Creative Problem Solving Part 1: Defining Your Problem

The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. – Albert Einstein

This is the first of a five-part series of articles that explores the creative problem-solving process. Each article builds on the one before it; taking you through a series of steps to help you solve any life or business challenge you may face. Here are links to all articles within this series:

  1. Define Your Problem
  2. Investigate Your Problem
  3. Re-Imagine Your Idea
  4. Engineer Plan of Action
  5. Execute and Master

As you read through these articles, it is highly recommended that you have a problem in mind that you have chosen to work on. This will help you to immediately put these ideas into practice. Only in this way will you gain optimal value from this process.

The Purpose of this Step

The purpose of this first step is to clearly define the problem that is confronting your reality. In other words, it’s all about clarifying the goal that you are wanting to achieve. Now, of course, our main objective here is to explore the creative problem-solving process in detail, and so we will not only be looking at just your goal. We also want to explore your past reality, current reality along with your desired reality.

Exploring your past reality is essential because it can help you learn from your prior successes, failures, and mistakes. Exploring your current reality is critical as well because it will help you identify your present circumstances, concerns and any potential roadblocks you face.

However, before you get into this process, it’s important that you are able to clarify the reasons why you want to solve this problem in the first place. Ask yourself:

What is the need for change?

Why must I solve this problem? Why now?

What is my purpose for solving this problem?

What specifically do I want to achieve as a result?

The problem you face could, of course, come in many different forms. In some instances, it may not even be a problem, but rather a change that you would like to make. However, the act of making the change might potentially create a problem, and that, therefore, becomes the problem you must solve.

In order to solve a problem most effectively, it’s critical that you are clear about why you are solving this problem in the first place. With enough reasons for solving the problem, you will create enough motivation to work through the problem successfully. Now, of course, if you don’t have enough reasons WHY you are solving this problem, then it’s likely you won’t get very far along this journey.

The one key that helps you bring all this together is the fact that you are working towards a purpose of some kind. So yes, you are solving a problem, but what’s the purpose behind that? What’s the big picture? Becoming crystal clear about this purpose will allow you to work through this process far more effectively.

The Purpose for Identifying Your Problem

Clearly Define Your Problem

Once you are clear about the reasons why you are wanting to solve this problem, it’s time now to specifically define what this problem is about.

In order to clearly define your problem, there are certain things that you must take into consideration.

First of all, you must clearly understand what goal you are wanting to achieve. To gain clarity about this, ask yourself:

What specifically am I trying to accomplish?

What goal would I like to achieve as a result of solving my problem?

What potential problems are associated with this goal?

In order to solve a problem, it’s essential that you understand the goal lying on the other side of this problem. Clearly understanding this goal will help you to more effectively align your efforts to solve the problem at hand. However, it is important to take into consideration that any goal you are aiming for could in itself create further problems. Therefore please keep that in mind when setting your goal. We will, of course, discuss this in more detail a little further along this process.

Now that you have clarity about the goal you will be working towards, let’s focus our attention on the problem at hand. Your objective is to break down this problem from a multitude of angles and perspectives. To do this, you must rigorously question the problem. For instance, in order to get to the heart of your problem, ask yourself:

What kind of problem is this?

What is it preventing me from doing?

How much is the problem costing me?

What will happen if I do nothing about this problem?

What is potentially good about this problem?

What would I like to keep as is without changing?

These questions have hopefully provided you with a deeper understanding of the kind of problem you face and how you might like to move forward. However, this doesn’t quite yet provide us with enough information. We need to dig down further into this process to help us see the problem at a deeper level.

Every problem we face may very well be the outcropping of another underlying problem. Many people typically may not recognize this and will, therefore, go about solving the surface problem, but never tackle the underlying cause that lies below the surface. Then, as a result, the problem keeps coming back time and again.

To get to the heart of the kind of problem you are dealing with, ask yourself:

Is this the real problem or is there something more below the surface that I am not seeing?

What is the actual root cause of this problem that I must deal with?

What possible problems have essentially created this surface problem?

What specific factors are the cause?

For instance, let’s say that you are struggling financially. The surface problem is that you are not able to pay your bills on time at the end of each month. However, below the surface, the problem lies in the fact that you continuously mismanage your money. But if we were to dig even deeper below even that problem, then the underlying problem could very well stem from the fact that you regularly succumb to instant gratification, which has everything to do with how you manage pain and pleasure in your life. Then yet again below that problem, the underlying problem could come down to a fear failure. There could, in fact, be a multitude of problems below the surface problem. Your task is to identify all these problems so that you can work through them more effectively as make your way through this creative problem-solving process.

Having drilled down to the root cause of the problem, let’s now work with this problem by turning it into a metaphor. Ask yourself:

What does this particular problem remind me of?

