Episode 170 – Integrating Creative Problem Solving and Project Management

Episode #170
Original Air Date: 02.06.2023

45 minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Amy Climer

Problems arise throughout the life of a project. What if you had a “go to” creative problem-solving process? Our guest Dr. Amy Climer teaches teams and organizations how to increase their creativity to maximize innovation. She offers a creative problem-solving process both from the leadership perspective, and the team perspective. As Amy says, creativity is far beyond simply generating ideas, and the project manager’s role is critical in the creative process.

Amy assures us that creativity is a skill that can be nurtured and developed over time. Listen in as she describes the four stages of the creative problem-solving process: Clarify, Ideate, Develop, and Implement. Amy explains the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem-Solving Process, and the difference between divergent and convergent thinking. We discuss what impedes creativity, and the dangers of becoming fixated on a solution. As Amy notes, a project manager often plays the role of facilitator, and being able to facilitate the clarify/ideate/develop stage is necessary to get to a successful implementation.

Amy Climer focuses on helping individuals and teams reach their capacity to be creative. Since 1995, she has taught creativity, leadership and change, team development, and facilitation skills. She is the designer of Climer Cards, a tool used to evoke metaphors and generate ideas. She hosts The Deliberate Creative, a podcast designed to teach others how to lead innovation in teams. She has a PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University. In 2016, she received the Karl Rohnke Creativity Award from the Association for Experiential Education.

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Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...an important skill of being more creative is being willing to change your mind. And if you get so fixated on this is the solution and you ignore all the data that might be coming in, or you don’t want to pay attention to this conversation, then you’re not open to this possibility. So being open-minded to different perspectives, different solutions is a huge piece of being able to be more creative."

- Amy Climer

"I love generating ideas. But if I’m not really careful, I will be generating ideas for the wrong problem. ...taking that time to ask some questions and figuring out, well, what really is the problem here is going to obviously make my ideation process much more effective. ...most of us have at some point or other tried to implement an idea and then realized it didn’t work."

- Amy Climer

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. The creative problem-solving process is far beyond simply generating ideas, and the project manager’s role is critical in the process. Dr. Amy Climer shares how to increase creativity to maximize innovation. Hear how to facilitate the clarify/ideate/develop stages of the creative problem-solving process to a successful implementation.

Table of Contents

02:43 … Meet Amy
04:00 … “I’m Not Creative!”
05:29 … Practice Creativity
06:42 … Strengthen Problem Solving Skills
07:46 … Solving the Right Problem
11:30 … Be Willing to Change Your Mind
12:26 … Facing Resistance
15:59 … Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process
17:38 … Creative Problem Solving and The PM
22:05 … Kevin and Kyle
23:25 … Divergent and Convergent Thinking
27:49 … Initiating Ideas
28:48 … Suspend Judgement
29:30 … Seek Wild Ideas
30:09 … Going For Quality
31:51 … Convergent Thinking
33:06 … Be Deliberate
33:53 … Be Affirmative
34:31 … Consider Novelty
35:01 … Common Mistakes Made in the Process
37:51 … Associations and Climer Cards
41:27 … Get in Touch with Amy
43:42 … Closing

AMY CLIMER: …an important skill of being more creative is being willing to change your mind.  And if you get so fixated on like this is the solution and you ignore all the data that might be coming in, or you don’t want to pay attention to this conversation, then you’re not open to this possibility.  So being open-minded to different perspectives, different solutions is a huge piece of being able to be more creative.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hello, and welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  My name is Wendy Grounds, and in the studio with me is Bill Yates Just a quick thanks to our listeners who reach out to us and leave comments on our website or on social media.  We always love hearing from you.  We know you’re also looking for opportunities to acquire PDUs, your Professional Development Units, towards recertifications.  And you can still claim PDUs for all our podcast episodes.  Listen up at the end of the show for information on how you can claim those PDUs.

Our guest today is Dr. Amy Climer, and we’re very excited to talk with her.  She teaches teams and organizations how to increase their creativity so they can maximize innovation.  She works with organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  She has a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University, and she’s developed the Deliberate Creative Team Scale to help teams understand how to increase their creativity.  Amy lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and she’s also the host of The Deliberate Creative Podcast, and we recommend you check that one out.  She shares practical device and strategies to help leaders build innovative teams.

BILL YATES:  Wendy, we are so excited to have Dr. Climer on this episode because I think all project managers are looking for a process, a set of steps to go through problem solving.  A creative problem-solving process is what she’s going to walk through with us.  Problems just occur.  They’re going to happen probably every day on our project.  We’ll have some really full risk register, and then one of those risks will occur, and we’ll look at our plan, and we’ll say, “Hey, we thought that was going to happen, and it happened.  We’ll start following that plan.”  And then the plan fails.  And we’re like, okay, all hands meeting.  The team has to get together.  We’ve got another problem to solve.  We need a process to go about that, and Amy’s got great advice for us.  I’m excited about this.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Amy.  Welcome to Manage This.  Thank you for joining us.

AMY CLIMER:  Thank you.  I’m very excited about our conversation.

Meet Amy

WENDY GROUNDS:  I know.  We’re looking forward to this.  This is a topic I’ve been wanting to talk about for some time.  So I’m glad we found you.  And I first want to find out how you got into this whole subject of creative problem solving.  Give us a little of your history.

