Creative Problem Solving in Perspective – Professional Services

This paper seeks to explore and understand the value of Creative Problem Solving (CPS) in business, how it relates to the field of consultancy and some opportunities open to any CPS practitioner for future development. The approach will be not only of defining the most valuable aspects but to suggest some of the ways to convey its meaning to the client.

CPS: The need to redefine oneself

Unfortunately the label “Creative Problem Solving” has not made justice to itself since the model does not only solve current “problems” but also present and future challenges. This is not semantic frivolity. In the minds of businessmen around the world problems and opportunities or challenges are distinct issues. Moreover, the word ‘creativity’ does not have the same impact as ‘innovation’ in the mind of the executive even though creativity is the backbone of innovation and creativity consultants have facilitated innovation processes in companies. It is the duty of the consultant to give a brief introduction to the concepts to enlarge the definition of creativity in the mind of the client, which is likely to be influenced by some sort of bias, e.g. this is related to art or unimportant and irrelevant.

CPS: a simple, flexible, eclectic, holistic and transferable process

CPS tackles its talk from a four-pronged approach. First, it involves a simple three stage model: exploration, ideation and implementation. The consultant will have to decide what the most suitable starting point in the process is. However, the understanding of these three parts is very useful in working out the problem as they interrelate. For instance, ideas produced at the ideation stage can give you an idea of the nature of the problem (exploration phase) or about potential obstacles to the application of the solution (implementation phase). After spending two sessions with a client of mine involved in real estate exploring the problem (marketing real estate) we started the ideation phase. At the end of the session the client finally found out the main approach he wanted to give to his ideation: building trust with customers giving a ‘family feeling’ to the business. The eclecticism of the system is shown as it allows the flexibility to use over 200 different thinking tools to diverge (generation of ideas) and converge (selection of ideas).

Second, CPS introduces the basic thinking principles of divergence and convergence. The search for alternatives, being one of the main characteristics of creative thinking, contributes to make the best out of the three stages as group members come up with different ideas following certain guidelines. In convergence, the client or the group select ideas using tools to sort and assess them to find the best ones also following certain guidelines.

Thirdly, CPS offers guidelines that have been proven to enhance creativity for both divergence and convergence processes (Parnes, 1986). These concepts need to be explained carefully to the client. For example differing judgment includes more than criticizing someone else’s ideas. It is also about self-criticism and even about judging our judgments (Ray, 1986). This principle is also used in other models such as the McKinsey problem solving method. It is not only a matter of judgment but also of “leaving the preconceptions and prejudices at the door” (Rasiel, 1999). Linking CPS practices to other reputable models will also help the client understand and build credibility. The principle of “going for quantity” also needs to be explained in the light of Alex Osborn’s research in his book Applied Imagination (1963) and supplemented by other research in the field (Parnes, 1986 and Bassadur, 1982). Clients are not usually looking for a research paper full of references and theory but they will ask directly or pose an implicit demand for some sort of external validation. This external validation should be composed of:

  1. A clear and well defined explanation of terms and some data to show that the point has been researched and proven.
  2. A quote from popular researchers that they know (conceptual testimonial).
  3. Examples of how this method has been used successfully by companies in the same industry or related fields.
  4. A testimonial from past customers (usually senior management is preferred) about their satisfaction using the process (experiential testimonial).

The client will then require some sort of internal validation. This is a process that can start at the presentation with some practical examples to prove your point so the client has a hands-on experience with parts of the process. The internal validation will continue throughout the whole process where the client needs to understand and see the value of what is happening. They need to buy in the process not only at the end but during the different stages.

A consultant can use the CPS framework to use a series of thinking tools that will be effective in divergence and convergence depending on the stage of the process, the type of the problem and maybe even the composition of the group. For instance, an experienced consultant will try low risk tools first to build up trust and check with the client about the suitability and novelty of ideas. If the CPS consultant presents the brainstorming tool it would be important for him to distinguish between what it is and what is commonly understood: the use of a process involving invitational stems (statement starters), recording of ideas, timing idea generation, guidelines, a facilitator… instead of just “discussing ideas.”

