Posts Tagged ‘problem solving’


idea generation tools for the lonely head

January 3, 2014

Two heads are better than one. Yes. Sometimes that is correct. But other times, there’s only one head to think of ideas or solutions. So what’s that head to do?

Creativity can be taught, nurtured, and enhanced. We are all born with it. In fact, the right brain part  – responsible for ideas, intuition, love and absorbing information fast – is developed faster in the fetus than the left brain that is in charge of rational, linear or logical thinking. Geniuses are no different than any of us. They are not smarter by birth, but they know how to balance logic with play and therefore think smarter, a tool anyone can learn

Luckily, there are hundreds of tools to generate ideas. Sadly, not many people use those tools regularly. There is a strong correlation between the quality and the quantity of ideas. There’s a need to try many ideas in order to generate something groundbreaking. My intention here is to showcase some simple tools, each can be done in 5 minutes or less, and require nothing but a pen and paper to produce a lot of ideas to solve one problem or challenge. And remember, just like Einstein claimed, sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge.


A simple change of words or the order of words in a problem statement will stimulate your imagination by adding new dimensions of meaning, as an unobservable process in your mind has initiated and may lead to a new thought or idea, says Michael Michalko  in his book, Cracking Creativity. Suppose you want to increase sales. See how you can change perspectives by changing the verb:

In what ways might I increase sales?

In what ways might I attract sales?

In what ways might I develop sales?

In what ways might I extend sales?

In what ways might repeat sales?

In what ways might I stop sales?

Notice the last question has a negative aspect. By thinking in the opposite way, you can rid your mind from all the reasons why you cannot make sales. And when you set to plan, plan the opposite.

Using the same exercise, try to change the words in your challenge. If you look at the opening between two rooms and think door, that’s the only idea you will get. But if you consider another word like passageway, air curtain, tunnel, or even a hole in a wall, you will bring your thinking into a different lateral level.


Deliberately ask stupid questions to shock your mind out of its original patterns. Then suspend judgment and use that statement to generate ideas. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Make a statement (examples: people should fly to work, we should eat for free in restaurants, people need to sleep standing up)
  1. Examine it
    1. Consequences of the statement
    2. What the benefits would be
    3. What special circumstances will make it a sensible solution
    4. Principles needed to support it and make it work.
    5. How it would work moment-to-moment
    6. What would happen if a sequence of events was changed

The more outrageous your statement is, the more creative your ideas to try and make it work. It’s worth a try.


Take a step back to look at the bigger picture.

Place your problem in a bubble (draw it) and then produce the ideas or solutions that you can think of for this problem. Next, move that problem into a bigger area or category. Come up with ideas or solutions for that bigger issue. Repeat another time if needed and then choose the level at which you find an inspiring solution.

concept fan


Are you solving the right problem? Or is it a symptom of it? To find out the right level at which you need to focus, do the 5 whys method. Write your problem down, and ask yourself “why” do I need to do it. Write your answer down (so now you have 2 sentences written on top of each other). Then ask again, why (for the second statement) and write the third response and then ask again, why. Do that 5 times and each time you will reach a higher level of abstract thinking. Make sure to write your answers on top of each other with the “why” in between each sentence.

Then go for the “how” and next to each sentence you wrote, ask “How” and give an idea or two on how you can solve the problem at that level, and at each level consequently. Once you’ve answered all 5 hows, you can see your problem, and some initial ideas on different levels of abstraction. Choose the one you are comfortable with to try out and continue from there. Here’s an example. The first “steps” WHY are in blue, the second steps HOW are in orange

Choose the level which you are comfortable (and able) to work with and generate as many ideas as you can to solve that issue.

how how


There are a number of ways to decompose a challenge to smaller more workable bits. One can decompose it based on sequence of events. If it’s a product to be used, then what are the steps to use such product (from needing the product, to looking for it, finding it, using and then releasing or archiving it). If it’s a service, then those are the steps to accomplish it. Note down the sequence of steps as a diagram and then work on each one to generate more ideas on how to improve that step. For example, how to make our morning routines go smoother and maybe faster. We note the steps and then we find a way to combine, shorten or eliminate unnecessary ones

decompose sequence


What if you were the very same idea you are trying to come up with. What if you were the project you’re trying to complete at work. How does it if feel to get close to a “dead” line? How could you be easier to handle? Who do you need to speak with when you are happy? When suffering? Imagine yourself a watch or a chair. How could you become more attractive? More comfortable? How can you make others want to be around you, and you only?


Roger von Oech advices in his Creative Whack Pack that the key to metaphorical thinking is comparing unrelated concepts and finding similarities between them. What similarities does your idea have with cooking a meal? Conducting an orchestra? Building a house? Raising a child? What can you compare your idea to?