AMY CLIMER:  Yeah.  So I’ve been kind of fascinated by the topic of creativity, honestly since high school.  And I can’t actually point to, like, one thing.  But I remember in high school being really frustrated when I heard friends of mine say, oh, I’m not creative.  I don’t have a creative bone in my body.  And I was like, “What?  Yes, you do.”  And I would get really emphatic with them.  And anyway, you know, as an adult I started digging more into creativity. 

Then in 2011 I actually started a Ph.D. program that was focused on leadership and change.  But I went into that program very specifically with the goal to study creativity from like the leadership perspective, the team perspective.  And then I stumbled upon the Creative Problem Solving Institute, which is where I got trained in really understanding creative problem solving, which I know we’ll talk about.  I’ve been working with teams and organizations, helping them be more creative, since about 2009.  And I’ve just worked with all sorts of amazing groups, and I love what I get to do.

“I’m Not Creative!”

BILL YATES:  Wendy, this is so funny.  She’s already hit on it.  We have some of our listeners who will swear to you, Amy, “I’m not creative.  I’m not hired to be creative.  I’m hired to get things done.  Somebody else comes up with the ideas.”  You know, what do you say to those people who swear they’re not creative?

AMY CLIMER:  A couple things.  The first is that creativity is something that we naturally as humans have.  And if you just look around wherever you are, unless you’re out on a nature hike while you’re listening to this, but everything you see we created; right?  Like even microphones, podcasts, the table, the chair I’m sitting in, like we just honestly can’t help ourselves.  And I think we’re a pretty unique species in that way.  So even – and creativity wouldn’t happen without the implementation.  So project managers are actually really critical in the creative process.  Creativity is far beyond just generating ideas, which I know we’ll get into that.

The other thing I would say is that creativity is a skill.  And it’s a skill that can be and must be nurtured and developed over time.  So the people that you know, if you think about the people who are just highly creative that you know, if you really started looking at them and asking questions about their lives, they probably have been working at that for years, decades, maybe even from the time they were little kids, you know, some maybe with more intention than others, but they’ve been working on being more creative.  And so, yeah, it’s a skill you can develop, just like any other skill.

Practice Creativity

BILL YATES:  That’s funny.  That reminds me of one of the things I loved about Jerry Seinfeld the comedian, about his kind of that match of creativity and rigor, or practice, if you will, or habits.  You know, he has that healthy habit of writing every day.  And he has a calendar laid out, and he wants to see that X mark or that green check, whatever he does on his calendar every day showing that he wrote something.  It may be trash.  He may never even try that joke out.  There’s some funny observation or something that he did. 

So there’s that match of when I think of Jerry Seinfeld I think, oh, that guy’s so creative.  How can he walk into a room that’s just kind of a boring, mundane, everyday setting, and he finds something funny.  Why don’t I see that?  He’s creative.  I’m not.  But there’s a method to that.  And so, yeah, yeah.

AMY CLIMER:  Absolutely.  Yeah, and I’m really glad you brought that up.  Any book you read about how to write a book or how to write poetry or whatever, it says “Do this every day.”  You know, write a little bit every day.  If you wait for inspiration to strike, you will be waiting a very long time.  And professionals – Steven Pressfield is another great creative who’s written about this in his book “The War of Art” and other books.  And it’s like, yeah, you want to be creative?  Sit down and do the work.

Strengthen Problem Solving Skills

WENDY GROUNDS:  Going on from that, what are some other personal skills that our project managers, project leaders can strengthen so that they can become more adept at problem solving?

AMY CLIMER:  I think one of the biggest things is just understanding how creativity works, and understanding the creative problem-solving process, which is the process that I mostly teach.  It’s very similar to design thinking or human-centered design.  There’s a bunch of them out there.  In my opinion, I don’t know that it really matters which one you know or understand.  They’re all so similar.  But understanding one of those and using it can be really, really powerful.  So that would be one skill that I think is important to develop.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  I can relate to that.  If I feel like, okay, this is something that I actually need to get better at, I need to be a better facilitator for these brainstorming sessions that our team has, where my sponsor’s present, or I have other vendors, you know, that are present, I need to get my act together.  It brings me comfort to hear you say “There’s a method to this.  There is a process.”  So I’m excited we’re going to walk through that.

Solving the Right Problem

WENDY GROUNDS:  There’s a quote by Steve Jobs.  He says:  “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”  It doesn’t make sense to generate lots of ideas if you’re solving the wrong problem.  So we first have to find out what is the right problem.  Can you talk a bit about that?

AMY CLIMER:  Yes, absolutely.  So this is a key piece of the creative problem solving process.  So there are four stages of the creative problem solving process.  The first stage is clarify, and what is the problem, really identifying it, do some research and background and understand it.  From there you move into generating ideas.  And not like two, three, four ideas, but dozens, hundreds of ideas, depending on how creative you want to be or what the problem is. 

The third stage is develop, where you take some of those best ideas and you develop them further because, as I like to say, when an idea comes out of our head, it’s about as in-depth as what’ll fit on a Post-it note.  So, you know, we need to expand on it.  And then the fourth and final stage is implementation.  And that’s where project managers are real pros; right?  Like I don’t need to talk a whole lot about that part.