How can I turn it into a working metaphor to help me solve it more effectively?

Turning your problem into a metaphor is helpful because it allows you to approach the problem from a different perspective. And with this new perspective in mind, you will be better able to work through the problem successfully.

Your final task is to turn the problem into a question. This is important because questions force your brain to think actively about the problem. When you ask a question your brain immediately switches on and tries to find a suitable answer.

Have a think about everything we have worked through up till this point, and turn your problem into a question. Ask yourself:

How can I phrase this problem as a question?

Finally, with this question in mind consider in how many different ways you could potentially rephrase this question to help you tackle the problem from a number of vantage points.

If for instance, your problem is that you are unable to pay off your bills by the end of the month, then you might choose to phrase this problem in the following five ways:

What specifically must I do to pay off all my bills by the end of the month?

What steps are required to put myself financially in the green by the end of this month?

What critical decisions must I make in the coming weeks to pay off my debts by the end of the month?

What will be required of me to make all my bill payments by the end of the month?

How must I organize myself to ensure that I pay all my bills on time by the end of this month?

Reading through each of these questions forces you to think about your problem from several perspectives. Each perspective provides you with a slightly different vantage point from which to tackle the problem. Now, of course, the questions effectively say the same thing i.e. that you need to pay off your bills by the end of the month. However, each question says this in a slightly different way; which essentially helps you think about your problem in a more optimal way. You are now effectively open to more possibilities and scenarios of how to potentially solve this problem moving forward.

Now, of course with this example, we are dealing with the surface problem. However, to solve this surface problem you may very well need to address all the underlying problems that you identified earlier. But addressing these underlying problems may involve a long process. In such instances, it’s important — in the short-term at least — to put a band-aid on your surface problem but to also progressively work through the underlying problems so that they no longer give birth to the surface problem. I hope that makes sense. 🙂

Analyzing the Three Realities

Now that you have a very clear understanding of what your problem is about, let’s take time to lay down the foundations for the creative problem-solving process. We will do this by taking a deeper and more detailed look at your desired reality, current reality and future reality.

Taking the time to break down these three realities will provide you with a very clear picture of what has been, where you are, and where things could be in relation to this problem. This understanding will help you to better understand what needs to change and how you may need to adapt moving forward in order to solve this problem most effectively.

Analyzing these three realities isn’t always an essential part of the creative problem-solving process; especially not for smaller problems. However, if you are dealing with a significant problem, then breaking down these realities will most certainly be of value for you.

Your Desired Reality

First of all imagine your desired reality. This is a reality where your problem has been successfully solved. Have a good long hard think about this future desired outcome you have in mind. Take into account your vision for this reality, but also consider any drawbacks that might result from achieving your goal. Ask yourself:

What would the ideal solution look like?

What is my ideal vision for this future?

How will things be better or different when this problem is solved?

What specifically will I gain by solving this problem?

What will solving this problem allow me to do?

What could I potentially lose by solving this problem?

What sacrifices must I make as a result? Is this doable?

How can I turn potential losses into gains?

Given all this, do I still want it? Is it all worth it?

At times what seems like a good idea turns out to be sour grapes. What I mean is that the goal you are working toward might actually cause you more problems down the line. Moreover, it just might not be worth the trouble given the potential sacrifices you might need to make in order to achieve it. As such, be very wary of these red flags and take careful consideration of whether or not it is even worth pursuing this goal in the first place.

Imagine Your Desired Reality

Your Current Reality

An exploration of your current reality will illuminate how the problem you face affects you in the present moment. Moreover, you will gain a better understanding of how things might need to change in order for you to effectively solve this problem.

For starters, consider how you are currently handling this problem. Ask yourself:

How am I currently handling this problem?

What specifically am I doing about it?

To what extent is it working? Or not working?

If this is an existing problem then it’s possible that you are currently working on it in your own way. Yes, of course, the methods you are using might not be all that successful, but it’s still worthwhile getting an understanding of the current process in use.

Now consider the key obstacles that stand between you and the solution to this problem. Ask yourself:

What obstacles am I currently facing?

What form do these obstacles take?

Typically when we think about obstacles we see them as being physical in nature. However, many obstacles are actually psychological. So yes, you might certainly have environmental obstacles; you may also have obstacles in the form of insufficient resources and finances, or even obstacles dressed as people standing in your way. 😉 These obstacles are very real and easy to identify. However, what of the obstacles that come in the form of fears, limiting beliefs, poor habits, unhelpful thoughts and the plethora of excuses that come along for the ride? These are all obstacles that may prevent you from successfully moving forward and solving your problem. It’s therefore important to take the time to clearly acknowledge the obstacles standing in your way.

