Five steps for effective problem-solving (and 3 more)

Cartoon Business Teamwork Concept

If you believe that the one-in-a-million idea spontaneously appears in a vacuum, then you’re wrong. Problem-solving is a process that begins already when you are born. Getting acquainted with this process is very helpful if you want to train your creative muscles, be it in research, art or innovations.

Step 1. Acquire general knowledge. This is the first step of three in the preparation phase. From your first impression as a new-borne, you collect memories, experiences and knowledge in an ever-expanding giant database that is totally unique to you.

The more curious, interested in our world and the more willing to constantly learn new things in widely different areas, you are, the bigger and wider pool of impressions you can evoke when you need it to use our creativity.

Characteristic of many truly creative individuals is that their interest is not narrowly limited, but they are intellectual omnivores with a strong curiosity of all that life offers.

Step 2. Problem Identification. Creativity is often triggered by something we encounter in our environment that we would like to change or do better. Some people walk unreflecting through life, while others constantly have their antennas out to find something that can be improved.

What characterises many successful inventors is their ability to see things that need improvement, rather than starting with new ideas on how to improve. Some do this in a very conscious and structured way, such as making lists of things that disturb them, thinking about possible causes when something goes wrong, noticing negative feelings or thinking about what stops them.

Most creative people intuitively know what goals they have, but may have a tough time to clearly define them. A large part of the creative work therefore consists of expressing intuitive feelings in words.


Tip: It may be a good habit to occasionally stop and scan the surroundings to see what can be improved. Is there anything around you that is not the way you want it? Note this in a place to which you can return.

This way you will build a bank of things that can be improved or issues that need to be solved. You do not necessarily have to throw yourself over them at that time, but if you do not write them down, they will quickly be forgotten.


Step 3. Acquire specific skills and skills. Once you have identified a problem or defined our challenge for ourselves, it is time to deep-dive into your specific area of interest to master it as well as possible.

If you are a musician, you will need to absorb as much music as possible that can inspire you. If you are an author, you will need to read other authors and try to acquire different writing techniques. If you are a researchers, you will need to study all the relevant scientific literature and if you are an inventor or entrepreneur, you will need to study what others have done before us.

Most painters start copying the style of other painters, but as they learn to master their expressions, they are increasingly developing their own personal aesthetics, i.e. they find their own place within a broader field where often some themes can be recognised. An art connoisseur can therefore often, by looking at a new work, easily identify exactly which artist is behind the creation.

In the first enthusiasm to solve a problem, it may be tempting to skip this stage. you may have so many ideas you would like to test. But usually the problem is not new, and many others have thought about it and maybe found creative solutions that you simply do not know about.

So why spend a lot of time and effort on creating something that’s already out there or losing time on something that others have shown does not work? Then it might be a better way to use your time to improve and further develop a solution that already exists or simply move on to another problem.

Engaging, learning and acquiring specific skills and crafts, is also the best way to be absorbed by a problem. What may have begun as a general thought or curiosity is now becoming an increasingly determined intention, or even passion, to solve a problem.

The intention also makes you begin to see the world with new eyes. Just as the couple who await their first child suddenly see pregnant women everywhere, the focus on the problem may cause you to see new details in your surroundings that make you associate to the problem, which you did not notice before.

Step 4. Work with your idea. You have now come into the ideas generation phase. Once you have prepared yourselves as much as you can, there are two separate ways to approach the solution to your problem or the great idea.

In the deliberate pathway, you think more analytically. You try out different thinking techniques and slowly come to the conclusion. In the spontaneous pathway, you instead let the brain’s subconscious structures do the job and the end result is an insight that often comes suddenly without any pre-notice.

The division in two pathways is a theoretical model for two different ways that your brain manages a problem. In fact, the two pathways occur as two parallel processes.

Active idea generation (the deliberate pathway). If you face a problem that you cannot or will not let go, your brain will continue to gather information from the deeper levels until the problem is resolved – or you give up.

This usually happens through incremental, logical thinking, where you try and reject one possible solution after the other through trial-and-error until you will reach the answer. Often, you will get the feeling of gradually approaching the solution – It starts to burn.

Composer Johann Sebastian Bach methodically built his Brandenburg concert on mathematical constructions. Many other artists work similarly with a number of sketches and drafts that eventually mature to the final work.

The benefits of active idea generation, whether convergent (seeking the one right answer) or divergent thinking (seeking many alternative solutions), is that it is entirely under your conscious control, while the disadvantage is that your consciousness can only process a small amount of information at a time, and this requires a lot of mental energy.

