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A first step in overcoming conceptual blocks is recog- nizing that creative problem solving is a skill that can be developed. Being a creative problem solver is not an inherent ability that some people naturally have and others do not have. Jacob Rainbow, an employee of the U.S. Patent Office who has more than 200 patents by himself, described the creative process as follows:

So you need three things to be an original thinker. First, you have to have a tremendous amount of information—a big data base if you like to be fancy. . . . Then you have to be will- ing to pull the ideas, because you’re inter- ested. No , some people could do it, but they don’t bother. They’re interested in doing something else. . . . It’s fun to come up with an idea, and if nobody wants it, I don’t give a damn. It’s just fun to come up with something strange and different. . . . And then you must have the ability to get rid of the trash which you think of. You cannot only think of good ideas. . . . And by the wa , if you’re not well- trained, but you’ve got good ideas, and you don’t know if they’re good or bad, then you send them to the Bureau of Standards, National Institute of Standards, where I work, and we evaluate them. And we throw them out. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: 48)

Researchers generally agree that creative problem solving involves four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification (see Albert & Runco, 1999; Nickerson, 1999; Poincare, 1982; Ribot, 1906; Wallas, 1926). The preparation stage includes gath- ering data, defining the problem, generating alterna- tives, and consciously examining all available informa- tion. The primary difference between skillful creative problem solving and analytical problem solving is in how this first step is approached. Creative problem solvers are more flexible and fluent in data gathering, problem definition, alternative generation, and exami- nation of options. In fact, it is in this stage that training in creative problem solving can significantly improve effectiveness because the other three steps are not amenable to conscious mental work. (Adams, 2001; Ward, Smith, & Fine, 1999). The following discussion, therefore, is limited primarily to improving functioning in this first stage. The incubation stage involves mostly unconscious mental activity in which the mind

combines unrelated thoughts in pursuit of a solution. Conscious effort is not involved. Illumination, the third stage, occurs when an insight is recognized and a creative solution is articulated. Verification is the final stage, which involves evaluating the creative solution relative to some standard of acceptability.

In the preparation stage, two types of techniques are available for improving creative problem-solving abilities. One technique helps individuals think about and define problems more creatively; the other helps individuals gather information and generate more alternative solutions to problems.

One major difference between effective, creative problem solvers and other people is that creative prob- lem solvers are less constrained. They allow them- selves to be more flexible in the definitions they impose on problems and the number of solutions they identify. They develop a large repertoire of approaches to problem solving. In short, they engage in what Csikszentmihalyi (1997) described as “playfulness and childishness.” They try more things and worry less about their false starts or failures. As Interaction Associates (1971: 15) explained:

Flexibility in thinking is critical to good prob- lem solving. A problem solver should be able to conceptually dance around the problem like a good boxe , jabbing and poking, without getting caught in one place or “fixated.” At any given moment, a good problem solver should be able to apply a large number of strategies [for generating alternative defini- tions and solutions]. Moreove , a good prob- lem solver is a person who has developed, through his understanding of strategies and experiences in problem solving, a sense of appropriateness of what is likely to be the most useful strategy at any particular time.

As a perusal through any bookstore will show, the number of books suggesting ways to enhance creative problem solving is enormous. We now present a few tools and hints that we have found to be especially effective and relatively simple for business executives and students to apply. Although some of them may seem game-like or playful, a sober pedagogical ratio- nale underlies all of them. They help to unfreeze you from your normal skeptical, analytical approach to problems and increase your playfulness. They relate to (1) defining problems and (2) generating alternative solutions.



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