Creative problem solving

Clients will often have a project that has issues or situations that need innovative solutions. Even if you are on a module where creativity is part of the skills you are using, such as helping a group of school children to design and create new clothes, you may still need some help, such as brainstorming different ways to overcome challenges that may arise. This tool will help you to choose the most appropriate methods for you, your team and the project. We’ll look at a 3 stage model which consists of exploring the issue, generating ideas, and then planning the implementation of solutions. We’ll also look at some specific creativity techniques and some of the practicalities you need to consider, so as to develop innovative solutions for your client.

Using this tool helps you to:

  • Choose methods and approaches that suit you and the project.
  • Develop your skills in creative problem solving.

Learning Outcomes

Additional Resources




Many projects you will be working on will need creative thinking at some stage. This can be for the project start, addressing specific problems, or simply finding new and creative ways to present your work. Even if you are on a creative module (e.g. helping a group of school children to design and create new clothes), where creativity is part of the skills you are using, you may need some wider help, such as brainstorming different ways to get started.

The tool addresses:

  • Some basic problem solving approaches as a whole
  • Some specific tools and techniques

Problems, challenges, issues and opportunities

We use the term “problem” to include all of these. The idea is there is some sort of “problem” to address - otherwise, we would know exactly what to do, and we can simply use a tried and tested solution.

Why “creative” problem solving?

If the problem is an obvious or known one, it is likely that solutions might be easy to find. We need the creative element for those situations where the problem is complicated or messy. For example: different people have alternative views on what the problem is, the problem has lots of interrelated parts to it that may be difficult to grasp, or the problem is a one off and no one has come across that particular situation before.

Creative problem solving is central to many subject areas anyway: for instance, in a module where students have to design some 2D graphic displays, or involve young people in a drama production. And here, a core part of the learning may be about being immersed in being creative.

A basic 3 stage creative problem solving process

The arrows represent that in each stage we have divergent thinking (opening up), and convergent thinking (narrowing down and selecting).

This is similar to many creative problem solving approaches. For instance, the Creative Problem Solving process here, from the Creative Education Foundation has 4 stages, but includes divergent and convergent thinking.

5Ws and H

This is one of the simplest techniques to use, for example, when you get allocated a project, and and trying to make sense of it: 5Ws and H stands for: What, Where, When, Why, Who and How..

Create a table like the one in the template here.

As you gather answer, these questions will help you to frame and understand the project, and to start on a plan to tackle it.

Mind maps

Draw an initial mind map of the task. Put the key question in the middle, use post-its to list all the different aspects, (these can be themes, unknowns, issues, ideas) then assemble them into a mind map. It can be messy, but it will help to show some sort of structure.

Rich pictures

Focus on using any sort of symbols, pictures, sketches, with just a few words, to convey the richness of the situation. This will help show the social and emotional aspects, who are the people affected or even delighted.

Your mindmap or rich picture can be used to capture things coming from other tools, such as the 5Ws and H.

Watch the Open University Guide to diagrams video It is 17 mins long, and discusses 5 types of diagram: Rich Pictures, Spray Diagrams, Systems Map, Influence Diagrams and Multiple Cause Diagrams

These diagrams have been drawn by professionals in this area, and their point is to show the power of diagrams. Don’t worry about your diagrams being perfect, but the video will help you get a good idea of how diagrams can help with creative problem solving.

You can try a causal map too, as this might help see what is causing what, or prompt questions later such as “what factors are leading to the client having too few customers?”.

On the topic of Rich Pictures there is another resource here of a short video (3 mins) and several podcast tracks.

Idea Generation Techniques

You need lots of ideas because it is likely that many will be discarded. A “brainstorming” that results in 5 ideas is not really brainstorming and indicates not using any techniques apart from a general discussion.

So, we need a range of techniques to generate a large quantity of ideas. Then we can select those few that are likely to offer the best prospects, especially when the problem is a new, or complex one, where there are no known solutions that come to mind.

  • Reversals - think of an idea, reverse it, and see what new thoughts might be triggered (e.g. Let's make our project as complicated and confusing possible. Reverse this to: Let's make our project the simplest project you could ever imagine. And then think about using our time and resources more frugally).
  • I Wish - write down several “I wish..” statements as a way to create several different visions or goals. (e.g. I wish we could create the client's website in a day, I wish that we could create a better blog format for the client, I wish that we could find a way to make the website more animated).
  • How to - write the project or problem in a “how to..” way (e.g "how to find a way to create a community art project that appeals to community groups A and B).
  • Other Person’s Viewpoint - generate ideas from the perspective of the different types of stakeholders involved, such as customers and users (e.g. if I was a 10 year old, I think there are not enough things to do in the park ….) 
  • Superheroes - break out of our day to day thinking. Become a superhero, and see how that hero might approach the problem - what wild and exaggerated ideas will they have? (e.g. I am Mystique, who has been in several X-Men films. I will use my powers to fly over the problem, and find solutions from far away, change the solutions and insert them into the problem to fix it instantly).

Idea generation rules

  • Suspend judgement. Unusual ideas that may seem ‘off the wall’ are perfectly acceptable, and may trigger more ideas.
  • Try not to repress your natural flow of thoughts. 
  • Odd and unusual ideas could be an alternative starting point, promoting all sorts of possibilities.
  • Such ideas can help us trigger further free association, and thus generate more ideas.
  • Create a productive and open environment.
  • Agree ground rules from the start
  • Use humour – a cure for any passing awkwardness that free expression may cause!

Do we need a facilitator?

A team that is working well together can usually generate a large number of ideas, but it is easy to run out of steam. If you are in a team of 4 or more, one of you can be the facilitator for a while, gathering the ideas, and prompting for more. It is a good idea for the facilitator to be neutral, and step out of being an idea generator for a while.

Selecting ideas

Follow the intriguing. Look for ideas that are particularly intriguing, or surprising, even if they don’t seem instantly appropriate to your problem

Beware the feasibility trap! If you always start with “is this feasible”? You may squash the creativity out of the idea.


Find space to work as a team, where you can share screens on a wider screen, or use flipchart paper. Photo any flip charts so you have a record and can come back to it. You can tidy up any drawings into power point slides if needed, but beware wasting lots of time getting it perfect. Have someone in your team as the facilitator and work as a team.


To summarise, you will often reach a roadblock when working on projects, these stages of problem solving will help you to break through in a creative manner. It gets you outside of thinking in a linear fashion and this can help the project to progress further.


Please download these additional resources and worksheets.

References used in the creation of this tool:

Useful websites for creative problem solving tools:

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