Incubation (spontaneous pathway). Once you have identified your problem, read and really pointed it down, you have also activated your brain’s association areas and other deeper structures.

After a period of intense thought, you can now consciously, or because out of fatigue, release the problem and let your brain process your problem at a completely unconscious level, just as an egg is incubated in an egg-hatching machine. On the surface nothing happens, but inside the egg is a great development and maturation process…

This has many advantages. Mental fatigue comes from a constant activation of your deliberate thinking. When we release a thought from our conscious mind, we give our it a chance to rest and ourselves an opportunity to charge our mental batteries.

You will then also have time to devote yourself to other activities without being aware that your amazing brain is in the process of solving the problem for you. These other things you are attending to may also give you the keys to the solution of your problem or let you release potential but incorrect solutions that have so far blocked the problem solving.

Even though you have disconnected your consciousness, the brain is not inactive. Instead, the association areas of your brain is all the time, busy, comparing and combining memories and impressions from various parts of the brain, and the integration of activity in the two brain halves is at its peak.

Unlike your conscious mind that can only process one thought at a time, your subconscious brain can handle an enormous number of processes simultaneously. The break will also allow the brain to extend the search to the long-term memory and thus increase the chances of creative associations.

Incubation has often been associated with the sudden insight when suddenly getting the one correct answer to a problem (convergent thinking), but a creative break is just as important to come up with as many ideas as possible (divergent thinking).

Step 5. The creative insight. Many creative insights and brilliant ideas appear unexpectedly after a period of hard work and a lot of thinking, followed by a shorter or longer rest period (incubation) when the unconscious continues to process the problem.

In this mode, you have disconnected your conscious thoughts and thus temporarily toned down your filters to your subconscious mind. The associations that took place, completely unconsciously, during the incubation stage will now have the opportunity to suddenly and completely without notice reach your consciousness, as an unexpected aha-experience, God’s inspiration or Eureka-moment.

In the artistic creation, the insight sometimes corresponds to an emotional expressive creation where the brush pans over the palette or words is printed on the paper (or in the word processor) without the artist or the author themselves really knowing the direction of their creations.

But also, the artistic creation may be in search of the elusive idea,  which when in place, will make the audience stop and reflect in new ways. Insight and inspiration are therefore common to all forms of creative creation.

Often, the insight is distinguished by the fact that you can’t reach it with pure logical reasoning, but it requires that you consider the problem from someplace else or in a new way. On the contrary, hard thinking makes it possible to fix themselves in possible conventional solutions, thus making it more difficult to solve the problem.

At first, the problem you are struggling with can’t be solved, but once you get the insight, it often appears to be natural and ridiculously simple. You also have no sense of it approaching, but suddenly the insight is right there.

But just by having thought up a brilliant idea in your own mind, makes nobody else happy. To realise its amazing potentials, three further steps are needed (eluded to in the title of this blog post) and you now need to move into the verification phase.

Step 6. Evaluation. Once you have got our idea, or even several different ideas, it’s time to critically start reviewing them. Are they new? Are they useful? Can they be implemented? Do they solve your problem in the best way? It is now that you will need to turn on your critical thinking that have been banned during the idea-creation phase.


Tip: Do not enter the evaluation step too early. Stay in the previous steps as long as possible so that you really come up with all your possible ideas. Then, weigh the benefits with the disadvantages, the strengths with the weaknesses and dare to reject the ideas if you do not believe in them. But also have the courage to take a chance. Only you can decide if you are willing to spend days, weeks, months or even years and maybe a lot of money on an idea that might be the start of a thriving company but maybe in the end also fail.


Step7. Development. If your idea is linked to a product, service or perhaps an artwork, it must also be developed and refined from the original idea. If you have had an idea for a book, the characters must be developed and chapters filled with words. If you have received inspiration for a piece of music, the notes must be written down to the score and, in the case of an invention, a detailed drawing must be done and then pilot models that can be tested. This can be arduous work in the music studio, at the laboratory bench or in the workshop. Or as Edison expressed it “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration“.

Step 8 Implementation. Once you have realised your idea in front of your own eyes, it must be fully implemented to begin to generate income and bring added value. If it’s a small idea, it can be done quickly and easily and maybe you are the only one to benefit or enjoy it. If it’s a bigger idea, it may lay the foundation for a new and successful business.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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