From the common basis of the discipline of design thinking, various methodological directions have been taken to best meet the needs of specific fields of application. This is the case of creative problem solving, which aims to find solutions to problems through a creative approach, based on techniques such as brainstorming, that facilitate the generation of innovative ideas, capable of breaking out of established patterns to guarantee new perspectives for business development and growth.

What is creative problem solving

Creative problem solving, also found in the acronym CPS, is a method for solving problems and finding opportunities in contexts where traditional thinking approaches prove ineffective. CPS encourages the adoption of new perspectives, capable of driving towards truly innovative solutions that overcome anticipated problems and successfully achieve business objectives.

The genesis of creative problem solving dates back to the 1940s, when Alex Osborn, founder of the Creative Education Foundation, basically introduced it under the name of brainstorming.

Later, together with Sid Parnes, Osborn himself defined the Creative Problem Solving Process, which remains to this day a valid framework for successfully approaching this discipline, as well as a tireless source of inspiration for the CPS tools and methodologies that have followed throughout the years.

Among the most recent creative problem solving models, the four steps of the CPS Learner’s Model, developed by, among others, Gerard J. Puccio and Marie Mance, still under the aegis of the Creative Education Foundation, should be mentioned right now.

Another very useful resource to start applying creative problem solving in practice is Sam Kaner’s text: Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, first published during 2001.

To understand the spirit that inspires the adoption of creative problem solving, it is necessary to start from the assumption that innovating products, services and solutions in the various business domains is anything but simple, especially if one proceeds with the usual patterns of reasoning and is confronted with constraints before one has even imagined new possibilities.

Creative problem solving seeks to break out of the immobility of ideas by alternating phases of divergent thinking with phases of convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking (divergent thinking) is a process that consists of generating many possible solutions to a problem. Convergent thinking (convergent thinking) proceeds by evaluating the ideas formulated in the divergent thinking stages to try to identify the most suitable one and proceed with its development.

It is crucial that facilitators employing CPS know how to distinguish these two moments well, resisting the temptation to adopt them simultaneously. The correct alternation of divergent and convergent phases is indispensable to avoid bias and distortions that could result in unbalanced solutions.

Why use creative problem solving

One of the main peculiarities of creative problem solving is that it is decidedly less structured than other processes used in innovation, in order to encourage the development of ideas freely and unconditionally. Some of the main benefits that companies can gain from adopting creative problem solving in the pursuit of innovation include:

  • Finding creative solutions to complex problems.
  • Preparing for and adapting to change.
  • Contributing to business innovation and growth.

In particular, the last of the mentioned aspects is probably the most relevant, if we consider the ability of creative problem solving to go far beyond the solution of common problems and complex problems, especially when employed in combination with futures studies. CSP is able to inspire new product lines, services and radically alter the operational structure of existing processes to increase their efficiency and adaptability to future scenarios, in fact anticipating them.

Many innovation stakeholders, including the World Economic Forum, openly claim that among the skills that will characterise the jobs of the future are creative problem solving skills, to the extent that candidates for open positions will have to prove that they possess them.

The basic principles of creative problem solving

According to the CPS Learner’s Model, edited and published by the Creative Education Foundation, creative problem solving is based on four fundamental principles, which we specifically mention:

  1. Divergent thinking and convergent thinking must be balanced. The key to creativity lies in balancing divergent and convergent thinking, performing them separately, as well as realising when it is better to practice one rather than the other.
  2. Consider problems as questions, framing them in the perspective of open questions to which multiple answers can be offered, so as to encourage a variety of solutions. From questions with closed answers, such as a yes or a no, it would otherwise be complex to find cues and insights that foster innovation.
  3. Deferring and postponing decisions, so as not to limit the innovative scope of the ideas formulated in the brainstorming phase. In particular, the phases dedicated to convergent thinking must not take a hasty approach.
  4. Focusing on ‘yes, and…’ rather than ‘no, but…’, to encourage participants in the sessions planned in the various stages of the CPS to adopt a proactive attitude and broaden their vision and thinking towards new possibilities to solve a problem. According to the CPS Learner’s Model, the use of ‘but’, whether preceded by ‘yes’ or ‘no’, tends to close a conversation, moreover negating what was previously stated, and would therefore be discouraged in the context of collegial work.

