Dr Amy Climer

Episode 3: The Creative Problem Solving Process

In this episode I explain the Creative Problem Solving Process and how to use it to be more innovative in any area of your life.

What You’ll Learn

  • A brief history of the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process
  • The difference between divergent and convergent thinking and why you need both
  • The four steps of the Creative Problem Solving Process and an example of how it works

At the end of the episode you will get a challenge to start working on that will help you be more creative.


Feel like reading instead of listening? You can read it below. Enjoy!

Amy Climer: Hey everyone. Welcome to Episode #3. Today, we’re talking about the Creative Problem Solving process and how to use that to solve complex challenges.

I want to start with an overview of what we’re going to talk about. First, I’ll talk about the purpose of Creative Problem Solving. I’m going to give you a brief history. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with a lot of facts but I’m just going to give you an overview and give you some context. I think it’s pretty interesting. We’ll talk about the four stages of the Creative Problem Solving Process and I’ll walk you through an example from one of my clients. At the end, I have a challenge for you that I think you’ll enjoy. All right, here we go.

The purpose of Creative Problem Solving is really to be deliberate about creativity. We’re taking this implicit, intuitive approach to innovation and transitioning that to be a more explicit, intentional approach. It’s based on our natural creative problem solving process but we’re being more intentional about it. The results are that we can be more innovative both individually and as a team. Before we go into the process, let me just give you some history and context.

In the early 1900s, a guy by the name of Alex Osborn was one of the founders of a company called BBDO. BBDO was and still is a global advertising firm. If you watch TV at all, chances are, you’ve probably seen a television commercial that they have designed and created. Of course because Alex Osborn was working with advertising and marketing, he was very interested in creativity because that’s one of the basis of coming up with new marketing ideas and new ads. In the process of working with his colleagues, he invented brainstorming, which most of us have heard of and most of us have used today.

He popularized it in a book that he published in 1948 called Your Creative Power. In that book, he explains brainstorming. He talks about the storming of the brains and he goes through the process of how it works. The book essentially went viral. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, which particularly in 1948, was quite impressive. Soon, brainstorming became a popular tool. At the same time, he was also looking at the natural creative process. He was examining it, observing it, and trying to figure out how is it that we come up with ideas and how is it that we’re creative. He divided the process into seven stages.

In the 1950s, Osborn ends up partnering up with a guy named Sidney Parnes. Sidney Parnes was a faculty member at Buffalo State College in New York in the United States and the two of them worked together for a number of years. They really were partnering up to further develop this creativity model. Parnes started testing whether or not the Creative Problem Solving Process actually worked with people. What happened as Osborn and Parnes were working together is they ended up refining the Creative Problem Solving Process quite a bit. In the last six decades, the Creative Problem Solving Process has gone through a number of transitions and been refined, tweaked, and it’s now four stages that we’ll talk about today.

The other thing that was happening at the same time is a woman named Ruth Noller also got involved with Osborn and Parnes. She was a mathematician, a math professor at Buffalo State College and she started testing if Creative Problem Solving could be taught. The good news is, yes, it can be taught. In fact, that’s really the essence and the foundation of this entire podcast series – this premise that creativity can be taught and learned. Since Ruth Noller, a number of other researchers have also looked at teaching creativity and found that yes, it is a learnable, teachable skill. But anyway, I digress.

The Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process came into being around the 40s, 50s, and as I have said, it has been refined even within the last decade. In addition to the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, there are a number of other models out there that also walk through our natural creative process. So Creative Problem Solving, also called CPS, CPS is just one of them. There are bunch of other ones, TRIZ, Synectics, numerous other ones and many of them were created around the same time. There was a surge in research in the 50s and 60s around creativity and so a number of other models came up. They overlap each other. There are a lot of similarities and really most all of them are good. They are all useful and relevant.

I particularly like Creative Problem Solving because it’s general and that it can be applied to just about any field. Some of the models like TRIZ and Synectics tend to be more relevant for Engineering, Science, or inventors, but Creative Problem Solving is general. It can be used for Engineering, Science, and invention as well but it can also be used in all sorts of context – business, art, and so on. CPS is also easy to understand and use. Some of them get pretty complicated and there are a lot of pieces to them. Anyway, I just wanted to share that in case you do come across some other models. Hey, explore it. They are all good. There is something to learn from all of them.

