How I blew a creative problem-solving session

My business was new, and I was just setting myself up as a creativity coach. I was armed with new knowledge, and I found an opportunity to use it. It was an organization I was already a part of, with people I knew, and we had a unique problem to solve. I offered my services, ready to help ideate unique solutions to our challenge.

Then the day came.

And I blew it.

This is the story of why.

Caveat: For privacy reasons, I can’t name the organization I was working with, nor the problem we were working on. But I can still tell you how things went wrong, and how I’ve refined the process of Creative Problem-Solving since then.

This was a volunteer-run organization that faced a need to have a complete shutdown, ceasing operations for several months. The reasons were legitimate, and there was no way they could operate as normal. However, some members wanted to explore some smaller-scale, simple ideas for continuing to serve their audience in a cost-effective (read: free) way, while other members were fine with doing nothing until they could resume operations.

So, they wanted to explore: what could they do, and if anything, should they?

A perfect challenge for Creative Problem-Solving.

Here’s where I went wrong, and how you can avoid the same errors:

,,,I misunderstood the difference between the vision and the challenge

The FourSight Creative Problem-Solving Model (Clarify, Ideate, Develop, and Implement) breaks down the clarify stage into two steps: the Vision Statement, and the Challenge Statement.

The Vision Statement, according to the FourSight Facilitation Manual, is where one “Identifies the goal, wish, or challenge.” We want to help the client create a clear vision of a desired outcome, using sentence starters such as, “It would be great if…” or “I wish…”

The Challenge is where we, “Decide on what problem to solve” and we, “Help the client pinpoint the right challenge to address.” We use sentence starters such as, “How to…” “How might…” “In what ways might…” or, “What might be all the…”

I thought I did everything right. I followed the FourSight Facilitation Manual to the letter, using cycles of diverging and converging. But at the end, our Vision Statement and Challenge statements were nearly identical. Any my group was frustrated that we had spent an hour getting to that point.

After reflection, analysis, more reading, and following up with more experienced facilitators, I came to the realization that I didn’t fully understand the difference between the vision and the challenge.

Here’s what I came to learn:

When you explore the vision, you are taking a look at what is your ideal state. But then, you break down everything that stands in the way of you achieving your ideal state. Those are your challenges. You then write challenge statements phrased as a question that invites solutions to the challenge.

For example: If your vision is, “It would be great if we were still relevant to our community in a year,” you might find several challenges: A crowded social media landscape, no permanent home, COVID-19 prevents large gatherings, etc.

Then, those become your challenge statements: “In what ways might we cut through a crowded social media landscape?” “How might we find a home?” “How we might be able to serve through social distancing?”

My mistake was allowing the vision statement to become the challenge statement. Basically, “It would be great if we were still relevant in a year” became, “How might we still be relevant in a year.”

Key take away:

Take a look at your vision. Analyze what the challenges are in achieving the vision. Turn those challenges into possibility questions that invite a solution.

,I brought in the working group too early

In the FourSight model, the Clarify stage is for clearly identifying the right problem to solve. The Ideate stage is for generating possible solutions.

In some instances, it might be appropriate to put together a working group to help clarify the problem. Maybe the vision isn’t completely clear, or the challenges aren’t completely clear. Maybe you have an inkling on what you want to accomplish, but you need more detail. In which case, develop a working group for the Clarify stage.

My mistake was to make this all part of the same meeting as the ideation, with the same working group.

I didn’t realize that the group all pretty much had a clear understanding of what the problem was, and we could jump straight into the ideation. If not, a pre-meeting with just the core leadership could have helped us clearly identify the vision and challenge statements.

By the time we got to ideating, the working group had already been meeting for an hour, and was mentally drained – not the state you want to be in during ideation.

Which leads me to…

,,,I didn’t make the ideation session a separate meeting

If the process looks like it’s going to be long, make the ideation session a separate meeting than the clarify stage. In order to effectively ideate, members of the working group need to be fresh, happy, energetic, and ready to have fun. It’s the responsibility of the facilitator to keep things fun and upbeat. That becomes much harder of the group is already mentally drained, if not a little upset, by the time we got to ideating.

,How do you avoid all this?

When you plan the stages of the Creative Problem-Solving Process (Clarify, Ideate, Develop, Implement), carefully consider who needs to be involved in each stage. Communicate with the owner of the problem (CEO, manager, etc), and investigate of the group that is clarifying the problem needs to be the same group as the ideation working group. Maybe, the problem is already clearly defined?

Make the ideation session a separate meeting. That makes it more fun, invites more energy and enthusiasm, and keeps everybody fresh.

Ensure your ideation group is working on a good challenge statement – a statement of the problem, phrased in such a way that it invites solutions, and that solving that problem will help you achieve your vision.

,Did any good come out of this?

Yes! We did create some actionable plans for moving forward, and did meet the goal we set. Although I think we left missed the opportunity to venture into more unique territory had we reached the Third 1/3 Effect, we did implement a few programs we had never done before that helped us achieve our goals, until our temporary shutdown ended.

The biggest benefit? By training our organization on cycles of divergent and convergent thinking, we have the skills and habits moving forward to continue this type of work, even if we do it in a less formal manner.


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