So one of the challenges we have is that all of us gravitate towards one or more of those stages.  So, for instance, I love generating ideas.  But if I’m not really careful, I will be generating ideas for the wrong problem.  And so really taking that time to ask some questions and figuring out, well, what really is the problem here is going to obviously make my ideation process much more effective. 

I’ve definitely, most of us have at some point or other tried to implement an idea and then realized it didn’t work.  Now, sometimes it might have just been it wasn’t the best solution.  But sometimes it was because we didn’t actually fully understand the problem.  So that clarify stage is really critical, and it’s one that can be easy to skip.

BILL YATES:  It’s funny, I can think of situations that I had in the past, the career that I had in project management with the software for utilities.  And Amy, I can remember being in the room, like kind of flash back to these large conference rooms that we were in with the customer.  We were describing the implementation of the solution that we thought was the right one.  And the customer started talking about a different problem.  And, yeah, they needed that.  But they also had this other problem.  And there was such a temptation just to ignore it because I don’t know what that is.  It could be messy.  It could derail our project.

But man, when we took the time to really hear that problem and see how it fit in with our project, it made such a difference, and we went so much deeper in that project and really met a deeper need.  But there’s a fear of, you know, I don’t know if I want to hear this.  Is it going to be more complicated than we can even tackle?  For me, clarifying and spending the time to make sure that we’re dealing with the correct problem, it takes discipline.  It’s like you have to really dedicate that time to that because, you’re right, that’s such a big issue.  We do want to rush on to brainstorming ideas and moving on through the process.  But that clarifying is such a key first step.

AMY CLIMER:  Yeah, and I think you really brought up a good point, Bill, is that there can be an element of fear around it.  And that because sometimes the real problem might actually be maybe the mindset of some of the people involved or the beliefs or the behaviors or something that is, you know, a lot more personal, and it’s going to require some real vulnerability to uncover and then even more vulnerability to look at addressing it.  And so, yeah, I think sometimes it can be easy to skirt around the real problem.  But then, well, you don’t actually end up solving it; right?

Be Willing to Change Your Mind

WENDY GROUNDS:  I think sometimes you get so attached to your solution, and you just want to keep going down that avenue.  This is going to be a great product.  This is going to work really well.  And then you kind of go off the course of what are actually solving.  So listening to your customer, listening to your stakeholders, making sure that you’re doing the right thing to solve the actual problem.

AMY CLIMER:  And actually I think, just to go back to that earlier question about skills, I think an important skill of being more creative is being willing to change your mind.  And if you get so fixated on like this is the solution and you ignore all the data that might be coming in, or you don’t want to pay attention to this conversation, then you’re not open to this possibility.  So being open-minded to different perspectives, different solutions is a huge piece of being able to be more creative.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I think one of Andy’s favorite sayings is, when you’re selling hammers, everything looks like a nail.

Facing Resistance

WENDY GROUNDS:  So there are some things that impede our creativity.  One of them can be when the manager gets resistance from a team member.  People are not onboard with what you’re doing.  What are some of the things that a project manager can do in that situation?

AMY CLIMER:  So one of the things that I’ve noticed is that, well, resistance can come about for many reasons.  But one of the really common reasons is, well, first let me say usually when people are resisting an idea, they mean well.  So sometimes I think we hear somebody resisting an idea, we’re like, oh, great, here we go again, like the naysayer; right?  But generally they actually are trying to do good by the group or the organization.  I think one thing that can really help is when, if you are using the creative problem solving process or whatever process you’re using, to make sure everyone understands the process and knows where you are in the process.

So right now we’re in the clarify stage.  We’re not making any decisions about solutions yet.  And then we’re going to move into the ideate stage, where we’re generating ideas; though, again, we’re not making a decision, at least in the initial part of it.  And when people understand the whole process, and they understand, like, what I tell my clients is I guarantee you you will not implement a bad idea.  Like I have never actually seen that happen when you actually go through the whole process because there’s points throughout the process that allow people to say, yeah, I’ve got a lot of concerns about this idea, and here’s why.  And then, you know, whatever those concerns are, they can address them.

I think what happens is sometimes the naysayers, they get so nervous that they’re not going to have a chance to dispute an idea that they do that too soon.  And so as soon as the ideas are starting to flow, be like oh, no no no, we did that in 1985, and it was a complete disaster; you know?  We’ve all heard these, like, ridiculous comments, right, that, you know, you laugh about.  But, I mean, and I’ve been guilty of saying that.  I will admit, most of us have made that mistake of being that naysayer, kind of almost like in the wrong timing. 

But the fear generally is I’m afraid if I don’t speak up this idea’s going to move forward.  And so helping people understand, like, don’t worry, we’re just generating ideas.  We’re not evaluating them yet.  We’re not saying these are good ideas.  And we’re just throwing them out there.  And then they know, oh, there’s going to be a chance for that.  So that can be a huge piece that just decreased the resisters.

But I think the other thing is to not ignore them, that sometimes the resisters have really good points, and maybe they’ve seen something from a different perspective.  Maybe they’ve been in the organization longer.  Whatever the reason, to pay attention and find out, okay, what’s the rub here?  What’s the resistance, and how can we address it?  Sometimes all it takes is a really, really minor shift.  And they’re like, oh, yeah, that’d be great if we just did that one thing.  Be like, that was easy.

