We all have the potential to be great creative problem solvers, but what most people do not realize is that our ability to solve problems creatively, whether applied to product development, business models, brand strategy, positioning platforms or creative executions, is significantly limited by a series of natural mental biases.
The way we think and the mental patterns we use to select, process and analyze information can act as barriers and hold back our creative potential.
Some of the most common biases are:
1. The confirmation bias: The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. In addition, individuals may discredit information they find that does not support their existing views.
2. The self-serving bias: The tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests.
3. The belief bias: When one's evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion.
4. Framing: Using a too-narrow approach and description of the situation or issue.
We're all subject to these biases whether we want it or not and any of them can limit our ability to generate and entertain novel thoughts and ideas. So what can we do to overcome these biases and boost our creative problem-solving skills?
1. The first step is self-awareness. Simply being aware of and acknowledging the fact that our creative problem skills are limited by the way we think and process information is the first step to breaking some of those patterns. Doing so will then encourage you to find tools, techniques and tricks to overcome those biases and increase your problem solving skills, like the techniques we list below. It works for Alcoholics Anonymous and it works for creativity!
2. Detach yourself from the problem. The way we look at a problem is limited by the way we frame it, which in turn is influenced by our past experience, our knowledge, our beliefs and our mental processes. Framing matters, so it is not a surprise to us that ten out of the twenty-six Positioning-Roulette approaches to brand positioning and storytelling focus on the frame of reference. Re-framing the problem or looking for solutions from various perspective (or adjacent fields) is a great way to overcome some of the mental biases that plague us. Or as Einstein said "The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution". In our experience the most effective "creativity techniques" use a two-step approach. The first step usually consists in moving away from the problem to facilitate the generation of new ideas, the second step then consists in translating those ideas back into tangible solutions that could solve the original problem.
3. Use a framework or a method to guide your thinking. Most people still don't seem to realize that there is a method to creativity. Creativity doesn't just happen. One significant benefit of a more methodical approach is that it helps drive and guide the idea finding process and thus helps overcome the biases and limitations mentioned above. This is where tools like Positioning-Roulette, a free web based idea generation app, come into play. They help guide your thinking and by doing so act as a distraction from many of your limiting mental biases. And while for obvious reasons we prefer our own Positioning-Roulette framework, the truth is that any framework (for example, the Maslow hierarchy of needs is another effective framework) will lead to better results than not using any.
4. Show empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes without judging. This "someone else" can be a consumer you are trying to convert or another team member during an ideation session. This is a very difficult thing to do but is also a very powerful way to unleash new solutions to a problem. Empathy doesn't mean that you necessarily agree with the other person's point of view, it just means that you can see things from their point of view for long enough to consider new solutions that may emerge from this perspective. A simple way to start is to practice empathy with your significant other. You'll find this improves not only your ability to be creative but also your relationship!
5. Promote diversity of point of views. Avoid groupthink. We believe better solutions are generated when developed by a diverse group of people. If you are an intuitive thinker add a more rationally minded person to your ideation session, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. If you're a team of business people add a creative minded person or artist to your ideation team. The trick here however is not just to add people that have a different working style than you, but also to listen to them and allow their perspective to influence the thinking and ideation process (see point 4). As someone told us once, the best leaders are "integrators", they are able to listen to various points of view and incorporate those into the final solution. The tremendous side benefit: everyone involved in the process feels heard and takes ownership in the solution.
6. Focus on the right input and stimuli. Using thought starters and inputs from other fields or categories also helps short-circuit your own thinking patterns and boost your creative problem skills (see point three). However, not all thought-starters are created equal. Some will be more relevant to the type of problem you're trying to solve than others. Looking at the world of ants and how they are organized and trying to draw conclusions on how to position a brand of yogurt might sound like a fun exercise (and it is) but it's, in our experience, a complete waste of time.
7. Expand your own marketing knowledge and experience. The more diverse marketing problems you have worked on, the more cases in different categories you've been exposed to, the more flexible and agile your thought processes will become. You'll be able to pull from a broader pool of know-how and experiences and synthesize more meaningful connections, ultimately leading to new types of solutions. This is where case studies come in handy as a short cut to "experience". Knowing how a beer brand solved a trial generation problem in Australia might trigger an innovative solution on how to generate trial for a brand of mouthwash in the US. This is also where listening to the experience of someone who isn't familiar with your category might be very beneficial as well.
Creative problem solving is at the core of what we do. Over time, we've learned how to sharpen those skills and we hope that these techniques will help you too. What tricks do you use to boost your creative problem skills? Let us know in the comment section below.
Ulli Appelbaum is the creator of the "Positioning Roulette Flash Cards", a set of cards capturing the 26 universal approaches to brand story telling based on the analysis of over 1200 case studies and designed to guide and stimulate your thinking when developing brand positioning platforms, creating brand stories and generating new product ideas.