Let’s look at the four stages to Creative Problem Solving Process. The first stage is Clarify. We’re really clarifying the situation or the problem. The second stage is coming up with ideas, Ideation. The third stage is Developing those solutions further and then the Fourth Stage is Implementation. We’re going to dive into each of those stages in more depth. Before we do that, I want to tell you about two types of thinking that are happening in each of the four stages. That’s Divergent Thinking and Convergent Thinking.

I want you to imagine you have a big bucket and your job is to fill that bucket with as many ideas as you can. That’s divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is diverging, getting broad, getting big, and it’s filling up the bucket. Convergent thinking is taking all those ideas and filtering them, through a funnel. Imagine you have a funnel, maybe even it has a screen on top so you’re really getting all the junk out. You’re filtering those ideas out and you’re selecting the very best ones that are appropriate for your situation. That’s convergent thinking.

Divergent and convergent thinking have rules to them. There are some guidelines you should follow when you’re doing each of these types of thinking. It’s important to note, you do these types of thinking separately. Let’s start with divergent thinking. There are four guidelines to follow when you’re in that divergent thinking stage. Osborn mentions this in the book that I mentioned earlier, Your Creative Power. The first idea is to suspend judgment. This means throw out all the ideas, don’t criticize them. Just get them out there. There will be time to criticize them later.

The second rule is seek wild ideas. Get crazy, get outrageous, go off the wall. We want to get all these crazy ideas on the paper. That’s partly because of the third idea, which is combine and build on ideas. So maybe somebody shares this crazy idea that’s like, “Okay, that’s never going to happen. You’re never going to use that idea,” but it might spark another idea or you might realize “Ooh, if we just tweak that a little bit and add it with this idea, now, we’ve got a really good one.” So you’re combining and building on the ideas.

Fourth is go for quantity. It’s about getting as many ideas as you can. If you can get 300 ideas, that may be perfect. Get as many as you can. Now, if you do have 300 ideas, that may be a little overwhelming because you really only need to implement one or two, and that’s when you get into the convergent thinking. There are five rules for the convergent thinking process.

The first is to be deliberate. By that I mean really consider your ideas carefully and try to be objective. Make choices based upon the environment, the goal, who owns the problem, but really be thoughtful about it. Don’t just randomly throw ideas out. The second is to check your objectives. Sometimes what happens in the convergent thinking process is that you go down some tangent, and that’s okay, but now that you’re converging and looking at the ideas again. Make sure they are still in target with your goal.

The third rule to follow is to improve your ideas. Consider the possibilities of an idea before eliminating it as an option. Make your ideas stronger if possible. The fourth is to be affirmative. Don’t look for reasons why an idea won’t work but focus on what you want, what will work. Let’s say you have all these ideas on the table. I think the default might be like, “Okay, let’s just throw this idea out, this idea out,” and you start eliminating them. What I’m suggesting is instead of that, select the ones that do work because one thing that might happen is you might eliminate an idea and maybe that specific idea wouldn’t work but you might have been able to join it with another idea and those together would work.

If you threw it out, you’re not even going to see it anymore. It’s not even going to be on the table. Select what will work. Be affirmative. The fifth rule is consider novelty. If your whole goal is to be creative and innovative, then challenge yourself to think about the ideas or select the ideas that are new and different rather than what’s comfortable. We talked about novelty a fair bit when we talked about the definition of creativity in Episode #1. If you want to go back and review that, you can.

Divergent and convergent thinking, each of those types of thinking are happening in each stage of the Creative Problem Solving process but it’s important to remember they are not happening at the same time. I just want to provide a metaphor for this. Think about your heart muscle that’s in your chest. Every day, your heart beats, over and over again, expanding and contracting. As it expands, it’s pulling all this blood in. That’s like the divergent process. It’s filling up with all these ideas or with all this blood, and then it contracts and it pushes the blood out into another part of the body. That’s the convergent thinking process.

If your heart tries expanding and contracting at the same time, you’re going to have a big problem. At the same time, if your heart only expands or only contracts, you also have a really big problem. Same thing with creativity, you got to spend some time in divergent thinking, some time in convergent thinking, but don’t do it at the same time. This is where people get in trouble especially when they are trying to come up with ideas. They start divergent thinking and then in the midst of it, they start evaluating the ideas and it causes all sorts of problems, which we’ll get to a little bit more in a minute. So convergent and divergent thinking, you need both of those.

