Creative problem solving techniques

Throughout your career, you’ll come across problems and these problem solving techniques will help you to solve them. From analogies to assumption surfacing and good old brainstorming, these techniques help to get you thinking about your problem in new ways. 

Bullet proofing

E.g. Kepner and Tregoe

As you might expect, this involves looking at what might go wrong with your plans! It is a combination of potential problem analysis and negative brainstorming. Because you’re looking at what might go wrong, this technique is great for identifying problems before you go on to use the other techniques to solve them. That’s why we’ve put it at the top!

To use the technique, place each area identified in a table, indicating how likely the event is to occur and if it did occur, how serious the implications would be for your plan. The issues you worry about the most will likely be towards the top right of the table – major problems that are very likely to happen. If there are quite a few, you may first need to prioritise them, to enable you to focus your efforts on the most important. Then use any suitable problem-solving method like the ones suggested on this page, to work out ways of dealing with them.


Brainstorming is a problem solving technique more people will be aware of than any other technique. There are simple principles that help guide you to ‘brainstorm’ ideas and solutions to your problems.

1) Don’t criticise. This is to ensure deferred judgement, and is the most important of the four rules.

2) Expression of ideas must be uninhibited. Whatever comes to mind is welcomed: free associations, random thoughts, images that are funny, taboo, way-out, interesting, boring, apparently relevant, apparently irrelevant, etc., etc.

3) Go for quantity The more ideas recorded, the more chances there are of success.

4) Hitch-hike As well as contributing your own ideas, it is important to build on others ideas. This encourages idea improvement and elaboration and enhances group interaction.

An example that I always remember about brainstorming related to a business scenario. Workers in a factory were packing goods into boxes that needed to be wrapped in newspaper. The Company was struggling with productivity because the workers kept reading the newspapers. During a brainstorming session, one of the team joked that a solution could be to poke all the workers’ eyes out. As silly as this sounds, there is a sensible answer to the Company’s problem right there in that suggestion. The Company deployed the workers elsewhere and hired blind workers for that particular part of the process. Productivity increased substantially and of course, there was the PR benefit of hiring so many workers with a disability too. It goes to show that no idea should be dismissed when brainstorming.

Advantages, limitations, and unique qualities

See e.g. Isaksen, Dorval and Treffinger, 1994

This problem solving techniqe involves applying constructive evaluation to potentially interesting ideas. You consider the idea, brainstorming all the advantages, without any ‘buts’! You then brainstorm all the limitations, weaknesses and problems. Finally, you brainstorm what is unique and different about the idea.

This helps you constructively evaluate the value of the idea from different angles.

Find out more about the advantages, limitations, and unique qualities technique here.

Alternative scenarios

E.g. Miller, W. C. (1987)

This creative problem solving technique involves considering qualitatively different descriptions of plausible futures. They help you consider the potential environments that you might have to operate and what you may need to do in the present. You will also identify what environmental factors to monitor over time as part of the process, so that when the environment shifts, you can recognise where it is shifting to.

To use the technique, you first state the specific decision that needs to be made, then identify the major environmental forces that impact on the decision. Then, you build four scenarios based on the principal forces. With the scenarios in hand, you identify business opportunities within each scenario. After, you examine the links and synergies of opportunities across the range of scenarios, helping you formulate a more realistic strategy for investment.

Assumption surfacing

E.g. Mason and Mitroff, 1981

This creative problem solving technique helps make underlying assumptions more visible.

To use the technique, you identify a particular choice you have made, and ask yourself what assumptions guide this choice – why you feel it is the best choice. You then list the assumptions, and beside each write a counter-assumption: not necessarily its negation, but the opposite pole of the construct it represents.


E.g Van Gundy, A.B. (1988)

An analogy is saying that something is like something else (in some respects but not in others).

To use analogies in your problem solving, you can:

  • Identify what it is you want ideas for, and try to find a core verb phrase that captures the essential functional nature of what you are looking for, e.g. ‘How to make X’. ‘How to prevent Y’, ‘How to speed up Z’, ‘How to become better at A’.
  • For each verb phrase generate a list of items (people, situations, objects, processes, actions, places, etc.) that is ‘like’ it in some way, e.g. analogies to ‘making X’ (having a baby, making apudding, the Genesis creation story, a robot car factory, …).
  • Pick one of these analogies that seems interesting -preferably where the verb phrase and analogy are from different domains – e.g. a biological analogy for a mechanical problem.
  • Describe the analogue, including active aspects (such as how it works, what it does, what effects it has, how it is used) as well as passive aspects (size, position, etc.).
  • Use this description to suggest ideas relevant to your problem. Does the analogue have features you can use directly? Do the differences suggest other ways of looking at your problem?

So using analogies, you look at the way other things similar to your problem work, and look at what solutions you could adapt for your own problem.

Boundary examination

E.g. de Bono (1982)

This simple creative problem solving method from de Bono helps you to bring potentially relevant aspects of your problem back into your awareness.

To use the method, you write down an initial statement of the problem, and underline key words. You examine each key word for hidden assumptions. One way of achieving this is to consider how the meaning of the statement changes if you replace a key word by a synonym or near synonym. When you have explored how the particular choice of key words affects the meaning of the statement, see if you can redefine the problem in a better way.


CATWOEE.g. Checkland and Scholes, 1990

CATWOE is a mnemonic helping you consider various aspects of your problem. Using the technique, you look at:

C: The ‘customers of the system’. In this context, ‘customers’ means those who are on the receiving end of whatever it is that the system does.

