Why Process is Integral to Creative Problem Solving

Developing an Attitude of Innovation

We often think that creativity happens in an environment without boundaries, order, or limits. Walls of sticky notes, mind maps with crazy lines, tables scattered with pens and paper, colors, and messiness—we embrace the chaotic and believe it is integral to creativity.

In reality, boundaries exist to let good things run wild. Processes allow for efficiency; systems develop habits. Habits become routines that help your brain free up space to focus energy on other tasks, such as creativity and innovation.

Using a process is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. Our brains can only pay attention to one problem at a time. As a result, your brain is always working to preserve your conscious attention for whatever task is most essential. Whenever possible, the conscious mind likes to pawn off tasks to the unconscious mind to do automatically. This is precisely what happens when a habit is formed. Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks.

A process does not restrict freedom and creativity. Rather, processes encourage creativity and embrace freedom. People who don’t have a process are often the ones with the least amount of freedom and creativity. Without a process, your ideas are all over the place. Without a structure, you have no criteria by which to evaluate the best ideas or discuss them with others. If you’re always forced to make decisions about simple tasks and whether you should mind map or brainstorm or use design thinking, and when to stop brainstorming and begin implementation—you have less time to think creatively and freely. With a process as your foundation, you have the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity to focus on new challenges and opportunities.

With a process, you don’t need to worry about where you’re going next or how to jump from brainstorming to implementation. Instead, the methodology brings structure to an otherwise ambiguous challenge. A good process contains targeted questions that help you frame and articulate “fuzzy situations,” that enable you to study the problem. In doing so, you gain empathy and understanding for everyone’s ideas and contributions. You are responsible for hearing each other out. No one gets shut down; we all participate in the journey. Team consensus and alignment are crucial with innovation; going against the grain is difficult enough, going it alone is nearly impossible.

Secondly, a good problem-solving process provides visualization tools and strategies that assist with understanding and creativity. Oftentimes, we are too close to the problem. We miss the forest for the trees. A process demands and facilitates our stepping back and seeing the whole picture. It has to do with connection, with cause and effect. Without visualization—whether that truly be a picture, or post-it notes, or lists on whiteboards or flip charts, or Lego blocks, or games—we can mistake symptoms for root causes because we don’t properly see the connections between the different aspects and consequences of a given problem. Visualization is yet another tool for clarification, and any good process will rely heavily upon it.

The final characteristic of any good problem-solving methodology (the final one we will address here—there are many others) is that it should help create implementation strategies and action plans. If the only thing you have accomplished at the end of the day is just a conversation and some clarification around a certain challenge, you are on your way to developing a significantly better solution. Studying and understanding the fuzzy situation is the first step. But that is just what it is, the first step. A good creative process will lead you from problem identification to problem definition to ideation and, finally, to solution implementation. Keep in mind, there will be iteration. Innovation is all about improvement and creating a better product, service, system, etc. That takes time and plenty of testing. A good problem-solving methodology will help walk you through that period of iteration and analysis.

If you want to learn a fantastic, commercial-grade creative problem-solving methodology, check out our work at Compass Consulting, where we teach you, and your team, to develop an attitude of innovation.