BILL YATES:  You know, it’s so funny, I think of some basics with meeting management and how, you know, the idea of always having a whiteboard or someplace where you can put a parking lot.  Okay, that’s a great idea.  I don’t think we’re ready for that yet.  But you’ve got a serious risk that you’ve identified that we need to get into deeper.  Whatever solution we decide on, I think you’re maybe a few hours early or a day early, you know, in bringing this up.  But I want to put it on the parking lot because I don’t want us to forget it.  It’s important.  Then if I’m the one who’s brought that idea up, it kind of gives me a sense of, okay.  You know, A, I’ve contributed; and, B, I’m not being ignored.  So there are ways to manage that.  That’s good.

Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process

WENDY GROUNDS:  So we want to move on to something called the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process.  Can you just explain it to us and tell us what that’s all about?

AMY CLIMER:  Yeah.  So that’s a process that I mentioned before, the clarify, ideate, develop, implement.  These are four stages.  It’s a cyclical process.  It was initially maybe discovered or coined by Alex Osborn in the 1940s, and he is also credited with coming up with the concept of brainstorming.  And he was an ad executive like in the marketing world.  And he was the “O” in the marketing firm BBDO, which actually still exists today.  You might have even seen commercials that they’ve put out.

So Alex Osborn comes up with this process of how to be more creative, and then he ended up partnering with this guy Sid Parnes, who was at Buffalo State University.  He was a professor there.  And they started really looking at, well, how does this creativity actually work?  And it’s based on how we as humans naturally solve problems.  But the challenge is, with us, the difficulty is because we have preferences for one or more of those four stages, we want to just gravitate towards that preference. 

So if we can just slow down, be more intentional, be more deliberate about the four stages, we can be much more creative in the end.  And the process has been heavily researched over the last, what, six, seven, eight decades.  And it’s been refined and kind of simplified, and now we have these four stages.  I think at one point there were seven or eight stages.  But that’s sort of the gist of the entire process.

Creative Problem Solving and the PM

BILL YATES:  And I thought it would be nice for us to, before we go deeper into this topic, just to help project managers think about, okay, where does this apply to you?  Or, you know, what are examples throughout the life of a project where you’re going to need to use a creative problem solving process like this.  So do you want to speak into that?  Certainly I’ve got some examples, too.  But thinking of, okay, in the life of a project manager, where might they need to go into this?

AMY CLIMER:  I think, you know, it could happen at many different stages of a project.  I think of it, it can be helpful anytime you are interested in new creative ideas and perspectives.  And so, you know, certainly we have problems in our life that we don’t actually need new ideas around.  You know, we know what to do.  It’s just a matter of implementing it.  And that might be a situation where, yeah, like bring in the traditional project management approach.  Don’t need to necessarily get creative here.  Totally okay. 

But then I think there’s some other situations where, yeah, let’s see how might we do this different.  We don’t know the right solution.  Or we’ve tried this one thing, and it didn’t work.  And now let’s really look at trying to be innovative and creative.

I think there were some just phenomenal examples from during the pandemic, especially like 2020, 2021, of organizations like, I mean, restaurants alone were like, oh, I can’t have people in my restaurant?  How am I going to pivot, you know, that word got so overused.  But then there were also so many businesses that I saw, and I’m guessing you all did, as well, that they were just, no, I’m not going to change.  You know, and of course most of them went out of business.  So I think part of it is like being able to respond to what’s going on around you.  Yeah, I think anytime you need more creative ideas to solve a problem, it’s a great process.

BILL YATES:  I do, too.  Again, it’d be easy for a project manager to look at this and go, well, I get some of the points you’re making about creativity.  But, hey, I’m an implementer.  I’m on the back end of that process.  So you guys figure out what it is.  I’ll just go get it done.  But there are times when you’re going to have problems that pop up in your project.  And if you go, no, you’re not, I mean, every project manager knows there will be problems.  There will be daily problems that pop up.  You could lose a key resource.  “All right, team.  Let’s get together.  We need to come up with a solution.  I’ve got a big problem to solve.”  And you go through this process.  Right?  It could be something like that.

You could be fighting over resources with other departments, other functional managers.  You could have technology fails all the time.  We start a project, and we’re counting on this particular piece of technology to work, and it fails miserably.  You’re like, oh, gosh.  You know, today’s Tuesday.  I’ve got to meet with my sponsor on Friday.  I just let him know that we’ve got a serious issue with the technology.  You know, we need to have a creative problem solving session.  I think it feeds right in.  I think every project manager they step back and look, they’re like, I’m not just an implementer.  I’m solving problems all the time.  So this is applicable.

AMY CLIMER:  And I think so much of being a project manager is about being a facilitator.  And so being able to facilitate that process, even though you may love implementing, still you need to be able to facilitate the clarify/ideate/develop stage.  I think your examples were great, Bill, and also point to the fact that you could go through this entire process in an hour, or it might take days or months, depending on what the problem is.  And it is cyclical; right?  So you go through the whole thing, you start implementing, and then you hit a roadblock.  You’ve like, all right, we need to clarify/ideate/develop again, you know.  And so it’s like you have these little mini versions within your problem.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I think back to previous episodes where we’ve spoken to project managers and talked about projects that they’ve been working on.  I’m just thinking of the Golden Ray.