Finally, the CPS consultant should stress the transferable nature of the methodology as the company trainers could well learn the skills and facilitate and train employees in different departments.

CPS and exploring the problem: paradigm stretching vs. paradigm breaking

This structured approach may not be familiar to the client since the conventional practice to approach a problem is to discuss solutions. It is therefore essential to explain the importance of exploring the problem. This stage is used by famous thinkers: quoting them about problem exploration, e.g. “We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”(A. Einstein) could be useful. Since some other systems and companies also make use of this stage in one way or another it could help develop the understanding to compare it or connect it in a purposeful way. For instance, in the McKinsey method ‘framing the problem’ is specially designed to the business problem ‘susceptible to rigorous-based analysis’ (Rasiel, 2001).
Moreover, giving examples on how redefining the problem has been useful to companies will help the client understand the value of CPS. The aim is to explain and illustrate that “the aim is to find the root cause of the problem – not necessarily the one that is immediately apparent” (Johnston, 2001, Ohmae 2001). The participants will therefore enhance their creative thinking skills by “seeing what no one else is seeing” (Michalko, 2001).

Once the problem has been explored the consultant will able to assess the confines of the paradigms where the company is working and discuss with the client the approach that he wants to take. The consultant needs to make it clear that CPS can be used both to bring novelty within the business paradigm and can be used to uncover new ones. For instance Bob Johnston and Doug Bate in their book The Power of Strategy Innovation propose a CPS-based model that deals not with solving current problems of the company but finding new ways to:

    a) shift a corporation’s business strategy in order to create new value for both the customer and the corporation. b) apply innovative thinking to the business model. c) increase your competitive advantage. (Johnston, 2003)

CPS and ideation: connecting imagination to logic (a careful selection of multiple and varied options)

The use of the power of imagination for innovation is one of the most important selling points of CPS. The issue of the meaning of novelty and usefulness will be defined by the client, so it is important to find out the paradigmatic parameters that the client would like to use in order to generate focused ideas. This may not curtail the novelty of the ideas but determine the type of novelty that the client requires. In terms of tools, it is not as important for a consultant to know tens of tools as much as to be an expert in using and training participants about the tools. Some of the high-level risk tools may need not only training, but also the adequate atmosphere. The consultant may be able to do this by leading the group through some process related exercises. For instance, one consultant expert, Dr Andrei Aleinikov spends the first full day out of a four-day program only creating the psychological climate to introduce the tools. The participants get to know and practice tools only when there is a psychological climate characterized by openness and trust. This knowledge about group dynamics is essential for the CPS consultant to have a successful session and it is part of the value he provides. In a way CPS contributes to team-building.

The value behind CPS ideation stage is that groups that have received CPS training produce significantly more ideas than untrained groups (Firestein, 1987). This is a confirmation of the research included by Osborn (developer of the brainstorming technique) in his pioneering book Applied Imagination, where he states that groups that produce more ideas also come up with better ideas (Osborn, 1963). It also confirms the research carried by Parnes a decade later in the “Creative Studies Project” where he shows an improvement in divergent production in 13 out of 14 tests administered to the students (Parnes, 1987) as well as an improvement in the convergent production (ideas assessment and selection). This research provides external validation to the value of CPS consultancy for the improvement of idea generation in quality and quantity as well as idea selection, that is, specific value for the client that is looking for innovation.

The usefulness of creativity measures to CPS Consultants

An underestimated tool that can build value to CPS consultants is the FourSight measure of cognitive styles. By defining these preferences from a CPS perspective the measure corroborates a type of thinking process. In other words, the research behind FourSight validates indirectly CPS as it is based on the natural thinking preferences of people. What CPS does is to add order and value to a process that is already being used in different ways. On the one hand participants taking FourSight will get greater understanding on the CPS process. On the other hand they will be less judgmental on themselves once they find their preferences and would look at any area of weakness (clarification, ideation, development or implementation) as an area for improvement.

The application of other measures by the consultant will add to his understanding of the group and the group itself will benefit of a different level of awareness. Measures such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) could be helpful in this regard (as far as it concerns creativity). Other measures regarding creativity or leadership could be useful depending on the client’s needs.