CPS – Creative Problem Solving “tools”

Since Osborn’s early work, the intent of the creative problem solving facilitators has been to create frameworks and practical tools to support stakeholder work sessions.

The most common are as follows, but it should be emphasised at the outset that these tools are almost always customised to best meet specific needs, which can vary considerably in each application context.

Set a problem

The first step, when it comes to innovating, often coincides with the creation of a story about a problem, to understand how it affects users and what solutions might best suit their needs. This process has several specific stages:

  • Identifying the problem, otherwise known as undesired phenomena (UDP).
  • Move forward in time, asking yourself why this is a problem in the first place, and making sure that it is one.
  • Move backwards in time, questioning the causes that generated the problem, in order to basically identify its root, through the formulation of various hypotheses, to which an answer can basically be given.
  • Breaking the chains, trying to connect the various UDP storylines formulated in the early stages, in order to break the links that hold back innovation. This is usually done using two methods: inversion, where the solution is the exact opposite of the problem, and neutralisation, which aims to eliminate the cause-effect relationship underlying the problem itself.


Brainstorming is a widespread technique in creative problem solving, to the point that the two terms are often used synonymously, also due to Osborn’s original definition. However, brainstorming in its current conception is a useful tool to support the ideational phases of CPS and design thinking in its most general sense.

Brainstorming is implemented as an iterative process in which stakeholders are invited to discuss various topics openly, in a collegial manner, stimulating solutions to identified problems. This approach facilitates the creation and exploration of ideational phases, especially by encouraging the adoption of various perspectives and points of view, which could be ignored if the creative process were left to the individual or to a few specialists, if they were not equipped with the appropriate overview.

Facilitating a brainstorming session is often a more arduous task than it might appear at first glance, as it requires numerous experience and sensitivity in alternating divergent and convergent phases of thought that are indispensable for focusing and testing the ideas in common reflection. Brainstorming sessions conducted by an experienced facilitator can generate considerable added value in the business context, especially for the ability to focus on the actual problems to be solved.

Alternative scenarios

The alternative scenarios method consists of an empathic approach to encourage creative problem solving, thus encouraging the evaluation of the problem in a different situation. In other words, we ask how that problem would be solved by someone in a different scenario.

Such an approach is very useful to understand whether and how the same problem, a similar one, or one caused by the same circumstances, has already been solved in other contexts or fields of application, in order to draw useful insights in relation to the specific case.

Starting from this observation, one proceeds alternating divergent and convergent thinking phases to adapt the opted solutions. Here, the facilitator’s role becomes above all that of avoiding ‘taking for granted’ the solution of alternative scenarios, favouring an open and solution-oriented adoption of the specific case.

Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking

Having identified what creative problem solving consists of, what its foundations are and the main techniques used, we can better understand how it is contextualised in the broader discipline of design thinking.

The creative approach to problem solving is in fact very often used when the desire emerges in the corporate context to develop new ideas and innovative solutions to problems that in many cases must first be identified in a timely and easily understandable manner for all stakeholders (often even resorting to the so-called creative confidence). It is no coincidence that the first stages of the work are always oriented towards problem finding, only later entering the context of problem solving.

This clarification allows us to understand the meaning of CPS in the context of a more structured discipline such as design thinking. To better understand what it consists of, let us take a cue from the framework of the course Design Thinking and Innovation, taught by Dean Srikant Datar at Harvard Business School.

Design thinking is a human-centred process that focuses on the creation and development of solutions to problems, through four fundamental stages, articulated according to a real framework:

  • Clarify (Clarify): consists of generating empathy with users in order to identify problems, supporting them through in-depth research, reformulating them into real questions, to be answered by stakeholders from various perspectives.
  • Ideate (Idea): this is the process in which new ideas are formulated, seeking divergent approaches, to be converged with problem solving techniques. It is precisely here that creative problem solving is specifically contextualised, which can, however, also find a place and conscious application in later phases.
  • Develop: the selected ideas are verified in terms of feasibility and led towards the successful stages of development, adopting above all a convergent approach, in order to arrive at actual prototypes to be submitted for final approval by stakeholders.
  • Implementation (Implementation): from the approval of the prototype, one enters into testing and experimentation aimed at the actual implementation of new designs/products in existing processes, or their launch on the market.
Written by:

Nicoletta Boldrini

Futures & Foresight Director | Direttrice Responsabile Tech4Future Read articles Look at the Linkedin profile