Explain your problem to a 5 years old. What would you say? Explain it to your great grandmother. How would you relate? Simplify your language to get a clearer image of what you’re up against.


write a random list of jobs that are as far from your immediate life as possible. A nurse, a truck driver, an architect, a fire fighter or a winter sports olymian. State your problem as you see it, then re-state it thinking how would that person in one of those professions see it. Then generate ideas from his/her point of view.

For example, if your problem is manging the overloaded sales for a particular product, you can ask, how would a nurse manage  an overloaded ICU unit, giving each patient what they need, when they need it? how would a truck driver manage an overloaded vehicle or an overloaded street? how would a fire fighter mange to take care of a full “overloaded” building that has a fire alarm set and no sign of fire, yet. Write ideas for each new hat you are wearing, then re-group all ideas and see which ones you can alter or change or use as it is for your overloaded sales problem


Use what you know about nature in imagining your problem from its perspective. Choose an animal you are familiar with, and ask yourself how would this animal solve your problem? Do the exercise another time and choose a plant, and then a third time and chose an insect. Repeat.

…….  Now that you have a number of tools to work with, let me know which one did magic for you and which was lame. I will add more tools or ideas to help you out whether you are a long, or with a group of people, anything from 2 to 200 people. Good Luck. Cheers!


A Rabbit Detour

February 12, 2011

It is said that Rabbits are one of the only species of animal simultaneously considered pets, pests, and livestock animals by people in the same culture. talk about being so versatile!

Rabbits, animals, forests, and the whole ecosystem are fascinating me these days. I’m looking at nature as a live book or a very animated teacher, sometimes, it becomes a good listerner friend when I find myself babbling on today’s issues and problems we face daily.

In celebrating the new Chineese Year, and in keeping with the spirit of the rabbit, I will maintain sensitive ears and eyes to watch my surrounding, continue an unpredictable way of dealing with life’s detours, and still go with the flow.

It’s been almost 2 years since i last wrote something on this blog, or any place for the matter. it was not beacuse i didn’t have anything to say or the time to say it. i was simply getting too much involved in everything that i didn’t take the time to reflect on things as they happen. A requirement to make the necessary connections.

To say the least, it was a speedy, bumpy ride. However, with every slow-down over a bump, i managed to take a quick glance on the scenery around me, get lost numerous times, and overall enjoyed the ride. In times of change like this one, i plan to write about those speedy roads, as well as the unpredictable detours.

One of those short turns was my initial encounter with biomimicry 4 years ago. I fail to remember when did i hear about it first, but i rememeber very well how much sense it made to me. The basics are considering nature as a model, as a measure, and as a mentor. In Janine Benyus’s book “Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature”, she explained those facts:

1. Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf.

2. Nature as measure. Biomimicry uses an ecologucal standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned. What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.

3. Nature as mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. it introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

As i hit another bump in my life, Architectural Engineering, I see a big connection between both fields and a story that screams to be told. There has been many attemps and examples on using nature as our inspirational teacher when desinging our buildings. One of the famous ones is the East Gate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. Designed by Mick Pearce and Arup Associates, developed an air conditioning system modeled on the self-cooling mounds of Termites.

Image source:

I claim no interest in developing a final model of a building that took nature as its first draft, but i have an urge to find where biomimicry links with the design process or design thinking for the matter. If the Rabbit lives in burrows or underground passages which they excavate in the soil, how does one of its predators (the fox for example) design its home? Does it look for rabbit hideouts or it locates it in a place that best fits the family need? does it consider the material available on hand or it has special requirements? how does their home serve their lifestyle?

That, and other things, are some of the upcoming bumps I look forward to find on my road.

Happy Rabbit’s Year.


Coaching and facilitating – two faces of a coin

September 19, 2008

I’ve been doing facilitation for quite some time and have enjoyed the process so far. Lately I was asked to coach a group in problem solving over a number of visits. I became very interested in this concept even more as it allowed me to monitor the progress of the working group, rather than leave it to them at the end of the facilitation meeting.

Digging deeper into the subject, I read the “Coaching for Performance” by John Whitmore. According to him, “coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them”. In a way, isn’t that what facilitation is about? but rather than focus on the individual, it is a group process. facilitation also relies heavily on the group to find their own solutions, and the facilitator’s job is asking the right question, and providing a framework on how to move forward in the process. Using both compliments each other and it enriches the whole experience. A facilitator needs to start with an informational interview with the client prior to facilitation to understand the issue at hand, then the meeting happens, and a follow up could occur.

If the facilitator is an experienced coach (not necessarily certified), then the person can be even better at asking questions, provoking thoughts, bringing awareness to the client and ultimately, the client will be take on the action plan because he/she feels ownership of the solution they came up with as a group (rather than a consultant suggesting it from the outside).  In a way, smart consultants can even capitalize on the benefits of using coaching skills in his/her practice.