We’re now going to walk through the four stages to Creative Problem Solving Process and to do that, I’m going to use an example from one of my clients. A few months ago, I was hired by a large State University System. The Women’s and Gender Studies Department had a particular problem they wanted help with. There are numerous campuses around the state and each campus has a Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Together, all of these programs make up the Women’s and Gender Studies Consortium for the university. In two years, they are going to lose the funding for their coordinator. They have a full-time person who coordinates all these programs, keeps them aligned, and keeps them connected, and they know that person will be leaving in two years.

They hired me to help them walk through the process of, “What do we do next? How do we come up with ideas on how to solve this issue of staying connected even without having a director?” We got together people from each of the universities from each of the departments and we spent a number of hours together going through the Creative Problem Solving Process. Here’s what happened. We started out in the clarifying stage. Step one is when you’re really trying to come up with what exactly is the issue that we need to solve. This is where you start collecting data, you start doing some research, start getting as much information as you can, all that background information.

Einstein was a very good Clarifier and he was known to have said this, “If I only had one hour to save the world, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.” The good news is we’re not going to follow that ratio exactly today but the point is that you really want to dig in and make sure you’re defining the exact right problem because if you have a problem and you don’t spend time clarifying it, you might come up with ideas that once implemented, actually won’t solve your problem. You might think they will but you’ll come up with ideas for the wrong thing.

After you go through the clarifying stage and you explore what your challenges and what your situation is, the end result is you’re going to have a challenge statement or question. This is a question that’s going to drive the rest of the process. In our Women’s and Gender Studies example, their challenge question was this, “How do we continue our collaborative work to create thriving Women’s and Gender Studies Communities on every campus?“

This question had this very open approach. All their ideas are going to be looking at answering that one question. Now to get there, we looked at probably easily 30 different challenge statements and some of them didn’t quite fit what we need. For instance, one of them was something along the lines of “How do we replace our director without having any funding?” The problem with that statement is it’s so narrow and that it’s looking at the problem with this one particular solution – the solution being to find a new director when actually perhaps there’s a solution that is completely different than the model that they have been using. By looking at it from the challenge statement we chose, it’s a much broader, more open approach.

The challenge statement is really important because whatever you state, that’s what the ideas are going to focus on. So if we only focus on replacing the director without having any funding, we may not have come up with some of the ideas that we did. So that’s the first step in the Creative Problem Solving process, that is Clarify. The second step is Ideate. Ideate is what I think is the kind of stereotypical classic creativity. This is where we’re coming up with as many ideas as we can to answer that challenge statement, that challenge question. For that same example with Women and Gender Studies, one idea that came up was, “Hey, let’s hire a virtual assistant to do some of the administrative work that the current coordinator does.” Great!

Now let’s go back to that divergent and convergent thinking. You’re starting out with divergent thinking but what happens often if you’re mixing convergent and divergent together as soon as somebody brings up this idea of a virtual assistant, somebody else is going to point out like, “Oh no. That will never work. The state system has so many limitations and guidelines on who we can hire. We’ll never be able to do that.” The idea is shut down right away and just that whole demeanor eliminates future ideas. Maybe that idea won’t work but it might spawn another idea or maybe there’s a way to tweak it that will work. The point is, don’t get into convergent thinking while you’re generating ideas.

You’re moving through the ideation process, you come up with a lot of ideas, and in our example, we probably had, I would say 300-400 ideas. We divided the team up into four different small teams, small groups that are working on ideas and each one came up with 75100 ideas for this specific challenge. We could not process that many ideas so what we did is each small group selected their best ideas and brought them to the bigger group.

We take those best ideas and we move into the third stage of the Creative Problem Solving Process, and that’s Develop. Develop is where you’re really strengthening the solutions and you’re figuring out what’s the best fit for our particular challenge. You’re really moving from ideas to solutions.

Now what’s important to know is even though you’re working on solutions at this point, it doesn’t mean the ideas that you’re working on are the ones you’re going to implement. You still haven’t made that final decision. Part of the development stage is to evaluate the ideas and again, you start out with divergent thinking. For each idea, you’re going to spend a little time developing it further, figuring out, “Okay, if we were to implement this, what would it look like?” You go in a little bit more depth. Say you have 10 ideas that you’re developing, after you’ve done all that, then you evaluate and you start figuring out, “Okay, of this 10, which ones are the best to actually implement?” That’s the fourth stage, Implementation. In the implementation stage, you’re looking at how do we make this happen? What are the resources we need? What type of acceptance do we need from other people? Who are our stakeholders? Who are the resistors? Who are the assistors who can help us? Although I mentioned stakeholders and I should point out that you don’t necessarily need to wait until this stage to involve stakeholders. You can do that right from the beginning, depending on what your situation is.

