Spencer was convinced that Raytheon should continue to produce magnetrons, even though production costs were prohibitively high. But Raytheon had lost money on the devices, and now there was no available market for them. The consumer product Spencer had in mind did not fit within the bounds of Raytheon’s business.
As it turned out, Percy Spencer’s solution to Raytheon’s problem produced the microwave oven and a revolution in cooking methods throughout the world. Later, we will analyze several problem-solving techniques illustrated by Spencer’s creative triumph.
Spence Silver’s Glue
A second example of creative problem solving began with Spence Silver’s assignment to work on a tempo- rary project team within the 3M company. The team was searching for new adhesives, so Silver obtained some material from AMD, Inc., which had potential for a new polymer-based adhesive. He described one of his experiments in this way: “In the course of this explo- ration, I tried an experiment with one of the monomers in which I wanted to see what would hap- pen if I put a lot of it into the reaction mixture. Before, we had used amounts that would correspond to con- ventional wisdom” (Nayak & Ketteringham, 1986). The result was a substance that failed all the conven- tional 3M tests for adhesives. It didn’t stick. It preferred its own molecules to the molecules of any other sub- stance. It was more cohesive than adhesive. It sort of “hung around without making a commitment.” It was a “now-it-works, now-it-doesn’t” kind of glue.
For five years, Silver went from department to department within the company trying to find some- one interested in using his newly found substance in a product. Silver had found a solution; he just couldn’t find a problem to solve with it. Predictably, 3M showed little interest. The company’s mission was to make adhesives that adhered ever more tightly. The ultimate adhesive was one that formed an unbreakable bond, not one that formed a temporary bond.
After four years the task force was disbanded, and team members were assigned to other projects. But Silver was still convinced that his substance was good for something. He just didn’t know what. As it turned out, Silver’s solution has become the prototype for innovation in American firms, and it has spawned a half-billion dollars in annual revenues for 3M—in a unique product called Post-It Notes.
These two examples are positive illustrations of how solving a problem in a unique way can lead to phenomenal business success. Creative problem solv- ing can have remarkable effects on individuals’ careers and on business success. To understand how to solve problems creatively, however, we must first consider the blocks that inhibit creativity.
Table 3 summarizes four types of conceptual blocks that inhibit creative problem solving. Each is discussed and illustrated below with problems or exercises. We encourage you to complete the exercises and solve the problems as you read the chapter, because doing so
• Stereotyping based on past experience
Present problems are seen only as variations of past problems
• Ignoring commonalities 3. Compression
Failing to perceive commonalities among elements that initially appear to be different
• Distinguishing figure from ground
Not filtering out irrelevant information or finding needed information
• Artificial constraints 4. Complacency • Noninquisitiveness • Nonthinking
Defining the boundaries of a problem too narrowly
Not asking questions A bias toward activity in place of mental work
Table 3 1. Constancy
Conceptual Blocks That Inhibit Creative Problem Solving
SOLVING PROBLEMS ANALYTICALLY AND CREATIVELY
One thinking language
Defining a problem in only one way without considering alternative views Not using more than one language to define and assess the problem