ATD Blog

Evidence for Creative Problem-Solving Tools

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Talent development professionals are undoubtedly called on to be creative as they seek to craft a novel and unique response for each situation, building on the best work in the field. For this role, creativity tips and techniques can come in handy. Researchers David Vernon, Ian Hocking, and Tresoi C. Tyler have recently reviewed the literature on creativity to identify a variety of creativity-heightening practices that have been shown to have a positive impact.

Given the attention on creativity in a modern context that craves innovation, it’s interesting to note that there are not that many studies that focus on linking creativity techniques with outcomes. Nonetheless, the research team was able to find empirical evidence for 12 creativity tools by conducting a meta-analysis based on Cochrane Guidelines. (They originally identified 63 potential tools, and winnowed these down by focusing on those that used a randomized control trial, experimental approach, or case study and that identified independent variables and outcome measures to determine degree of success.)

Creativity is often viewed as a problem-solving process with three steps: problem framing, idea generation, and idea selection. The techniques that were identified align with one or more of these steps. The reported outcomes included improvements in fluency, flexibility, originality, and quality.

Problem Framing

In problem framing, creatives work to more precisely define the creative challenge and document the parameters within which they have to work. Leaning and development problems might look like this:

  • How do I train this new process for a geographically dispersed audience?
  • How do I create more interactivity in a content-heavy presentation?
  • How can we support the development of community using online tools?

But too often, the problems we pose to ourselves seem to generate obvious (read: traditional) solutions. Reframing the problem can help us to look beyond these. The following tools have been shown to improve problem framing by expanding our perspective:

  • Brainstorming: generating ideas without judgment.

  • Mind Mapping: visually organizing what is known about the problem.

  • Restating the Problem: asking people to restate the problem in different ways to select the one best suited for exploration.

  • Using the Five Ws and One H: asking  who, what, when, where, why, and how  (aka “six good men”).

  • Applying the Six Thinking Hats: looking at the issue from multiple points of view: gathering facts, thinking creatively, focusing on benefits, evaluating risks, exploring feelings, and taking a broad view (as described by Edward de Bono).

Idea Generation

The second step of creative problem solving is generating ideas – that part of the process where you imagine and explore options. These tools were shown to improve this kind of ideation:

  • Analogical Thinking: drawing analogies and exploring similarities and differences.

  • Assumption Reversal: listing assumptions and exploring what happens if the assumption is reversed.

  • Brainstorming: generating ideas without making judgement.

  • Brainwriting: brainstorming using a writing technique instead of verbalizing.

  • Checklisting/Forced Fitting: making connections to random stimuli as a way of breaking out of routine thinking.

  • Morphological Matrix: listing variations of all main parameters of an item and systematically exploring all permutations.

  • SCAMPER: playing with the problem to stimulate new ideas: SCAMPER stands for Substitute (remove an element and substitute something else), Combine ideas, Adapt (change part of it so it works in some context), Modify/magnify/minimize a particular attribute, Put the ideas to other uses, Eliminate elements, and Reverse/rearrange.

Idea Selection

The last step in creative problem solving is to select the idea you want to move forward, and this is usually supported by convergent thinking. The researchers report that it is difficult to find evidence-based tools for this stage, perhaps because it is unclear what the comparable outcome measures might be. Nonetheless, they have done us a service in validating the tools that can be very useful in expanding our creativity.

If you want more information about the tools, the full article provides brief overviews. And you can learn more about these tools and other research conducted by this team at the Creativity and Cognition website at

The full study, “An Evidence-Based Review of Creative Problem Solving Tools: A Practitioner’s Resource,” can be found in the June 2016 issue of Human Resource Development Review, 15(2) 230–259. You can contact Dr. David Vernon at Canterbury Christ Church University (UK), [email protected], for more information, and HRDR is offering free access to this article for a limited time.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of articles highlighting research from the journals of the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). In partnership with ATD, AHRD is committed to sharing useful research with the practitioner community.

About the Author

Catherine Lombardozzi is a lifelong learning and development practitioner and founder of Learning 4 Learning Professionals. She collaborates with people to align their L&D strategy and skill sets with their organization’s driving goals and initiatives. Her work focuses on supporting the professional development of designers, facilitators, faculty, learning and performance consultants, and learning leaders. As an active workplace learning professional with nearly 40 years of experience in corporate and academic contexts, Catherine often contributes to professional conferences and journals, and she teaches graduate-level courses in adult learning, instructional design, emerging technologies, and consulting. She is author of Learning Environments by Design (2015). She maintains deep interest in modern workplace learning strategies, learning culture, social learning, self-directed learning, design of online learning experiences, and scholarly practice. Catherine holds a doctoral degree in human and organizational learning from George Washington University.

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