In this implementation stage, this is where the action plans come in. You might start pulling in some resources from the project management world. You might be using tools like Asana or Basecamp, which are online project management software, or Google Drive or Dropbox which are great tools for collaborating amongst teams. I’ll put the links to all of these tools in the show notes for you. So this is the Implementation stage. Now the challenge with the implementation stage is that sometimes, it can be the hardest, most painful part. Going back to Einstein, he is known to have said, “Creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” That’s the implementation stage.

So just to summarize, we have talked today about the history of Creative Problem Solving. We’ve looked at divergent and convergent thinking, and then we walked through the four steps of the Creative Problem Process. Now I have a challenge for you. This week’s challenge is for you to come up with an issue or situation you have where you want to apply the Creative Problem Solving Process. What’s going to happen is in the next four episodes we’re going to walk through each of the four stages of the Creative Problem Solving Process. So in Episode #4, we’ll be looking at Clarifying. Episode #5, we’ll look at Ideate and so on.

In each episode, I’m going to give you some specific tools you can use and if you have a challenge you’re working on, this can basically be like a workshop. I’ll even tell you, “Okay, pause the episode, complete that activity, and then hit play again.” If you come up with something that you can work in the end of the next four weeks, you can have solution to your creative challenge. What I’d love for you to do is go to the show notes and write down your challenge in the comments. I’d like to include some of those challenges in the episodes in the next four weeks then we can have some real live examples.

The show notes are ClimerConsulting.com/003. That is this episode’s show notes. Climer Consulting, which is C-L-I-M-E-R-Consulting.com/003. If you go there, just scroll down on the comments and add your comments. Tell me what your challenges that you want some ideas on. All right, I’m really excited about this. I hope that you all will participate and let me know what you think. I want to know what the solutions are as well. This is going to be fun.

All right y’all, I hope you have enjoyed this. I hope you have learned a lot about Creative Problem Solving. Go out and be creative. Think about what you want to do for the next episode. I’ll see you then. Bye!

Thanks for Listening!

Thank you so much for listening to The Deliberate Creative Podcast. If you have feedback or comments leave them below. You can also email me directly.

If you enjoyed the episode please share it with others using the social media links at the bottom of this page. And, leave an honest review on iTunes. Your reviews make a big difference and I love reading them!

The Weekly Challenge

Your challenge for the week is to find a problem in your life or work where you think the Creative Problem Solving process could help you find new, innovative solutions. Share your challenge in the comments below and Amy might highlight it on Episodes 004-007 where she will lead you through each stage of the Creative Problem Solving process.

Note: The links on this page may be affiliate links. That means I get a small commission of your sale, at no cost to you. However, I only share links to products that I or my guests believe in. Enjoy them! 



Rave Reviews

  • Amy Inspires Creativity Growth in Everyone
    January 5, 2022 by cjpowers7 from United States

    Amy Climer’s show helps all of us grow our creative muscles. She is authentic and cares about her listeners. Amy empowers us with tools that work in the office, training sessions, and our communities. The best part is her ability to make what feels out of reach, something that can be accomplished with simple steps forward.

  • A great way to get inspired!!
    March 8, 2021 by binglish from United States

    Love listening to Amy’s podcast! Her guests are awesome and conversations are full of inspiring information.

  • A must for people who want to think better
    May 26, 2019 by Dhensch from United States

    Amy Climer hit a home run with this podcast and continues to get hits with every episode. I was hooked with the first one and binge-listened to the four solo episodes about the Creative Problem Solving process. Her knowledge of the subject of creativity and innovation is incredibly deep. And, she makes it easy for others to learn and apply. I have listened to other "expert" podcasts and Amy's is different in that she holds nothing back. Episode after episode offer practical insights, tips and tools. She has a generosity of spirit that is contagious.

Recent Episodes

Hire Dr. Amy Climer

Fill in the form below and our team will be happy to assist you

If applicable, please include event details, dates, and budget.