BILL YATES:  I was thinking of the same thing, yes.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  They were cleaning out the Golden Ray shipwreck that was in the Brunswick port.  And problem after problem after problem, there were just so many…

BILL YATES:  Oh, yeah.

WENDY GROUNDS:  …things that happened during…

BILL YATES:  You start the largest salvage project in the United States, and then the pandemic hits.

WENDY GROUNDS:  And then the pandemic.  And then the weather changes and, yeah, so much.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

WENDY GROUNDS:  And so they had to change.  They had to come up with some really creative ideas.

AMY CLIMER:  And that’s such a good example because no one’s done it before.  I mean, sure, there’s like other salvages.  But like this one’s bigger, and this one has different issues; right?  And so that’s where I think, yeah, creative problem solving is a great tool.

WENDY GROUNDS:  It’s always good to get the stories afterwards when you see how creative they were, and they tell you, oh, I’m not creative, I’m just the project manager.

BILL YATES:  I know, you’re like, what?

WENDY GROUNDS:  And you’re like, my goodness.

Kevin and Kyle

WENDY GROUNDS:  Let’s take a little break.  Let’s go over to Kevin and Kyle and see what they’re talking about today.

KEVIN RONEY: Thanks Wendy. I have a question for our listeners. Do any of you struggle with low self-confidence? Low self-confidence is a problem that can hold you back from achieving your potential. This can be in your personal or your professional life.

KYLE CROWE: You’re right!  When you’re confident in your abilities, it’s easier to be the project leader that inspires confidence in others. Your self-confidence goes a long way to boosting the confidence of your teams, sponsors, clients, or stakeholders.

KEVIN RONEY:: There can be a number of things that cause of a lack of self confidence. It could  originate in childhood – if we received negative messages. It could be stress or difficult life events. And it could also be personality – some folk are just more prone to negative thoughts.

KYLE CROWE: If you are up against a crisis, your stakeholders need to be assured they can have confidence in you to manage the problem. If you have low self confidence, we can suggest some help to turn that around! The first step is just to be kind to your self! We’re most often our own worst critic.

KEVIN RONEY:: And the second step is – we recommend an excellent Velociteach Insite  course by Neal Whitten called: 25 ACTIONS TO BUILD YOUR SELF-CONFIDENCE.  This course identifies actions you can take to build and maintain your self-confidence. Check it out!

BILL YATES:  Thanks for that info, Kevin and Kyle.  Let’s go back to our podcast and talk with Dr. Climer further.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

WENDY GROUNDS:  So Osborn identified two kinds of thinking that are essential to being creative, the divergent and the convergent thinking.  Could you explain the difference between the two and why you need both?

AMY CLIMER:  Yes.  I love like just understanding divergent and convergent thinking.  And this goes back to your earlier question, too, about skills that project managers can develop.  So there are two types of thinking that occur within each of these stages.  The first is divergent thinking, where this is where we’re generating lots of ideas, we’re diverging, we might go off topic a little bit, we’re basically what I think of as like filling the bucket.

I think about when I was a kid, I grew up in Florida, and we would go to this freshwater spring called Alexander Springs.  It was about 25 feet.  And we would snorkel, and we would dive down with a bucket, and we would scoop up all the same in the bucket from the bottom of the spring.  We’d come up on land, and we would dump that bucket in like a screen, like a framed tray where the bottom was a screen.  And we’d filter out all the sand, and we would dig through and look for sharks’ teeth.  You know, I’ve got this little jar of sharks’ teeth still.

But that digging through and that sorting through, that’s the conversion stage where, you know, at first we’re just filling this bucket.  Yeah, we’re just going to get a bunch of junk in there, and that’s okay.  And then we’re going to sort and figure, okay, which one of these ideas are the best ideas.  So the convergent phase is really where we’re starting to evaluate and judge the ideas.  Now, one of the challenges we have as humans is that we technically cannot do both of those types of thinking at the same time.  Some people can get really good at switching.

I don’t know, I’m sure many of your listeners have heard about the difference between multitasking and task-switching.  Like multitasking we can’t actually do it, but you can switch tasks back and forth.  That does require some brain power.  And you can get really good at that with switching between divergent and convergent thinking, but it’s actually much more effective if you’re just like, okay, right now we’re going to diverge.  And then we’re going to take all these ideas and evaluate them and converge.  So going back to that silly example where you’re in a ideation session and brainstorming and people are shouting out ideas, and somebody says, oh, no, we can’t do that because we tried that in 1985.  That person is switching into the convergent stage.

And then what happens to the whole conversation?  Yeah, exactly, it is stopped.  Like nobody is going to hear another idea after that.  And part of that is because like the whole room sort of shifts into this convergent thinking, and it’s hard to shift back.  There’s also the element of, you know, fear of being judged and evaluated and whatnot.  But if that person knows, hey, hold off, we’re going to get there, it‘s all good, then it’s just easier to stay in that divergent phase. 

BILL YATES:  We have a course, a project management fundamentals course, and we show a video in there that there’s some actors that put on a brainstorming session, or one guy tries to put on a brainstorming session, and the wheels come off like immediately and spectacularly.  It’s a very funny video.  But I remember there’s one guy sharing an idea for this team event they could have for the company.  And as he’s sharing his idea, the guy sitting across the table looks at him and says, “That would never work.  How are you going to make that work?”  You know, and, again, it just totally shuts down the conversation.