A: The ‘actors’, who are those who would actually carry out the activities envisaged in the notional system being defined.

T: The ‘transformation process’ which is what the system does to its inputs in order to transform them into outputs.

W: The ‘world view’ that lies behind the root definition. The relevance of a particular system often depends on the wider system of beliefs and values in which it is embedded.

O: The ‘owner(s)’, i.e. those who have sufficient formal power over the system to stop it existing if they so wished (though they won’t usually want to do this).

E: The ‘environmental constraints’, which includes things such as ethical limits, regulations, financial constraints, resource limitations, limits set by terms of reference, and so on.

5 Ws and H

e.g. 5 Ws and H, Kipling’s List, Kid’s Kit

Familar to most of us from early on at school, the words: ‘Who? Why? What? Where? When? How?’ provide a powerful checklist for imagination or enquiry (often recommended to journalists) that is simple enough to prompt thinking but not get in the way. It doesn’t need much more explanation as you’ve probably used the list before!

Visualising a goal

E.g. Gawain, 1982

Using this creative problem solving technique, you focus, energise and inform your own efforts, as well as influencing others around you in ways you may not be aware of.

To use the technique, first set your goal. Then create a clear idea or picture of how you want the situation to be. After that, focus n your picture, perhaps in meditation and also throughout the day so it is an integrated part of your life. You need to give your vision positive energy by thinking about it in a positive encouraging way. Keep with this until you achieve your goal or no longer want to – goals do change! Make sure if you achieve the goal, you acknowledge this to yourself.

An important aspect of the technique involves a sort of internal mental conflict. On one hand you need to be realistic about how achievable the goal is – and on the other hand, you need to be giving it an almost unrealistic positivity to influence yourself and others.

Stakeholder analysis

e.g. Mason, R.O. and Mitroff, I.I. (1981)

Stakeholder analysis involves identifying all relevant stakeholders to a problem, categorising them by their chance of affecting a situation and also by the scale of impact they may have if they did. A matrix is created on which each stakeholder is placed.

As part of the process, it’s useful to carry out assumption surfacing (see above) from each stakeholder’s perspective.

What you’re left with is a shortlist of robust assumptions that tie the situation together. These need to be carefully reviewed and questions asked such as: Does this stakeholder have any special power in the situation? How could this stakeholder be influenced to change their position or course of action (if you want them to)?

Rich pictures

E.g. Peter Checkland (University of Lancaster), Systems Group (OU)

Rich pictures are a helpful way to capture all the elements of a messy unstructured situation found in a soft system.

To use the technique, you…

‘Dump’ all the elements of the messy situation you are considering in an unstructured way, using symbols and caricatures, on paper.


2. Try to find elements of structure (physical), e.g. buildings, apparatus, etc.

3. Try to find elements of process, e.g. things in a state of change, activities that go on within the structure.

4. Consider ways in which the structure and the process interact and try to get an impression of the organisational climate.

5. Don’t try to represent the situation in terms of systems, but do use symbols.

6. Include both hard factual data and soft subjective information in the picture.

7. Examine the social roles that you think have some meaning to those involved.

8. Add notes to your rich picture with more detailed footnotes if it’s appropriate.

9. Where it’s appropriate, add yourself into the picture, whether as a participant or observer, or both.

10. Don’t forget to give your rich picture a meaningful and descriptive title.

Find out more about rich pictures here.

Preliminary questions

E.g. VanGundy, A.B. (1983)

Above, I mentioned the 5 Ws and H that most people are familiar with. Here is a fantastic list of questions adapted from VanGundy which expands that basic model.


1. Who is affected by your problem?

2. Who else has the same problem?

3. Who says it is a problem?

4. Who would like a solution to the problem?

5. Who wouldn’t like a solution to the problem?

6. Who could prevent a solution to the problem?

7. Who needs the problem to be solved more than you do?


8. When does the problem happen?

9. When doesn’t the problem happen?

10. When did the problem appear?

11. When (if at all) will the problem disappear?

12. When do others see your problem as a problem?

13. When don’t others see your problem as a problem?

14. When is the solution needed to the problem?

15. When might the problem happen again?

16. When will the problem get worse?

17. When will the problem get better?


18. Why is this situation a problem?

19. Why do you want to solve the problem?

20. Why don’t you want to solve the problem?

21. Why doesn’t the problem go away?

22. Why would someone else want to solve the problem?

23. Why wouldn’t someone else want to solve the problem?

24. Why is it easy to solve the problem?

25. Why is it hard to solve the problem?


26. What might change about this issue?

27. What are the problem’s main weaknesses?

28. What do you like about the problem?

29. What do you dislike about it?

30. What can be changed about it?

31. What can’t be changed?

32. What do you know about this issue?

33. What don’t you know about this issue?

34. What will it be like if the problem is solved?

35. What will it be like if the problem isn’t solved?

36. What have you done in the past with other similar problems?

37. What principles underlie this issue?

38. What values underlie this issue?

39. What problem elements are related to one another?

40. What assumptions are you making about this problem?

41. What seems to be most important about it?

42. What seems to be least important about it?

43. What are the sub-problems?

44. What are your major objectives in solving this problem?

45. What else do you need to know to solve this problem?


46. Where is this problem most noticeable?

47. Where is this problem least noticeable?

48. Where else does this problem exist?

49. Where is the best place to begin looking for solutions?

50. Where does this problem fit in the larger scheme of things?

Adapted from: VanGundy, A.B. (1983) 108 Ways To Get a Bright Idea, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, pp. 86–7

More creative problem solving techniques

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