analysis

This approach allows the team to identify:

  • Forces for change
  • Forces restraining change

Force field analysis enables a team to consider all of the arguments for or against a course of action. The team can select which 'forces' need to be added or removed to facilitate change.

Kurt Lewin who developed force field analysis advised caution regarding increasing forces for change because this might cause conflict. He suggested it is probably more effective to reduce restraining forces (Lewin, 1951).

To carry out a force field analysis on any problem the team should:

  • Write the problem in the centre of the page as in the example given above
  • List all the forces driving the change in the arrows down the left hand side of the diagram
  • List all the forces restraining change in arrows down the right hand side of the diagram
  • The size of the arrows should reflect the strength of the force
  • Assign a score to each arrow from 1 (weak) to 10 (strong)
  • Draw a diagram indicating the forces driving and restraining change and the relative strength of the forces

When the analysis is complete the team can assess the viability of the suggestion.

Example of force field analysis

The following diagram illustrates force field analysis for the problem, 'Whether to open a new hotel'.

Force field analysis diagram

Force field analysis diagram

The following text is used to generate the diagram.

  • Problem
    • Whether to open a new hotel
  • Driving forces
    • 7 Local demand for luxury hotel rooms
    • 3 Growing demand for conference facilities
    • 6 Local demand for business/tourist accommodation
    • 3 Local availability of skilled labour
    • 2 Technological advances enable efficiency and competitive advantage
  • Restraining forces
    • Cost 6
    • Return of investment in building 4
    • Competition in target market 8
21 Total 18

The diagram text ends here.

This is the text version of a diagram showing force field analysis for the problem, 'Whether to open a new hotel'.

Visual description

The image is split into three basic columns. The centre column shows the problem, the left column shows the driving forces for change and the right column shows the restraining forces against change. The driving forces have arrows pointing from left to right towards the problem and the restraining forces have similar arrows pointing from right to left. Each driving/restraining force has a box next to it with a number representing the size of the force. The size of the arrows also reflects the strength of the force. A total count of the driving force sizes is shown at the bottom of the left column, and similarly in the right column for the total count of restraining force sizes.

Content description

The problem statement is, 'Whether to open a new hotel'.

The driving forces and their sizes are:

  • Local demand for luxury hotel rooms - 7
  • Growing demand for conference facilities - 3
  • Local demand for business/tourist accommodation - 6
  • Local availability of skilled labour - 3
  • Technological advances enable efficiency and competitive advantage - 2

The restraining forces and their sizes are:

  • Cost - 6
  • Return of investment in building - 4
  • Competition in target market - 8

The total count of driving force sizes is 21.

The total count of restraining force sizes is 18.

Force field analysis diagram - text version above

Cost benefit analysis

The costs and benefits of a particular problem are estimated objectively.

Tangible costs and benefits can be quantified - such as buying equipment.

Non-tangible costs and benefits are harder to quantify - such as employee morale.

A cost-benefit analysis involves setting out the actual financial costs of a solution, and giving financial values to 'non-tangible' costs or benefits.

If the costs outweigh the benefits then alternative solutions should be considered.