I will use an example of a creativity model applied by some facilitators called Creative Problem Solving (CPS) and compare it the guidelines that Whitmore suggested for coaching for performance.

in the CPS, a facilitator goes through a number of steps to reach the ultimate goal of finding one or more solutions to the issue at hand. Puccio, Murdock and Mance offer one version of the model by connecting it with some of our thinking skills that we need to make it work. Following are the steps:

1. Assessing the situation (diagnostic thinking)

2. Exploring the vision (visionary thinking)

3. formulating challenges (strategic thinking)

4. exploring ideas (ideational thinking)

5. formulating solutions (evaluative thinking)

6. exploring acceptance (contextual thinking)

7. formulating a plan (tactical thinking)

whole coaching can follow the steps:

1. setting goal (ask questions to get to the ultimate goal the client has (the dream))

2. checking reality  (assessing attentudes, tapping emotions, using more descriptive and detailed explanations)

3. exploring options (alternatives, assumptions, what else?, and finally prioritizing)

4. Intentions on making things work (what will you do?) – continue with questions to find the motivation behind each alternative or option and how likely it will happen.

5. conclusion (give action plan and follow up)

see? many already overlap with each other… and can easily be digested together. when I assess the situation as a facilitator, I ask questions, and when I explore the vision, I will ask “how would the situation look like if the issue was resolved?” or what’s your dream solution? this is ultimately setting goals for the client as a coachee and assuming ownership of the problem.

from the other side, it still stands still. when we are exploring options (alternatives and assumptions) we are using ideational thinking in finding all the ways that we can use. a facilitator of the CPS has an advantage here of being exposed to a number of creativity tools that will assist this stage. with many idea generation tools available, the important rule to the game is separating divergent from convergent thinking. so when we are looking for alternatives, we are not judging or even commenting on their fitness or not. we are simply generating ideas.

the conclusion in both is an actual plan and we are using our tactical thinking to find the best fit  (now’s the best time for converging our options and choosing the best fit).

when we explore a challenge using, combining our individual and group coaching and facilitation skills, we create a package that will help tackle a problem from all areas, and build on the assets of the inidividual as well as the group who are dealing with it, creating awareness and responsibility for everyone.

I say it’s a winning formula.



workspace design and creativity in organizations.

January 12, 2008

Traditionally the workspace has been designed favouring one particular setting – offices or cubicles vs. open-plan space – and this pattern cannot accommodate the different phases of creativity. As a consequence, it is to be expected that offices offering hybrid infrastructure will become more popular in organizations, suggesting that if the firm is to invest resources in the creation of a dedicated innovation environment, then it is essential that the strategic intentions underpinning this space are explicit. In this sense, VanGundy persuades companies to design a creativity room specifically for this purpose and load it with materials, books, idea generation aids and group setting. Design firms such as IDEO also develop spaces that support visualization, exploration and inspiration through access to materials and artifacts. Another example is a space developed to improve and advance pharmaceutical products, as they provided a separate area with walls and floor filled with objects and models, bulletin boards, flat tabletops, drawers, cabinets, progress reports, sketches, computers with CAD, metal and wood workshops, competing products, props, wood and metal workshops, recording of previous sessions, bulletins displayed previous attempts, isolation from disturbance. Companies can add to this list by providing different layouts for the activities taken in the office; such as access to information and support, gathering zones and interaction areas for informal as well as formal meetings and sections and moving furniture for different thinking processes. Other organizations might want to adopt some guidelines to creativity and problem solving. A well known model developed by Alex Osborn and Sid Parnes is called the Creative Problem Solving (CPS). Supporters of this method use stages to move between steps. Those stages can be installed in the design blueprint and plan for rooms that can be called: The Clarification Chamber ® (CC), The Transformational Hall ® (TH) or the Implementation Lab ® (IL). (more on these room names soon)

As per the architectural design, while some design values are targeted at encouraging specific behaviours (i.e. futuristic, playful, minimalist, etc), the use of imagery can reinforce actions, i.e. triangular room for creative divergence. I am not suggesting constructing the building itself as triangular, as this might impede future changes to the place, but the use of temporary architecture has more to offer than meets the eye. Those installations can exist without a determinate function, because they are free to suggest uses rather than being governed by them, and because they are free to exist on sites inaccessible to permanent architecture. As in the unfinished, one can imagine new realities.

In conclusion, the essential meaning of the space is to allow emotions to surface in the work area to further enhance the performance of the occupants and not necessarily suppress them for productivity sake. Whether it is the movable walls that support small and big group sizes or the warm colors that contrast a high-stress environment, movable furniture that accommodate informal idea development, or the geometrical propositions that stimulate various expressions of movement, serious effort on understanding the effects of such atmosphere will stimulate creative behavior in the work environment.


you can read more about design issues and creativity by reading”Organizational creativity through space design” – 2008,Randah Taher.