AMY CLIMER:  It’s classic.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So I just think about project managers, when you’re in this divergent thinking stage, you need to equip the team with this is a safe environment.  There are no bad ideas.  Later we’ll look at them and judge them.  But for now I’m scooping sand up from the bottom of the spring.  That’s such a great example.  Go get another bucketful.  Go get another bucketful.  And then we’ll dump it out and start to look and see what we have. 

But for now just go get a bucketful of ideas and dump it out.  So that means for the team members, when I’m dumping my bucket out, I don’t want you guys laughing at it, or laughing at me, or judging me.  Or I don’t want you not verbally laughing at me, but maybe your body language is.  It’s like, you’re not saying anything; but, boy, I can hear you.  So, yeah, there’s a need there for the project managers to know how to handle that and manage it.

Initiating Ideas

WENDY GROUNDS:  How can you help initiate ideas and get those ideas coming?

AMY CLIMER:  Okay.  So a couple things.  First of all is part of that clarify stage, the end of the stage, is to have a specific question that you are going to generate ideas around.  I think one of the most powerful like beginnings of the question is “how might we.”  And so using that prefix, “how might we,” there’s something about the word “might.”  I like to say “‘Might’ is a mighty word.”  And then if you say “How should we, how could we, how will we, how do we,” it implies you’re looking for the right answer when actually we’re just generating ideas. 

So that would be the first tip is to change how you’re explaining the problem and just like, all right, here’s the question we’re going to look at is how might we blah blah blah.  Then, from there, make sure that everyone in the group understands the difference between divergent and convergent, and that we’re in a divergent phase.

Suspend Judgement

There are some rules that Alex Osborn created for – we say “brainstorming,” but brainstorming is actually just one technique within ideation.  So these are rules for ideation.  And so making sure everyone understands the rules.  So here are the four rules.  The first is suspend judgment.  We’ve just talked about that.  And I make it very clear that you will get to judge the ideas.  I don’t actually like that phrase, “No ideas are bad ideas,” or “All ideas are good ideas.”  I mean, come on, we all have seen really bad ideas implemented in the world.  But the point is you just suspend the judgment, and we’re not going to decide right now.  So suspend judgment.

Seek Wild Ideas

The next one is seek wild ideas.  So we want to get really unusual and unexpected, and maybe there’s a collaboration you need to do with the Barnum and Bailey Circus camp that happens in the middle of Wisconsin.  I mean, I don’t know.  But you want to get really wild.  And I sometimes will throw out funny examples like that.  And then combining and building on ideas.  So Wendy shares an idea; Bill shares an idea.  And I say, ooh, what if we take both those, and we put them together, and then we do this?  And that’s really helpful.  That’s where you can get the real power of the collaborative team.

Going For Quality

And then finally we’re going for quantity.  And I actually recommend two things here.  One, make sure all the ideas get written down.  I’d say if an idea isn’t written down, it doesn’t count because no one’s going to remember it anyway.  So make sure they all get written down.  And then number them.  And at a certain point you might say, hey, we’ve got 25 ideas.  Let’s see if we can get to 50.  What’s surprising I think to many people is it doesn’t take long.  I mean, a group of 10 people can come up with 25 ideas in less than five minutes, especially if you’re all writing them on Post-it notes, and you don’t have to wait for each person to verbally share.  So it doesn’t have to take very long.

The next thing I would say is don’t just rely on brainstorming.  Brainstorming as a process is not actually the most effective way to generate ideas.  It works in some pretty narrow contexts.  But there are so many other ways.  And so when I’m working with a team, we typically go through at least three different ideation techniques.  And I can get into those if you want, but I also just want to pause there.  Those are a few things I would recommend to help teams and groups generate more ideas.

BILL YATES:  Those are really good.  And I’ve heard the technique of saying “yes, and?”  Would that fall into the combine and build on ideas?

AMY CLIMER:  Absolutely, yeah.  I love that concept.  It comes from the world of theater improv, that yes, I’m building on the ideas.  And I think some people get confused because they think, if I say “yes, and,” it means I’m agreeing with that idea.  Not necessarily.  It’s more of the mindset of I’m going with what’s already been said, and I’m going to just go with the flow here.  And then, again, later you’ll evaluate the ideas.

Convergent Thinking

WENDY GROUNDS:  Can we move on to the convergent thinking process now?  I know there are some rules involved in that, as well.  Do you want to round that out for us?

AMY CLIMER:  Sure, yeah, great question.  Okay.  So we talked about the divergent rule.  So after that, you know, you have  your big list of 50, 100, hundreds of ideas.  And then, I mean the reality is some of those just aren’t going to be that helpful.  You could even go as far as to say they might just be flat-out bad ideas.  But they might also just not be a good fit for this particular problem.

BILL YATES:  They’re not practical; right.

