Investigating Ideas and Solutions

Part of our: Problem Solving section.
Continued from Identifying and Structuring Problems

This page continues working through the stages of problem solving as laid out in: Problem Solving - An Introduction.

This page provides detailed information on 'Stage Three' of the problem solving process - finding possible solutions to problems. In group situations this involves finding ways to actively involve everybody - encouraging participation and generating as many ideas and possible solutions as possible.

Stage Three: Possible Solutions


Brainstorming is perhaps one of the most commonly used techniques for generating a large number of ideas in a short period of time.  Whilst it can be done individually, it is more often practised in groups.

Before a brainstorming session begins, the leader or facilitator encourages everyone to contribute as many ideas as possible, no matter how irrelevant or absurd they may seem.

There should be lots of large sheets of paper, Post-It notes and/or flip charts available, so that any ideas generated can be written down in such a way that everyone present can see them.

The Rules of Brainstorming

The facilitator should explain the purpose of the brainstorming session (outline the problem/s), and emphasise the four rules of brainstorming that must be adhered to:

  1. Absolutely no criticism of suggestion or person is allowed.  Positive feedback for all ideas should be encouraged.

  2. The aim is to produce as many ideas as possible.

  3. The aim is to generate a sense of creative momentum.  There should be a feeling of excitement in the group with ideas being produced at a rapid pace.  All ideas should be encouraged, regardless of how irrelevant, 'stupid' or 'off the mark' they might seem.

  4. Ideas should cross-fertilise each other, in other words everyone should continually look at the suggestions of the rest of the group and see if these spark any new ideas.  Each person is then feeding off the ideas of the others.

Warming-up exercises encourage participants to get in the right frame of mind for creative thinking.  The exercises should be fun and exciting, with the facilitator encouraging everyone to think up wild and creative ideas in rapid succession.  Possible topics could be: 'What would you wish to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?' or 'Design a better mousetrap!'

It is better if the warm-up problems are somewhat absurd as this will encourage the uncritical, free-flowing creativity needed to confront the later, real problem.  A time limit of ten minutes is useful for the group to come up with as many ideas as possible, each being written down for all to see.  Remember, the aim is to develop an uncritical, creative momentum in the group.

The definition of the problem arrived at earlier in the problem solving process should be written up, so that everyone is clearly focused on the problem in hand.  Sometimes it may be useful to have more than one definition.

As in the warm-up exercises, a time limit is usually set for the group to generate their ideas, each one being written up without comment from the facilitator.  It helps to keep them in order so the progression of ideas can be seen later.  If the brainstorming session seems productive, it is as well to let it continue until all possible avenues have been explored. However setting a time limit may also instil a sense of urgency and may result in a flurry of new ideas a few minutes before the time runs out.

At the end of the session, time is given to reflect on and to discuss the suggestions, perhaps to clarify some of the ideas and then consider how to deal with them.  Perhaps further brainstorming sessions may be valuable in order to consider some of the more fruitful ideas.

See our page Brainstorming Techniques for lots more ideas on how to use brainstorming effectively.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Divergent Thinking:

Divergent thinking is the process of recalling possible solutions from past experience, or inventing new ones.  Thoughts spread out or 'diverge' along a number of paths to a range of possible solutions.  It is the process from which many of the following creative problem solving techniques have been designed.

Convergent thinking:

Convergent thinking is the subsequent process of narrowing down the possibilities to 'converge' on the most appropriate form of action.

The elements necessary for divergent thinking include:

  • Releasing the mind from old patterns of thought and other inhibiting influences.
  • Bringing the elements of a problem into new combinations.
  • Not rejecting any ideas during the creative, problem solving period.
  • Actively practicing, encouraging and rewarding the creation of new ideas.

Techniques of Divergent Thinking:

Often when people get stuck in trying to find a solution to a problem, it is because they are continually trying to approach it from the same starting point.  The same patterns of thinking are continually followed over and over again, with reliance placed on familiar solutions or strategies.

If problems can be thought of in different ways - a fresh approach - then previous patterns of thought, biases and cycles may be avoided.

Three techniques of divergent thinking are to:

  • Bring in someone else from a different area.
  • Question any assumptions being made.
  • Use creative problem solving techniques such as 'brainstorming'.

Bring in Someone Else From a Different Area:

While it is obviously helpful to involve people who are more knowledgeable about the issues involved in a problem, sometimes non-experts can be equally, or more valuable. This is because they do not know what the 'common solutions' are, and can, therefore, tackle the problem with a more open mind and so help by introducing a fresh perspective.

Another advantage of having non-experts on the team is that it forces the 'experts' to explain their reasoning in simple terms.  This very act of explanation can often help them to clarify their own thinking and sometimes uncovers inconsistencies and errors in their thinking.

Another way of gaining a fresh viewpoint, if the problem is not urgent, is to put it aside for a while and then return to it at a later date and tackle it afresh. It is important not to look at any of your old solutions or ideas during this second look in order to maintain this freshness of perspective.

Questioning Assumptions:

Sometimes problem solving runs into difficulties because it is based on the wrong assumptions.  For example, if a new sandwich shop is unsuccessful in attracting customers, has it been questioned whether there are sufficient office workers or shoppers in the local area?  Great effort might be spent in attempting to improve the range and quality of the sandwiches, when questioning this basic assumption might reveal a better, if perhaps unpopular, solution.

Listing assumptions is a good starting point.  However, this is not as easy as it first appears for many basic assumptions might not be clearly understood, or seem so obvious that they are not questioned. Again, someone totally unconnected with the problem is often able to offer a valuable contribution to this questioning process, acting as 'devil's advocate', i.e. questioning the most obvious of assumptions.

Such questions could include:

  • What has been done in similar circumstances in the past?  Why was it done that way? Is it the best/only way?
  • What is the motivation for solving the problem? Are there any influences such as prejudices or emotions involved?

Of course, many assumptions that need to be questioned are specific to a particular problem. Following our previous example:

‘I want to take a job, but I don’t have the transport to get there and I don’t have enough money to buy a car.’
Order in which barriers need to be solved

"Do I need to drive to work?" 
"Do I need money to buy a car?" 
"Do I want a job?”