Creative Problem Solving: A 21st Century Workplace Skill

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When you think of creativity, what comes to mind? Often, people conflate creativity with the arts—activities like painting, music, and acting. Often, people think that they are not creative just because they are not good painters, musicians, or actors.

While these endeavors certainly do entail creativity, being creative is more than being artistic.

To be creative is to be inherently human.

Long ago, there were two early human species attempting to survive in a prehistoric world full of unimaginable challenges. Neanderthals were physically larger and stronger, but Homo sapiens were more creative. They were able to communicate and problem-solve. And that, ultimately, is what led to Homo sapiens surviving into our modern times.

Creativity is often defined as an ability. Consider these three definitions:

  • In the Handbook for Creative and Innovative Managers, Russell Ackoff and Elsa Vergara define creativity as “the ability of a subject in a choice situation to modify self-imposed constraints.”
  • In The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker: How to Make Connections Others Don’t, Dorte Nielsen and Sarah Thurber define creativity as “the ability to bring new and valuable things into being.”
  • Finally, in Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education, Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica define creativity as “the ability to generate new ideas and to apply them in practice.”

The great thing about abilities is that abilities can be taught, trained, and improved! If you have ever said, “I’m not creative,” the good news is that you are creative, and you can intentionally foster your creative skills.

But what’s the big deal about being creative, to begin with? Why does creativity matter in our everyday lives?

While we may not face the same intense day-to-day problems of survival addressed by our prehistoric ancestors, our present day lives are fraught with many challenges. We live in a world that is characterized as VUCA—an acronym that stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In a time of socio-political upheaval, global health crises, climate change, and technological advancements, the era we live in requires us to be armed with skills that will enable us to engage with these challenges in meaningful, productive ways.

In The Future of Jobs Report: 2020, the World Economic Forum named these as the top 10 skills that will be most demanded in the workplace by 2025:

  • Analytical Thinking and Innovation
  • Active Learning and Learning Strategies
  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking and Analysis
  • Creativity, Originality, and Initiative
  • Leadership and Social Influence
  • Technology Use, Monitoring, and Control
  • Technology Design and Programming
  • Resilience, Stress Tolerance, and Flexibility
  • Reasoning, Problem Solving, and Ideation

While Creativity, Originality, and Initiative are directly named in item #5, creativity and creativity-related skills are woven throughout this list. Creativity supports analytical thinking, innovation, complex problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, resilience, flexibility, reasoning, and even stress tolerance.

What you are about to read is a Skill called Creative Problem Solving, which includes a collection of some of the most powerful, time-honored tools that will help you intentionally foster your creativity, originality, and initiative.

Through exploring these topics and engaging with the activities, you will learn powerful tools that will make you become a creative problem solver, honing many of the skills that the World Economic Forum names as being in high demand. Check out this video from entrepreneur and business leader Julie Lavington, the Co-CEO of Sosandar, on why she values problem-solving skills in her employees.

Video 1. Problem Solving in Business

  • In the Executive Skills unit, you will learn about divergent thinking (thinking outside of the proverbial box), convergent thinking (developing effective critical thinking abilities), and metacognition and mindfulness (understanding your own thought process and how emotions influence it).
  • In the Foundational Skills unit, you will learn about associative thinking (learning to see, and make, connections) and integrative thinking (navigating polarities).
  • Finally, in the Process Skills unit, you will learn about clarifying the problem (beginning by solving the right problem), generating ideas (producing breakthrough ideas to difficult challenges), developing solutions (transforming good ideas into great solutions), and implementing solutions (successfully bringing innovative ideas to reality).

These modules contain worksheets, animations, and interactive questions that you can use to develop your creative abilities. By intentionally fostering your creativity, you’ll find that problems are really better thought of as challenges, because challenges can become opportunities for growth, success, and effective change.

Further Reading

Ackoff, R. L. & Vergara, E. (1988). Creativity in problem solving and planning. In R. L.Kuhn (ed.), Handbook for creative and innovative managers (pp. 7790). McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Davis, G. A. (2004). Creativity is forever. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.
Firestien, R. L. (2020). Leading the creative problem-solving process [online course].
Grivas, C., & Puccio, G. J. (2012). Innovative team: Unleashing potential for breakthrough results. Jossey-Bass.
Nielsen, D., & Thurber, S. (2016). The secret of the highly creative thinker: How to make connections others don’t. BIS Publishers.
Puccio, G. J., Mance, M., Barbero Switalski, L., & Reali, P. (2021). Creativity rising: Creative thinking and creative problem solving for the 21st century. International Center for Studies in Creativity Press.
Robinson, K. & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative schools: The grassroots revolution that’s transforming education. Penguin Books.