AMY CLIMER:  Yeah, right.  I also think it’s a skill to develop like how you share an idea and what you say because that actually helps.  So what I’ve noticed is that people who are not used to generating ideas, and let’s say we’re looking at a problem, like how might we improve our marketing techniques.  And that’s not a very well-developed question, but just for sake of example.  And then somebody says “social media.”  Okay.  Sure.  Yeah.  Okay.  Social media is a valuable tool to develop our marketing skills.  But first of all, like be more specific.  And, you know, what about social media?  Yes, of course, we’re going to probably use social media; right?  But getting more specific.

Be Deliberate

So anyway, as we get into this convergent stage, sometimes there are ideas that just, they don’t even make sense because they’re not actually an idea.  So you can just either further develop those or set those aside.  Which goes into the first rule of convergent thinking, which is be deliberate.  So be intentional about what ideas that you want to look at.  And then checking your objectives, like what was the problem you were looking at?  I mean, because of the whole nature of divergent thinking, there’s going to be some ideas that just don’t fit anymore.  So checking your objectives, and then improving on those ideas.  So if it says social media, or maybe it says develop an Instagram campaign, okay, great.  Let’s improve upon that and get more specific.

Be Affirmative

And then being affirmative.  I think sometimes what can happen is, you know, you’ve got this big list of ideas.  And then people, like let’s say they’re all on a wall on Post-it notes.  And then people might just start, you know, pulling some off, like no, no, no, we’re not going to do that.  But instead, to be affirmative about it, instead of disregarding the ones that don’t work, look at the ones that might work.

 And part of that is, if you disregard the ones that won’t work, especially if you like pull them off the wall and like throw them on the floor, they’re lost.  Right?  And so there might have been some little nugget there that might fit with something else.

Consider Novelty

So, and then finally is consider novelty.  If the whole point was for you to be creative and do something unique and different, then you want to consider like, well, is this a novel idea that’s going to help our solution?  That may or may not always be important.  It depends on – if you’re developing a marketing campaign, that might be really important.  If you’re trying to figure out how to salvage a shipwreck, maybe the novelty is not the biggest piece, but it might be worth looking at, too.

Common Mistakes Made in the Process

BILL YATES:  Amy, there’s so much wisdom in following a process like this.  I can think of specific sessions that I was in where I tried to rush through one piece of this, or maybe I failed some of these checkpoints that you had; you know?  There are some things there that are – sometimes I just get impatient, or maybe I laugh too hard at an idea at the wrong time.  You know, something like that, and I don’t think about the impact that I’m having on stifling creativity in the process.  But what are some other common mistakes that you see people do when they’re trying to lead a team through this process?

AMY CLIMER:  I think one of the common mistakes is like the facilitator might know the process, but they forget that the team doesn’t.  And so just making sure that the team understands, like, here’s the process.  Here’s where we’re at.  We’re in the clarify stage.  We’re going to diverge first.  Then we’re going to converge.  So the divergent and convergent happen in each stage of the process.  And just being really transparent and clear about what we’re doing and why.

So that’s one mistake that I see.  Or, you know, the person, maybe they listen to this podcast.  They learn about divergent and convergent thinking, and then they just go to their team, be like, all right, you all, we’re going to diverge and converge, and then don’t explain what that is.  I mean, what are the chances the team members know the same definition that you do?  So I think just one is being really clear and spending some time in that teaching mode.

The other mistake I see is people just using traditional brainstorming.  And I think knowing some different techniques is really important.  So usually when I’m working with a team I don’t even do the traditional brainstorming, especially to start.  But instead I’ll start with sort of a variation of that.  Sometimes I call it brainwriting. 

Every person has a stack of Post-it notes.  You know, at this point they’ve already clarified.  Everyone understands the problem.  Like, great.  Write down some ideas.  One idea per Post-it note.  Start every idea with an action verb.  So create, design, develop, whatever the verb is.  And just go as fast as you can and create a little pile of Post-it notes next to you.

So everyone’s working quietly.  And, you know, give them two, three, four minutes to do that until I see that most people have three or four or five ideas next to them.  And then we start verbally sharing them, putting them, you know, in the middle of the table or on a wall or whatever.  Tell people, like, as you’re listening to the ideas that are being shared, keep writing new ideas that are sparked as you’re listening. 

So we do that.  And eventually what happens is people run out of ideas.  Like we all do that.  That’s very normal.  And so then when that happens, which isn’t very long, I mean, 10 minutes on this process is often enough, I’ll bring in another process.

Associations and Climer Cards

So one of them I use is related to a concept called “associations,” where we might see an object or an image or something or a concept, and we associate it to our particular problem.

And so I created this deck of cards that is a tool to help teams or individuals do that process of association.  So the deck of cards are called Climer Cards, and there’s 50 images.  They’re all hand-drawn little watercolor paintings that I did, they’re simple, they’re colorful.  But they’re specifically images that are designed to spark new ideas or create metaphors from. 

So, for instance, some examples are there’s an elephant.  There’s a sewing machine.  There’s a butterfly.  And there’s a picture of a tent, an old-fashioned telephone.  And so you can take these images and spread them out on the table and then say, okay, now, looking at these images, thinking about our same question, now what ideas do you get?

BILL YATES:  Oh, cool.  Wow.

AMY CLIMER:  Yeah, it works really well.

BILL YATES:  You said you did the watercolors yourself.  That’s awesome.  Give us an example of how those work.  Like somebody sees the elephant, or somebody sees the sewing machine, and then where do they go with the ideas?

