Solution Creativity

Drawing of a person with a briefcase and a thought bubble with a light bulbDescription: The team is having difficulty with creativity or coming up with possible solutions to issues, design needs, or problems. (If this is not an true, but the team is struggling with deciding between possible solutions, see the “Decision-Making” page.) The word “problem” is used on this page in the sense of a math problem, something requiring a solution, not necessarily a problem in the emotional sense!


Basic Method

  1. Have the person who identified the need:
    1. Define it as specifically as possible.
    2.  Identify whether it is a:
      • Work requirement, such as a customer deliverable.
      • Continuous improvement opportunity.
      • Issue impacting the team’s work performance, job satisfaction, Mission Plan, Team Charter or project plan, and if so, which part.
  2. If the requester cannot identify the “need” as one of these, discuss whether it is worth spending team time on before continuing.
  3. With the team, describe how the situation would look if there were not a problem.
    Note: This defines the goal of the problem-solving exercise.
  4. Gather information about the problem.
  5. Using one of the techniques in this section, generate possible solutions and their probable outcomes.

Note: For help choosing among them, see the “Decision-Making” topic.



The term “brainstorming” is often used to refer to meetings where people call out ideas, but there is a formal technique for doing it properly. Following the technique will generate a higher number of useful ideas in less time. Make sure the team understands that it will evaluate the quality of these ideas later; the point now is to come up with as many ideas as possible, no matter how wild they are.


  1. Perform steps 1–3 of the Basic Method above.
  2. In a meeting, write the rules below on the board, and read the explanation for each out loud if participants do not have copies of this:
    • No judgments—No one else is to say anything when an idea is proposed; try not to laugh even if the idea sounds like a joke (you cannot always be sure).
    • Try anything—Do not censor yourself. If an idea pops into your head, say it.
    • Quantity, not quality—Remember the goal is to put as many ideas up here as we can, no matter how wild.
    • Collaborate—If you have an idea that builds on one already up here, that is fine.
  3. Go around the room once or twice and have each person come up with at least one possible solution to the problem.
  4. Record these using the board or sticky notes.
    Note: If someone “takes” another member’s idea before the other can say it, the latter may pass until the end of the round. But every member must contribute at least one idea per round, no matter how “out-of-the-box.”
  5. After that, open the session up for everyone to throw in more ideas.
    Note: Keep going until the team is clearly tapped out of ideas.
  6. Combine and clarify the ideas, still without making judgments about them, thinking in terms of basic math:
    • Addition—By adding something to the idea.
    • Subtracting—By subtracting something from the idea.
    • Multiplying—By combining one idea with another.
    • Dividing—By splitting the idea into two or more.
  7. When done, combine ideas into groups and create one-sentence descriptions of each group.
    Note: It is okay to have a single idea in a group.
  8. When done with that, help the team reword each group description into a potential solution.
  9. Facilitate a decision-making session, referring to the “Decision-Making” page if needed.

The Delphi Process


This is a written version of “Brainstorming” above. It may be a useful alternative for:

  • Complex problems that require more analysis.
  • Teams that:
    • Express themselves as well or better in writing than verbally.
    • Have a hard time withholding judgment or expressing themselves properly in fast-paced situations.
    • Have a high number of members who are not yet comfortable with speaking up during meetings.
    • Cannot meet in the same physical location (“virtual teams”; see page 124).


  1. Perform steps 1–3 of the Basic Method above.
  2. As a team:
    1. Come up with a series of open-ended questions about the problem (questions that cannot be answered “yes” or “no”).
    2. Designate someone (“the compiler”) to collect and compile the suggestions the steps below will produce.
    3. Set action items for:
      1. Members to submit written answers to the questions to the compiler by a deadline.
      2. The deadline for the compiler to complete Step 1 below.
      3. The deadline for the rest of the team to complete Step 2 below.

Gather Input

  1. After the first deadline, the compiler:
    1. Groups and categorizes the answers.
    2. Generalizes each category into a single statement each.
    3. Lists the statements (“solutions”), followed by their related answers, in a single document without identifying who submitted what.
    4. Creates an appropriate numbered five-point scale, such as “5) Excellent, 4) Good, 3) Neutral, 2) Fair, 1) Poor,” or “5) Highly likely, 4) Likely, 3) Possible, 2) Not very likely, 1) Unlikely.”
    5. Puts a space or box by each solution statement for entering a rating number.
    6. Distributes the document to the team members with a reminder of their deadline.
    7. Each member rates each solution according to the scale and returns the document by the deadline.
  2. The compiler:
    1. Records and charts the responses in a spreadsheet program.
    2. Distributes the charts.
    3. Announces a deadline by which members must complete the next steps.
      Note: For this and the next deadline, allow at least two working days, and bear in mind members’ scheduled absences.
  3. Each member provides written feedback to the compiler regarding the proposed solutions by the deadline.

Finish and Use Input

  1. After the deadline, the compiler:
    1. Adds the feedback comments to the scale document without names attached.
    2. Distributes it along with clean copies of the solution document and scales.
    3. Announces a deadline by which members must complete the next steps.
  2. Each member re-rates each solution and returns the document by the deadline.
  3. The compiler creates updated charts and distributes them to the team.
  4. Using the feedback as a starting point, the team discusses the solutions in its next meeting.


The scales and numerical ratings may be skipped. In this case, the compiler would merely create and distribute the solutions and the team would provide written comments. Then the compiler would summarize the feedback under each category and distribute that document, which would serve as the basis for continuing discussion.