Once you have identified each of these obstacles, take the time to turn them into objectives. So for example, one of your obstacles might be that you always complain about not being treated fairly at work and this is why you never get a pay rise and as a result can’t pay off your debts.

Let’s now take this obstacle and twist it into an objective. To do this you might, for instance, commit yourself to stop complaining and instead find ways to get more noticed at work so that you will have a greater chance in the future of getting your desired pay rise and/or promotion.

Or, let’s say that you struggle with the fear of poverty. You can, for instance, twist this into an objective by committing yourself to save a certain amount of money into your bank account every month in order to progressively build your emergency fund. Or if there’s simply not enough money left over at the end of the month then you could make it an objective to work a casual job at nights to help you save that money. The key here is to allay this fear in some way so that it doesn’t prevent you from solving your problem, i.e. not being able to pay your bills on time by the end of the month.

Now, consider your current environment and whether or not it supports the goal you are targeting. Ask yourself:

Does my current environment support the solution I am after?

If not, then how must I change things?

Your current environment might very well not be conducive to solving this problem effectively. As such you may need to consider how things might need to change moving forward in terms of how you work, live, and even the people you associate with. You might for instance have people in your life who are extremely negative and always bring you down to their level. These people are now effectively obstacles that you must deal with and remove in order to clear the path to help you solve your problem.

Finally, it’s important to take into consideration any key strengths you have that you can use to solve this problem. Ask yourself:

What key strengths do I have?

How can I use these strengths to help me solve this problem?

If after analyzing your strengths you feel somewhat lacking in certain areas, then consider for a moment what missing elements you might need to acquire to help you to successfully solve this problem. Ask yourself:

What do I need to know to help me solve this problem?

Why specifically do I need to know these things?

What skills might I need to learn to effectively solve this problem?

How will I go about learning these skills?

What support might I need to achieve my desired goal?

Where will I find this support?

Who specifically could support me in my efforts?

Given my goal and given how I am today, how must I change in order to give myself the best possible opportunity for solving this problem?

While working toward any goal, it’s important to take into consideration the type of person you will effectively need to become in order to deserve to have that goal in your life. Albert Einstein once said that you cannot approach a problem with the same mindset that created it in the first place. I’m of course paraphrasing, but I do hope you understand the value of these sage words.

To solve any problem you must effectively create yourself anew; which essentially means that you need to be flexible enough in your approach and adaptable enough to change yourself in the light of this problem. If you fail on either account, then it’s likely you won’t get very far down this creative problem-solving path.

Illuminate Your Current Reality

Your Past Reality

Now let’s take a look at your past reality. This is all about getting a better understanding of how you have gotten to this point; having this problem in your life. Consider for a moment:

Have I experienced this problem before?

What do I already know about this problem?

Was this ever not a problem?

Was this ever a bigger problem than it is today?

If you have a history of working with this problem, then this is the time to consider what has worked and potentially what has failed to work in the past.

If this is a problem you have dealt with before then consider how successful (or not) you have been. Ask yourself:

How successful was I with solving this problem?

How effective were the solutions?

How did I fail to solve this problem in the past?

What specific mistakes were made?

What did I learn from these mistakes that can help me in the present?

In retrospect, what could I have done differently in the past when dealing with this problem?

If however, you have not dealt with this problem before, then you can still gain value from this process by approaching other people who have experienced this problem. Ask yourself:

Who has experienced this problem before?

How did they effectively solve this problem?

What did they learn from this experience?

What can I learn from their experience to help me solve my problem?

The true value of solving any problem lies in avoiding making the mistakes that have already been made. Whether those mistakes are yours or not, matters little. The key is to learn all you can from the past in order to improve your chances of solving this problem in the present moment.

What’s Up Next?

This was of course just the first of a five-part series of articles that explore the creative problem-solving process. All we did was effectively define the problem and the circumstances surrounding it. We, of course, did this in more detail than is typically required, however, the effort put into this process is something that will be of tremendous value as you continue to work through each stage of this journey.

Next up in Part 2 of our problem-solving breakdown we will explore how to Investigate Your Problem.

Time to Assimilate these Concepts

Defining Your Problem

Did you gain value from this article? Is it important that you know and understand this topic? Would you like to optimize how you think about this topic? Would you like a method for applying these ideas to your life?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I’m confident you will gain tremendous value from using the accompanying IQ Matrix for coaching or self-coaching purposes. This mind map provides you with a quick visual overview of the article you just read. The branches, interlinking ideas, and images model how the brain thinks and processes information. It’s kind of like implanting a thought into your brain – an upgrade of sorts that optimizes how you think about these concepts and ideas. 🙂

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