Friday, December 12, 2008

Try This Creative Problem Solving Technique

By: Steve Gillman

There are many creative problem solving techniques, and each will lead you to different kinds of solutions. One of the simplest, though, is the "add, subtract and change" technique. What follows is a basic explanation of how to use it to generate more creative solutions.


Whatever you are working on, whether a scientific experiment, a business concept, or a personal issue with family, this technique can help. It starts with the simple question, "What can I add to this?" Open your mind up in answering this. If designing a new vehicle for people who love the outdoors, it's easy to imagine things to add; a tent platform on the roof, a skylight for star viewing, windows with screens, etc.

With other problems you will have to think more widely. For example, if you are trying to find a way to travel to India, you may not immediately think of things to "add" to the problem. Money does come to mind, though, and something as seemingly meaningless as "a group of people" might trigger the idea to go free as a guide, or to get a reduced fare for selling a tour to friends. Let a few random thoughts enter here, and see how adding this or that might lead to a new solution.


The second step of this creative problem solving technique is also very easy if you are just working on product innovation and invention. What can you take away from a television? How about half of the buttons on the remote, or half the weight? Look at what is there and ask what would happen if you subtracted it (or part of it). The screen? You might have a television receiver that displays through the user's computer screen.

With a business problem, like how to gain more repeat customers for your restaurant, you have to think more broadly. What if you subtract payment? Hmm... Customers order from a "subscribers menu," which includes the fast meal at a set price, billed monthly. They don't have wait for the bill. Subtract the menu? Perhaps for a discount customers would prepay for tokens good for specific meals, to be redeemed anytime. They just hand a token to the host when they walk in, and get their meal fast. Once they prepay, they have to come to your restaurant to redeem the token, thus guaranteeing repeat business.


This is the fun step, where you ask what you can change about the problem or the current situation. If you are looking for a way to increase the value of your home before selling it, you ask what you can change about the home, the way you advertise it, the terms of the sale, and anything else you can think of. But to make your problem solving more creative, get a bit crazy in your questions. For example, ask, "What can I change about the buyer?" This may seem silly at first, but it also might suggest targeting a market with buyers who are willing to pay a bit more.

Look for all the things that might be changed, and all the ways you might change them. As with all problem solving techniques, the idea is to generate as many different ideas as possible. Only afterwards do you look at them more critically to find the good ones.

For example, John had a neighbor with too much junk in his yard. It was lowering the value of his home, and he planned to move in a year or so. He asked what he could change about his approach, where he lived, where the neighbor lived, the junk itself, the view, and so on. Asking about changing where the neighbor lived was not so silly as it first seemed. As it turns out, he was a renter, and wanted to move, but was short on cash. John loaned him a few hundred dollars, figuring that even if he was never repaid he would gain ten times that on the increased sale's price of his own home. That's a creative solution.

What can I add? What can I subtract? What can I change? Just ask these three questions and be open minded in answering them. That is the basis of this simple problem solving technique.

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