"Writer's Block I" photo by Drew Coffman

8 August 2017

Creative Problem Solving: Innovation For The Rest Of Us

by Judy Bernstein, Guest Blogger and VP of Insights & Innovation at CBA; Writer’s Block I photo by Drew Coffman

Seinfeld fans fondly remember the Festivus episode: Frank Costanza, played by the legendary Jerry Stiller, creates a holiday in response to the misanthropy he encountered and inflicted at Christmas. From his desperate, wistful conviction that there had to be a better way, Festivus, a holiday “for the rest of us,” was born, featuring an airing of grievances and feats of strength.

I think of Creative Problem Solving (CPS) as a kind of Festivus to experience breakthrough thinking. Glory be to the Creativity gods for giving the likes of da Vinci, Disney, and Jobs enough genius and chutzpah to bring forth the great objects they effortlessly dreamed up. The rest of us, however, often need a deliberate process for innovative thinking.

CPS is the core innovation system taught at the world’s largest and oldest creativity conference, the Creative Problem Solving Institute. CPSI also teaches other deliberate creativity methods, and most methods owe their existence to the pioneering CPS work first done by Alex Osborn (the O in BBDO) with Syd Parnes (a.k.a. The Osborn-Parnes Method).

CPS offers a map of the universal creative process and a compass to get through it. It’s been researched, validated, reimagined, rearticulated, appropriated, remodeled, refined, redesigned, infused with empathy, expanded to include incubation, populated with prototypes and more — but generally speaking, there are four stages:

  • Clarify: a vision, goal, opportunity, or problem is broadly explored and then effectively framed
  • Ideate: potential solutions are generated, evaluated, and then the most promising are selected
  • Develop: what has been selected is transformed from potential idea to crafted solution
  • Implement: factors that can assist or impede acceptance of the idea are determined, and the actions that ensure success are executed

It’s simple but not easy — and rarely straightforward. As a matter of fact, it can include harrowing turns, dizzying twists, unexpected curves, and dispiriting loop de loops. Some consider it a thrill from start to finish, but the rest of us prefer certain stages over others. These preferences can create blind spots, breakdowns, and regression to what’s familiar.

Enter The FourSight Tools

A FourSight Thinking System Facilitator can assess an individual’s or team’s cognitive preferences and decode not only how they tend to approach opportunities, but also how they can do so more effectively. She can also use specific tools to direct thinking. Basic tools in a CPS/ FourSight kit might include:

Stem Starters

Seeing what’s not yet there can be difficult, but that’s exactly the first task in Clarifying. Imagining an ideal future, or many futures, requires visionary thinking and the capacity to dream… BIG. Using the stem starters “I wish…” (IW) or “It would be great if…” (IWBGI) can help chunk out what feels overwhelmingly vague or looks impossibly blurry. One can imagine what kind of IWs… or IWBGIs… might have preceded the notion of the elevator.

  • IW… we could build taller buildings.
  • IWBGI… great granddaddy could sleep upstairs.

Forced Connections

Pringles can and chips

Visualize fallen leaves…

A lot of innovation comes from combinatorial play, a fancy term for mixing different things. It involves considering the challenge at hand through the context and characteristics of something else. A classic example: potato chip breakage from bagged packaging was considered along with the image of wet leaves stacking together, leading to the now famous Pringles chips tube.

POINt Analysis

Both a Developing tool and a blueprint for affirmative judgment, POINt thinks through an idea’s pluses (P), opportunities (O), issues (I), and new thinking (Nt) to overcome issues. Imagine having the idea to use a new pencil out of the box to help your son do his math homework. An (admittedly silly) POINt analysis might look like this:

  • Pluses
    • Pencils can write.
    • They are erasable.
    • The school made us buy 300 of them.
  • Opportunities
    • My using a pencil might make my son feel more supported.
    • We might get our money’s worth out of the bulk order of school supplies.
  • Issues
    • The new pencil has no point; how might we sharpen the pencil?
    • Even with a pencil, I don’t understand his math homework; how might I understand it?
  • New thinking
    • I: How might we sharpen the pencil?
    • Nt: Use what came with my eyeliner.
    • I: How might I understand his math homework?
    • Nt: Instead request help from his older brother, who understands it.


Before generating an action plan, list all the factors that may assist in getting your idea accepted, and all those that might resist it. Then, think carefully about exactly what could be done, and to what extent, to move key resisters. Consider the idea of getting an older brother to help with math homework:

  • Assisters
    • Older loves supporting younger.
    • Older is a strong math student.
  • Resisters
    • Older has tennis practice when younger does homework.
    • Older has own homework to do.
    • We still don’t have any sharp pencils.

Generate ideas for working around the Resisters — particularly by using the Assisters — and your problem is solved.

In sum, anyone can learn and use these and more advanced tools, so if you weren’t born readily creative, don’t despair. The rest of us can successfully innovate using Creative Problem Solving — no grievances or feats of strength required.

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Judy Bernstein is VP of Insights & Innovation at CBA. She holds a M.S. in Creativity & Innovation and certifications in CPS, Lego Serious Play, FourSight, and Design Thinking. She is the author of "Growing the We: Collaboration and Character," a resource for teachers that marries collaboration and character education.

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