Some useful tips for CPS Consultants

  1. Being open and honest. In the minds of many consultants is the question “how to avoid having to say ‘I don’t know’ and make people believe that I know what I am talking about.” Some other people have called this technique ‘smoking the client.’ However, being honest pays off. If you know what you know and your client knows that and appreciates that then admitting sometimes that you have not a clue may build your credibility. Ethan M. Rasiel, ex-McKinsey staff, admits that behaving that way will be less costly than bluffing (Rasiel, 1999). To begin with the clarity of objectives, the reasons for the exercises and the method used will give the group confidence that the consultant know what he is doing. Talking about the breadth and width of the discipline of creativity will help the group see questions in context. And finally, referring some questions to the group or asking the group for help to problem solve the questions may be of help to illustrate the practical application of the model to the session itself (Grossman, 1982).
  2. Modeling the behavior you are asking for. (Grossman, 1982) In what ways can you apply principles taught in the course to the process itself? For instance, if you teach “Deferred judgment” do you defer judgment yourself? And if you catch yourself being self-critical can you bring it up as an example of a block to creativity? The process of internalizing or integrating knowledge is helped not only by exposition and practical exercises but also by observing a behavior that follows these principles.
  3. Enhance and assess self-empowerment. Self-empowerment will happen as the result of internal validation. This is the “ability or willingness of participants to pick up a concept and integrate it internally without the crutch of external validation.” It is about the learner’s attitude to apply the concept. The participant awareness and responsibility is shifted from the instructor to himself providing an increase in motivation and curiosity, important factors in the creative process (Harriman, 2003). To be able to notice and record the application by students of key concepts will provide the consultant with excellent data (that may be used in later marketing) regarding the effects of the training he provides.
  4. Be aware of learning differences. Participants process information differently. It is therefore useful to note the learning styles of participants and provide venues for them to enhance learning. A prior assessment using the PEPS test or any other suitable measure (Participant’s Survey Form by Ned Herrmann)would be helpful for the participants. (Grossman, 1982)
  5. Excel at interaction. One of the ways the consultant acting as a facilitator can increase interaction is by working with a co-facilitator. This would help to read the group better, provide more useful answers, a different point of view, greater openness and a better assessment method so that the training can be refined more accurately even as it is taking place. (Grossman, 1982)
  6. Learn from experienced consultants. Mick Cope in his book “The Seven Cs of Consulting: Your complete blueprint for any consultancy assignment” gives a detailed workable plan about the consultancy business. It includes the client, clarify, create, change, confirm, continue and close (Cope, 2003). Alan Weiss also provides an excellent view of the elements that make an expert consultant including very valuable tips on how to contact, contract and build relationships with the significant buyers (Weiss, 2001). The same author provides other insights about consultancy in his book “Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice” differentiating on the value of consultancy: content, expertise, knowledge, behavior and special skills. (Weiss, 2002). A creativity consultant would belong to the behavior category. Weiss explains this giving a different perspective on this type of consultancy.

Areas for development for CPS Consultants

Building climate, building teams

A very important aspect to improve success and therefore value in the application of CPS is to create the right climate and build teams. Any professional development in those areas will help the CPS consultant to create a conducive climate for innovation and affect the working process of the group. This climate can automatically allow new employees to express their creative talents and become part of a group in a shorter time than with conventional methods. It will also foster behavioral changes as employees adapt to a new creative culture.

Connecting to related fields

The study of other subjects such as motivation, curiosity, fear, judgment, risk, paradigms…can be beneficial to give the client a greater understanding and also to be able to modify and custom-make tools for clients according to the consultant’s view of the psychological framework. Finding out paradigms could help the consultant as he could understand together with the client the low-risk and high-risk paradigms. Any question that challenges the paradigm according to the client will produce novel ideas. Paradigm finding is therefore a tool in the hands of the consultant to stimulate creativity.

