Looking beyond problem-solving

Jul 09 2010 by Edward de Bono Print This Article

Our ingrained habits of thinking only to solve problems can make creative thinking difficult. We tend to identify a problem or defect and then work to put it right.

This is valuable behaviour in itself, but it is not enough on its own. Because there are many opportunities to make creative changes that do not arise from solving problems or fixing defects.

We ought to be able to look at something and say to ourselves, "This could be done differently." We then seek out another way of doing it. Then we look for the value – which may or may not be there.

The ability to imagine small changes to regular routines or established ideas – even if you do not carry them out – is good practice in creativity.

You can set yourself a guiding value. For example, the new idea might reduce the cost of manufacture. Or, the new idea could be to make something simpler to use. Or, the new idea might lead to more effective use.

Problem solving implies an existing frame or state of mind. We know how something should be done and seek to do it. Creativity may include: "We do not know how it should be done. Let's explore possibilities."

The failure to distinguish between real problem solving and the 'intention' of the thinking can lead to great difficulties.

The argument is that anything you try to achieve is a problem to be solved – rather than a thinking task. The result is that people get to think only about problems that are defects.

It is far better to use the broader term 'thinking task' for something you want to achieve with your thinking.

Your thinking task may be 'a new design for a paper clip'. That is not based on considering the faults of the existing clip. But when you get the new design, you will need to show the value.

At this point you may need to show why the new design is better than the existing design. This is very different from seeking out the faults in the existing design and then trying to 'solve' these problems.

As I have so often said, the identification of value is a key component of creativity. I have sat in on creative meetings where very good ideas were suggested, but no one seemed able to see the value in these excellent ideas.

Value sensitivity is a key skill, but is almost completely absent from education, which concerns itself with critical thinking – right and wrong and fitting expectations.

You should be able to look at any suggestion or idea and find some value in it. The value may be slight and completely overwhelmed by cost, inconvenience and other important negatives. Nevertheless, you should be able to identify the value.

Once a value is identified, you can work to strengthen that value – and even deliver the value in a different way. If you cannot even see the value, then your thinking comes to a halt.

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About The Author

Edward de Bono
Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono (1933-2021) was a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. Over 35 years after the publication of his first book, "The Mechanism of Mind", the basic principles he outlined are now mainstream thinking in the mathematics of self-organising systems and in the design of neuro-computers. His many subsequent books have been translated into 26 languages.