AMY CLIMER:  Yeah, so it could be that maybe the elephant sparks the concept of memory.  And, you know, what is something we’re going to do that’s going to be really memorable for this project?  So it could be something very sort of more metaphoric that way.  It could be particularly say you’re developing like a physical product.  Then maybe the elephant makes you think about the tough skin and the wrinkles, and that might spark, like, ooh, what if we design this project or this product with like a tough outer shell?  Or it could be like maybe we should go visit some elephants.  I mean, I don’t know.  There’s like so many things.  It depends on what your problem is.

BILL YATES:  That’s so cool.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I love it.  You know, I’ve heard about using magazines from your industry or, you know, different things like that.  I love having the set of cards because then the facilitator is going to get experience with that, too, and see where the magic starts to happen, then can allude to that or say, you know, I was working with another team before.  When they saw this image, this is the connection they made.  And then people may go, oh, and boom, they go off on putting A and B together to create some magic.  It’s really cool.

AMY CLIMER:  And the cards are nice because, I mean, it’s just a simple deck, and I do know people who they carry them with them everywhere.  I have this one friend who she travels a lot.  She’s a professional speaker.  And she carries them in her bag.  And then when she’s stuck on a problem on a plane she just, like, sits there, and she flips through the cards until she gets a solution.

BILL YATES:  Wow.  That is super cool.

AMY CLIMER:  It is pretty cool, yeah.  I feel very excited to hear those kind of stories.  So anyway, I think about going back to the main question there of I think using different ideation techniques instead of just sticking with brainstorming can be really valuable.

BILL YATES:  One of the      things I love about the brainwriting, too, is that it gives people space.  You’re going to have extroverts and introverts.  You’ll have aggressive people.  You’ll have passive people.  This way you get the best ideas from everyone.  Or maybe they’re not the best idea yet, but they’re going to become that later as they start to put A and B together.  But everybody has the time and the space, you know, to get their ideas down in silence, no judgment, nobody dominating and going first.  And I hear an idea from somebody else, and I think, oh, my idea is stupid.  And I never write it down.  This way I get them all down, and the team benefits.  It’s great.

AMY CLIMER:  And what you describe is actually one of the classic problems with brainstorming in that, you know, not everyone’s voice is equally heard.

Get in Touch with Amy

WENDY GROUNDS:  Finally, Amy, if our listeners want to hear more about your work, what you do, where they can get Climer Cards or…

BILL YATES:  Thank you, yes.  That’s – yeah.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  Or where they can get some help from you, where should they go?

AMY CLIMER:  Okay, yeah.  So there’s a couple resources.  If you want a deck of Climer Cards, the website is ClimerCards.com.  And Climer is spelled without a “b,” so it’s C-L-I-M-E-R.  And so you can go order a deck from that website.  If you want to reach out to me, my website for my consulting practice where I work with teams and organizations and I help them be more creative, that website is ClimerConsulting.com.  And I also have a podcast called The Deliberate Creative.  My mantra is be deliberate to be creative.  Like it will not happen by accident.  And which is basically what we’ve been talking about this whole time.  So, yeah, there’s over a hundred episodes related to leading creativity in teams.  And so feel free to check that out, as well.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, I listened to and read the transcripts of some of your earlier podcasts when we were looking for content for this conversation, and you do go into detail on all of the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, convergent thinking, divergent thinking.  So if people want to take a listen there, I highly recommend it.

AMY CLIMER:  Well, thank you.  Yeah, the episodes like 1-8 are more or less designed to be sequential.  And there’s actually a free download that relates to Episodes 3-7 where I walk through the creative problem solving process.  And so there’s this workbook that you can download that has a bunch of activities related to leading creativity routines.  So check that out.  And then after that the episodes are, you know, kind of listen to in whatever order for your needs.

BILL YATES:  This is such a vital toolset for project managers.  Again, they’re going to have problems every day they have to solve.  And some of them are big, and they cannot do it on their own.  They need to involve other team members, maybe the entire team.  There’s security and better results when we know how to go about something, and knowing this process and stepping through it the way you have has really been helpful.  Thank you for sharing this and the great resources that you have.

AMY CLIMER:  Awesome.  Well, thank you.  You all are going amazing work.  I’m excited about this.

Closing

WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  You just earned your PDUs, your Professional Development Units, toward recertifications by listening to this podcast.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm, solve your problems, and Manage This.

3 responses to “Episode 170 – Integrating Creative Problem Solving and Project Management”

  1. Nicole Estremera says:

    Great Podcast. I like the point of view regarding to ask the right questions in order to figure it out the exact problem; sometimes we skip this important part of the process of problem solving.

  2. Oluwatosin Aladeojebi says:

    Thank you for this informative podcast. Learning about the common mistakes during convergent and divergent thinking has been an eye-opener for me. One mistake that particularly stood out was assuming that team members understand the process without properly explaining the concept to them as a team leader. This is an important reminder to ensure that everyone is on the same page and can contribute effectively to the whole creative process. Thanks again for sharing this valuable insight.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      I appreciate your comments Oluwatosin. Amy had some excellent advice. We will have a follow-on conversation to this episode in a few months. Looking at Clarify-Ideate-Develop-Implement, and our natural preferences for those 4 areas, from a team perspective.

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