Connecting to consultants

Since the field of behavioral consultancy is so wide, it would be helpful for the CPS consultant to cooperate with other consultants in related fields to provide a more comprehensive service. For instance, there are many profiling instruments in the Human Resource service industry. Some of them could complement creativity sessions as they tackle behavioral issues from different viewpoints.

Connecting to business

The CPS consultant’s connection to the company can be done at different levels. Many times very satisfied participants or customers may want to refer your business to others if you have developed a strong relationship, or they will be contacting you if they need further training or facilitation. This is proof of your value.

Apart from that level a consultant can help a business by answering this question:

How can businesses, suppliers and customers work together more efficiently?

A working process that can bring together executives from different businesses in order to improve their working relationship is bound to improve their effectiveness. In this way the CPS consultant could provide sessions with customers and executives from a company in order to understand the value of the product of that company and any further improvements that could be very much in demand form the customers. Such a think-tank system has been the practice for companies such as E-Bay. Or the consultant could bring a series of suppliers together for a session with the client. Suppliers would then be helping each other to better service their clients.

Connecting to cultures, diversity in groups

Another area where the CPS consultant can help develop business is to understand different cultural thinking and creative methods and values. In this way he could benefit from a multi-cultural group perspective to solve certain problems. Some multinationals face problems dealing with cultural issues, especially implementing directives form the headquarters. In any case companies would also appreciate diversified idea generation to tackle their problems more creatively.


There is not much question about the very good value that Creative Problem Solving can provide a company. The difficulty lies in how to communicate this value to the client in a way that is useful and relevant for him. Any such attempt has to take into consideration the possible negative connotations of words such as: consultant, creativity, problem and brainstorming. Words such as expert, innovation, challenge, strategy and ideation may be received more warmly.

The communication of value is done through external (research, testimonials, quotations…) as well as internal (client’s use) validation. The CPS consultant should in as much as he can get the client involved experientially in something relevant to his business. The client could therefore get a taste of the consultancy. The value of CPS is so wide that if fully explained can be a bit overwhelming to the client. It is the skill of the consultant to find out the value that the client is seeking to see in how many ways he can use CPS to meet that need.

Finally the CPS consultant can enhance value by developing his skills including certification in complementary disciplines or areas (from business strategy to emotional intelligence) and working with other consultants.


Basadur, M.S., Graen, G.B. and Green, S.G. (1982). Training in creative
problem solving: Effects on ideation and problem finding in an applied
research organization. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 30,

Cope, Mick . (2003) The seven Cs of consulting: Your complete blueprint for any consultancy assignment. Financial Times Prentice Hall.

Firestein, R. (1987) Effects of creative problem solving training on communication behaviours and quality of ideas generated in small groups. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. Graduate School of State University of New York at Buffalo.

Grossman, S. (1982). Training Creativity and Creative Problem-Solving. Training and Development Journal.

Harriman, R and Mauzy J. (2003). Creativity Inc. Building an inventive organization. Harvard Business School Press. Boston. MA

Johnston, D. (2001). Enter the think-tank. Professional Engineering Magazine. London, UK.

Johnston, R and Bate, D. (2003). The power of strategy innovation. Amacom. New York.

Michalko, M. (2001). Cracking creativity. Ten Speed Press. Berkeley, California.

Ohmae, Kenichi. (2001). The mind of the strategist: The Art of Japanese Business. McGraw-Hill.

Osborn, A. (1963). Applied imagination. Third Edition. New York, Scribners & Sons.

Parnes, S. (1987) The Creative Studies Project. In S.G. Isaksen (Ed). Frontiers of Creativity research: Beyond the basics. Bearly Limited. New York

Rasiel, E. M. (1999). The McKinsey way. McGraw-Hill. New York

Rasiel, E. M (2001). The McKinsey mind: Understanding and implementing the problem-solving tools and management techniques of the world’s top strategic firm. McGraw-Hill. New York.

Ray, M and Myers, R. (1986). Creativity in Business. Doubleday. New York.

Weiss, A. (2001). The ultimate consultant. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. San Francisco, California.

Weiss, A. (2002). Million dollar consulting: The professional’s guide to growing a practice. 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill. New York

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