Creative problem solving can be learned, says Mary Ann Gontin. By gathering information, taking time away from a problem to reflect and identifying the right resources, anyone can learn to do it well.
Not everyone can be Steve Jobs or Richard Branson.
Not to worry, says Mary Ann Gontin, managing partner at executive coaching firm OI Partners. “Many people have the misperception that you’re born creative or you’re not,” she says. But creative people aren’t born, they’re made.
“Creativity is mostly a consequence of intending to be creative,” says Gontin. “That’s often a relief to people.”
And creativity doesn’t have to mean painting a great canvas or inventing a new product from scratch. It can mean generating a few good ideas, or simply coming up with ways to improve a current system.
Gontin says that the ability solve problems creatively and collaboratively is a key skill for mid-level managers seeking to move up to the next level within their organizations.
She recommends that individuals and teams use a multi-step process to tackle a problem that needs to be solved. Her process is adapted from the 2012 book “Your Creative Brain,” by Shelley Carson (Gontin has no financial interest in the book).
Start out with a problem: Your boss has asked you to design a new sales strategy, or your staff has complained that the current system for sharing computer files is inefficient.
First, gather information – talk to people in other departments about how they’re handling a similar issue; go online and look for best practices; see what resources exist to help you address the problem.
Then, “enter your inner world,” says Gontin. Get up from your desk, take a walk, gaze out the window for a while. Think about ideas for solving the problem while you’re physically away from the problem and can think more expansively.
Then connect with other stakeholders for a brainstorming session.
If you’re a manager, your role may be less about generating solutions and more about facilitating other people’s brainstorming. “Brainstorming is usually not done correctly” because people are given too little time to think of ideas, says Gontin.
Typically, employees are called into a meeting and are asked to come up with some ideas, which are then written on a whiteboard and dissected. Not everyone can perform in that situation, she says.
Instead, let people know in advance that you’re seeking solutions to a problem and ask them to come in with two or three ideas written down – without their names on the paper. Then gather the ideas and discuss them one at a time. Because this part of the process is anonymous, teams can get away from the judgment and political gamesmanship that can make people self-conscious in these meetings.
Finally, in evaluating the potential solutions, consider what’s realistic given the resources available and the organization’s culture.
“You can’t become so invested in the brilliance of an idea that you shut out the question of whether it’s feasible,” she says.
Following these steps to create positive change in your company, she adds, can demonstrate impressive leadership to the boss, she says, by showing that “you can come up with ideas but you’re also politically in tune enough to know what can work.”