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Barriers to Workplace Problem-Solving

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The creativity of employees—it does exist—may be hard to harness in certain environments and with particular kinds of managers. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons, worked for years at a bank and at Pacific Bell; yet, at no time was he celebrated for his contribution to creative problem-solving. He certainly demonstrates creativity in his cartoons and absolutely has an eye for problems. So why couldn’t his bosses make use of his talents?

The barriers to creative problem-solving within a company stem from problems with the culture, a lack of knowledge about creative problem solving, or a failure to stimulate and reward creativity. There is great news, however, all of these barriers can be overcome!

Cultural Barriers to Creative Problem Solving

From a company perspective, perhaps the largest barrier to creative problem solving is recognizing that a problem exists and needs to be solved. In addition, many organizations claim they want creative solutions but balk at the risks, or they fail to provide the time and resources required for creativity.

A company may erect barriers to problem-solving with a culture that punishes or criticizes failure, lacks direction (what, exactly, is a solution supposed to accomplish?), resists change, and discourages objections by rationalizing any decision, good or bad, once it is proposed.

Creative problem solving requires a company to be open to different perspectives and being willing to tolerate—and even reward—failure.

TIP: One barrier to both corporate and personal creativity is seldom addressed: does an employee owe creativity to the company and its leaders?

Fundamental Steps to Problem Solving

In summary, the renowned tools and processes for problem-solving, including Lean and Kaizen, are consistent in their emphasis on:

  • Spending the most time on understanding the problem.
  • Breaking the problem down into parts.
  • Finding the solution(s) to each part.
  • Measuring the results.

Four Approaches to Creative Problem Solving 

  • Compute: In this approach, most often used for problem-solving, you gather existing data, survey everyone involved in the problem, use data analysis tools such as Fishbone (cause-and-effect) and Problem Trees, and follow the data toward a goal.
  • Explain: A problem and its solutions may become clearer when you explain them to someone else. In addition, someone else may have insights that you have missed. The most creative stimulus comes from explaining the problem to someone who is not affected by the problem or is affected in an entirely different way than you are.
  • Borrow: When you move the problem into a different context, you open your mind to new perspectives. For example, you might ask, “What have I seen or experienced in another industry/company/team/context that is like this?” or “What if I had to use a different set of tools/systems/processes/products to solve the problem; what would I do then?”
  • Rest: In this approach, you step back from the problem and clear it from your mind. In one study, subjects were presented with a problem that had a hidden solution. They then returned to the problem after 8 hours of sleep or wakefulness. Of those who slept, twice as many were able to detect the solution as those who stayed awake.

Ways to Stimulate Creativity

Problem-solving does not have to follow any of the approaches outlined previously. Creativity may be stimulated if, instead, you approach the problem from an entirely new perspective. You might reenact the problem, draw or diagram the problem, guess at the solution (all guesses being treated as valid until disproved), or manipulate objects representing the problem and solution.

How does a leader ensure the team’s willingness to address a problem and solve it creatively? If motivation alone was sufficient, then few companies would ever reach the stage when a problem becomes a threat to its reputation, future existence, or wider community. Yet, time and again companies like Equifax, Wells Fargo, and Boeing ignore problems that pose a threat in all three areas—problems that were brought to their attention by employees capable of finding solutions.

Thus, while the first rule of creative problem solving is to recognize that a problem exists, the second is to welcome and reward solutions—all solutions from everybody gained in any way that works, regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds.

Key Takeaways

The barriers to creative problem-solving within a company may stem from problems with the culture, a lack of knowledge about creative problem solving, or a failure to stimulate and reward creativity. There is great news, however, all of these barriers can be overcome!

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