Creativity and Problem Solving Part 1: The Forgotten Phase

Creativity and problem solving follow a track that moves from the identification and definition of the problem through a relatively rapid generation of alternatives into a deliberative consideration of the merits of a subset of those alternatives and finally to a selection and definition of the solution. This process occurs in one form or another with the quality of the outcome riding on how intentionally each stage is executed and supported.

The early stage of the creative process is referred to in the literature as inspiration or ideation. In a healthy, intentional incarnation it is marked by the generation of a large number of alternatives. Especially at the very beginning these ideas are not particularly well-developed. They appear on-scene as sketches and shells. Their development reflects the fact that little time has been spent on them beyond calling them to mind and preserving them for consideration.

Problem solving involves the utilization of two different kinds of thinking. The ideas for solutions are generated through a divergent thinking process. It is here that a variety of possible answers are generated for consideration. Once this process is exhausted, the problem-solver turns to the task of sorting through the ideas, eliminating rejects, combining possibilities, and converging on the ultimate solution. This phase is known as convergent thinking. Both the divergent and convergent phases of the problem solving process are critical to the ultimate quality of the solution but for a variety of reasons we have a tendency to neglect the divergent processes.

Nowhere is this more pointedly true than in systems engineering. The models and tools of systems engineering are aimed at making choices and managing complexity. Solutions are identified, trade studies are performed, and detailed implementations are designed. These are the tasks of convergent thinking. Systems engineering focuses on the realization of a solution’s potential. Little formal attention is paid to the generation of ideas which led to the existence of the solution being developed.

Although the divergent thinking phase has not traditionally been the concern of systems engineering processes, there are some very good reasons that it should be.

Perhaps the strongest reason that a sound divergent process should be a part of the systems engineering paradigm is that the creative process is incomplete without it and the quality of the ultimate solution is impaired by its omission. This means that failing to start the systems engineering process until the generation of alternatives is all but concluded deprives the solution of a good deal of its potential quality. Instead of benefiting the solution by enriching the number and variety of candidates in the pool of choices, skipping or short-changing the divergent thinking phase acts to limit the possibilities from which a solution can be developed.

In some situations there is an additional reason for not ignoring the generation of alternatives. In the procurement process the customer is positioned to describe the problem and solicit a solution. This means that a significant portion of the divergent thinking is the responsibility of the customer as they craft the solicitation. Just as the impaired divergent process reduces the quality of the ultimate solution, it can also curtail the quality of the procurement. By truncating the list of potential approaches the solicitation is limited in ways and to an extent that may never be realized because it manifests as an opportunity cost which ultimately obscures the most robust solution.

Whether addressing the procurement process or the ultimate solution, it is clear that neglecting the divergent thinking phase impairs our results. Systems engineering is committed to the highest quality solutions to the problems it engages. That commitment requires us to embrace and support the entire creative process. Our current techniques and tools provide real discipline and quality in the convergent phase. Unless we are satisfied to pay the hidden opportunity costs to solution quality that come from neglect, we must move intentionally into the divergent thinking arena with the same power and thought that we have focused on the convergent processes.

NEXT TIME: A Modest Proposal for Remembering Divergent Thinking

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