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Problem solving and creativity

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Is problem-solving enough? Unfortunately many psychologists in the US refer to all thinking as ‘problem-solving’. By using a form of words you can indeed claim that all thinking that has a purpose must be problem-solving, because the ‘problem’ is to achieve that purpose. So designing a new golf club or even writing a novel would classify as ‘problem-solving’.

The danger with this type of classification is that creative and constructive thinking, and indeed design thinking, tend to be left out. There is a belief that all problems can be solved by analysis - there is no need for new ideas.

The more useful definition of ‘problem’ is as a deviation from the norm. Something is not what it should be. If a train breaks down, that is a deviation and a problem. It is also true that there can be problems as obstacles in the way of what we want to achieve. To succeed we must remove or overcome these obstacles.

In general, problems are matters we want to remove, solve or be without. A problem is like a headache or a stone in your shoe. You want to be rid of it. An illness is a problem. You want to get rid of the problem in order to return to full health. An obstacle on the path forward is also something you want to remove in order to allow you to move forward.


A problem can be defined, and anything that can be defined can also be analysed. Analysis is a powerful tool for solving problems. All problem-solving techniques depend heavily on analysis. What is the cause of the problem? What factors sustain the problem? What prevents a solution?

Creative thinking is quite different. You cannot analyse something which is not there. Most people like analysis because it is finite. You know what you are dealing with. Your analysis may indeed be poor but that is obviously your fault. Most people are uncomfortable with creativity because there is nothing there until you put it there.


One of the dangers of treating all thinking as problem-solving is that we then focus only on things that are ‘wrong’ or ‘inadequate’. We never think about matters which are excellent or going well. This is the usual ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.

In 1971 I was conducting a workshop for Shell Oil in London. At one point I challenged the normal vertical way of drilling an oil well. Instead of going straight down, I suggested going down to a certain level and then going horizontally. Today this is called ‘directional drilling’, and it yields between three and six times as much oil as the conventional well. It is widely used.

The point of the story is that there was nothing wrong with the conventional well, which worked excellently. There was no ‘problem’ to be solved.


Most executives believe that their job is continuity and problem-solving. This means keeping things running as they are and solving any problems that arise and interfere with the smooth running. Anything else is left to someone else such as the strategy group or the CEO, etc.

The background metaphor is that of a machine where all the parts run smoothly in the way they were designed to run. If this is so, then the machine will produce what was intended. Unfortunately this metaphor does not take into account changes in the world around, competitive behaviour, opportunity or an even better use of existing assets.

We need to think about things which do not seem to need thinking about. Because these things are so satisfactory no one has thought about them for a long time. The potential for change or improvement may, therefore, be huge.


We are all very creative - now what shall we be creative about? These are areas and matters which need new thinking; what can we do about them? Contrast these two statements or conditions. In the first, there is creativity seeking a target. In the second, there are targets seeking creativity.

If I ask a group of executives to put down their problems, they have no difficulty putting down five, ten, twenty - or as many as I request. If I ask the same group to put down their ‘creative need areas’, they have a hard time putting down even three. And those three will be very non-specific: ‘I want to be happier’, ‘We need more productivity’, etc. This is no surprise.

As I have written previously, a problem is like a stone in your shoe or a headache. You do not need to seek a problem out. A problem presents itself. A creative need area, however, is only there when you put it thereby defining the focus.


There are two types of focus. Purpose focus is the one with which we are most familiar. You want to ‘achieve’ something. There is a purpose to your thinking. You want to make an improvement. You want to achieve a goal or carry out a task. You want to solve a problem. You know ‘why’ you are thinking. There is a defined purpose. You may want to lower production costs or open up a new market, etc.

Area focus is really very simple. You just indicate ‘where’ you want some new thinking. No purpose is indicated beyond that of having new ideas in a stated area. The defined area may be anything: ‘shop windows; ‘buttons on a mobile phone’; ‘traffic lights’, etc. You do not know how the new idea may develop. You do not know what values may be offered.

The Edward de Bono List is but an alternative name for the Creative Hit List. Each division or department can have its own list in addition to a general corporate list.

The list should be very visible on desks, bulletin boards, intranets and even in wallets. Not more than a third of the list should be problems.

There may be both purpose focus and area focus. Beware of putting down as an area focus what is really a purpose focus. Suppose that as an area focus you put down ‘absenteeism’. This is really a purpose focus, if you want to reduce absenteeism.

Items on the list may be major items or minor ones. Items can be rotated and do not have to stay on the list for ever.


Individuals can pick an item on the list as a target for their own creative efforts. A team can be asked to work on one particular item. An individual may be reading a magazine or attending an exhibition and suddenly sees a connection to an item on the List.

Periodically there can be an assessment of how much progress has been made. The actuality, reality and tangibility of the List pull creativity into an organisation.

We know what ‘onward’, ‘forward’, ‘upward’ mean, and we can learn that ‘edward’ means thinking ‘towards an Effective Design’.

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