The Single Question


In the 1960s a researcher studied the differences between people who solve problems well and those who do not, and came up with a method upon which the following technique is based.[1] It involves a series of questions designed to give you all the information you need, and usually ends up with a solution creating itself, in a sense, as you come up with answers.


  1. Perform steps 1–3 of the Basic Method above.
  2. Rephrase the problem as a single open-ended question (one that cannot be answered “yes” or “no”).
    Note: The question should be worded in a way that its answer will be the solution to the problem.
    Example: How can we reduce our injury rate?
  3. Ask: “What ‘subquestions’ do we need to answer before we can answer the single question?”
    Example: What is our injury rate? What causes most of our injuries? How have other companies eliminated those causes?
  4. Ask: “Do we have enough information to answer the subquestions confidently?”
    Note: If not, halt the process and assign action items to get the needed information.
  5. When the answer to the previous question is “yes,” ask: “What are the most reasonable answers to the subquestions?”
  6. Ask: “Given the answers to the subquestions, what is the best answer to the single question?”

Silly Solutions

Besides being fun, this technique is excellent for stimulating creative thinking about a problem.

  1. Perform steps 1–3 of the Basic Method above.
  2. Give members five minutes to come up with the most outrageous, ridiculous solutions possible, individually or with partners as they choose.
  3. Have everyone present their solutions.
  4. Give a small prize to the one that gets the biggest reaction.
  5. Then ask: “Is there anything in any of these solutions that might actually work?”

Nominal Group Process

See “Nominal Group Process” on the “Communication” page.

Idea Cards

  1. Perform steps 1–3 of the Basic Method above.
  2. Write the problem on the board.
  3. Pass out note cards or small slips of paper to each person, and place others in piles within reach of everyone.
  4. Have each person write one idea about this issue on their card and initial it.
    Note: Tell them not to worry about spelling or punctuation, and to keep everything they write short.
  5. When done, have each person pass the card to the person on their right.
  6. Say: “When you receive a card, look at the lines written on it. Add one idea, comment, or question related to the idea, along with your initials. Then pass the card on. If you cannot think of anything to add to a card, you may pass it on when you receive a new card. If you get done with one card before you are given another, and you have a new idea, take a blank card and repeat what you did with your first one. When you get back your original card or cards, read the comments and place the cards in the center of the table.”
  7. Wait 10 to 30 minutes for the exercise, depending on the number of people in the group.
  8. When done:
    1. Combine ideas into groups.
    2. Note: It is okay to have a single idea in a group.
    3. Reword each category into a potential solution.
    4. Facilitate a decision-making session, referring to the topic on “Decision-Making” if needed.

Fishbone Diagram

Prepare the Board

  1. Write the problem in a box on the left edge of the board, centered vertically.
    Note: If you are left-handed, you may find it easier to put the box on the right edge.
  2. Starting at the box, draw a horizontal line across the board.
  3. About a foot in from the box, draw a sharply rising diagonal line upward from the center line, angled away from the box.
    Tip: Think of a fishbone coming off the “spine,” the center line, with the box as the “head”; see the sample diagram below.

Add Causes

  1. Ask the team to suggest one cause of the problem.
  2. Draw a short horizontal line off the diagonal one and write the cause down in a few words.
  3. Ask what type or category of cause that one falls under (for example, “lack of training,” “old equipment,” etc.) and write that label along the diagonal line.
  4. Ask for another cause.
  5. Ask if it is the same type of cause as the first.
  6. If the answer is:
    • Yes—Skip to Step 7.
    • No—Draw another diagonal line mirroring the first (same angle, length, and connection point to the center line, only going downward).
  7. Add the cause horizontally from its diagonal, as before.
  8. For a new diagonal line, ask for and add a label.
  9. Continue the process, adding diagonals down the “spine.”
    Note: Allow a lot of room between lines.

Focus the Effort

  1. When no one can think of other causes, have the team identify the three to five causes on the diagram that have the strongest impact on the problem.
    Note: You are looking for “causes,” not “categories” (horizontal lines, not diagonal ones).
  2. Record the other causes in the meeting notes for possible future use, then erase them from the board, leaving up only the three to five main ones and their diagonal line(s).
  3. Go to one remaining cause and ask, “What causes this?”
  4. Draw small diagonal lines off the main cause’s horizontal line, and enter the “subcauses” as you did the causes before.
  5. Repeat this for each main cause.
  6. Repeat the process for each subcause.
  7. If appropriate, repeat again until you feel the root causes have been identified.

At this point, other methods can be applied to address the root causes as individual problems.[2]

Sample Fishbone Diagram

The Ultimate Problem


This exercise assumes the person or organization who appears to be causing the problem is not really the cause—but rather, the cause is that they are not getting the resources or help they need to prevent the problem.


  1. Write the problem near the bottom left corner of the board.
  2. Ask the team, “What person or organization seems to be causing this problem?”
  3. Write the answer to that question above and to the right of the problem.
  4. Ask, “What prevents (the person or organization) from solving this problem?”
  5. Write the answer(s) below the name.
  6. Ask the team, “Given these answers, what person or organization seems to be the biggest cause of the problem that prevents (the first person or organization) from solving our problem?”
  7. Write the answer to that question above and to the right of the first person or organization.
  8. Continue the process until you reach the initial problem’s ultimate cause.
  9. Create action items to deal with that “ultimate problem.”


Full citations for the footnotes are here.

[1] Tubbs 1988.

[2] This technique creates a simplified version of what is also called an “Ishikawa diagram” after its inventor Kaoru Ishikawa, a key player in the development of modern quality management methods. The Internet and numerous books on the market can provide useful details.

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