I just got done reading William Duggan's post on strategy+business called "How Aha! Really Happens." It is an interesting read and I'll let you read it for yourself rather than try to recap it here. For brevity's sake an our purposes, let it suffice to say that Mr. Duggan asserts that the process companies use to come up with solutions to problems is flawed in that the focus is errantly placed on creativity or brainstorming. His assertion is predicated on the fact that he believes a systematic approach to problem solving is superior to the "free your mind," right brain approach so many companies rely on. I would argue that the problem is not in strategy, but in execution.
I'll be the first to admit that many of my best solutions occur to me in the elevator on my way out of the building. It's not because I abandon creativity upon pushing the button for the ground floor and suddenly become systematic in my problem-solving approach. Rather, it's a result of a change in focus that leaving the work environment brings on.
I compare it to my tactic for finding lost items. If I have lost my keys, I often become frustrated because I cannot find them. The reason is that when I am looking for my keys, I look in places where I think I may have left my keys. If I left my keys where I am likely to have left them, chances are they wouldn't really be lost. So, my tactic is to begin looking for my lost sock. Often, the keys turn up during that search. The reason is simply that I look in different places for a sock. If my keys are lost, chances are it's because I have left them someplace I am not likely to have left them. Simply shifting my focus takes me to places I wouldn't go looking for lost keys.
Likewise, I don't necessarily think a creative approach to problem solving, or brainstorming, is inherently broken. Rather, I think that the approach of "Here's a business problem; think of creative ways to solve it. And, get wacky!" is not the right approach. For starters, just like the lost keys, you'll continue to revisit places where you think the solution lies. Second, the creative act isn't a bolt out of the blue or divine insight, it's an act of synthesis that pulls together information from many sources to find a new and nuanced approach to an existing problem.
So, rather than say, "get wacky," the trick is to re-frame the problem statement. Try something like, "If this business issue were being experienced by a car, how would it manifest itself?" Then, instead of asking how to fix the problem, ask, "So, how could we still get to our destination if our car were exhibiting this problem?" The answers will be surprising and surprisingly productive. The key to finding that gold nugget is to look where others have failed to look for gold nuggets before.
Simply stated: If you want the right answer, you need to ask the right question. Asking the right question in the right way will take you to unexpected places where unexpected answers will be found.
P.S. This blog post came about as I was doing research to write a different blog post on a completely different topic.