Process matters: 5 mindsets to structure your problem-solving process



25. February 2019

Read time

5 min



Do you know the urge to start from scratch, once you almost finished solving your problem? That's because by then your understanding of the problem has evolved.

Coming up with ideas to a problem does not only give you solutions. It requires a certain degree of immersion, which will always evolve your understanding of the problem. However, this process can be messy. It is easy to lose sight, start to focus on the wrong problem, get bogged down in unimportant details, and jump too fast to solutions rather than understanding the problem. People tend to think creativity comes from the removal of all restrictions. In reality, it requires a thorough process that requires different mindsets and the discipline to follow. Approaching each step with a distinct mentality is crucial.

Here is how I approach a new project or the ideation for a single concept. It is a simple 5 step approach, but each step comes with a distinct mindset. I look at it like jumping from a diving tower for the first time. The moment when you jump represents the ideation moment, but there are a couple of crucial moments before and after.

Think about that first time you went up a diving tower. It is this mix of fear, excitement and most prominent. You have an idea but can't imagine how it is going to be (1. Curious). When you are up on the diving board, you look down and check the surroundings. You oversee the whole pool area (2. Investigative). Then you jump for the first time. This moment probably feels scary, but you are determined to push your boundaries. (3. Explorative). Now you are deep underwater. You assess the circumstances, what is up and down, and dive back to the surface. (4. Evaluative) At the surface, you reflect on your experience and get ready to tell your friends (5. Engaging).

You might ask, how does this relate to the actual creative process. Let me walk you through my approach and my key steps.

1. Understand the request

Before we can create solutions, we need to understand the problem. Be curious like when you climbed the dive platform's stairs for the first time. Take your time. Listen carefully. Soak in all the knowledge you can get. Consolidate your thoughts and ask further questions. Make sure you know every detail that led to the request. The experience you can gather here will build the baseline for your solution. Talk to different stakeholders and get as much information as possible. If you wait until the end to gather information from stakeholders, you might need to start over.

When you have a good understanding write the problem down in your own words.

2. Study the existing space

Once you are up on the board, you need to orient your self. You check the depth of the water and look if there are people in the pool. Put your self into an investigative mindset. Look at the competitive space and adjacent solutions. Most of the time somebody else in the industry or from another sector attempted to address the same problem. Those learnings will give you a head start and provide initial inspiration. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Collect as much information as possible.

When you have a good understanding look back at the problem, you formulated during the last stage and adjust it as you need.

3. Generate ideas

Time to jump and explore. Focus only on the ideation. Write, sketch, draw, whatever makes your thoughts tangible. Let your ideas flow. As when you jump, there is nothing else that matters now. It should be just enough to get your ideas across. Focus on the aspects that differentiate your concept. You can keep common parts vague to save time. Look at your problems from various angles and provide different answers. Go for quantity and create at least 20 different concepts. Try to keep an open mind and don't judge. This stage is about quantity, not quality.

This stage will test your understanding. You will run into new questions, most likely about details and dependencies. Once you are finished go back and find answers for your questions, either internal or external.

4. Assess your ideas

Now you are deep underwater. Open your eyes and evaluate the situation. Take a step back and reflect on your potential solutions. Compare your concepts against your identified problem. Write down all the pros and cons of each solution. Put yourself into the shoes of different stakeholders. Anticipate their questions. Don't feel attached to your concepts; be blunt.

This stage will help you to check if you understand how the problem relates to others, like the business, users, and teams involved in the process. As in every stage before, if you don’t feel confident to answer those questions, you will need to go and find out.

5. Explain your solutions

Once back up it is time to tell everybody about your first jump. Craft an engaging story for your team. Not everybody is interested in every aspect. Pick the top solutions, which solve your problem the best. Prepare to present them back to your team. You should have most of the critical talking points ready due to the evaluative stage. Put them together into a compelling story that will resonate with your audience. Put yourself into the shoes of your stakeholders and anticipate their questions.

With the right story in mind, chose the best way to visualize your concepts. It needs to be concrete. Mock-ups or diagrams make your concepts tangible. If the problem is clear, you will be able to give a clear answer. The solution potential should feel as if it’s common sense.

“Problem solving involves not only the search for alternatives but the search for the problems themselves”

Herbert Simon

American economist and political scientist

To sum up: the creative process is not a linear process.

Each of the five steps uses a different mindset to clarify the problem and push your thinking to better solutions. The key is not to mix them up and keep focus during each step. If you found new questions to answer, go back, but stick to the mindset of this stage.

Understand the request...
Be curious about the given problem.
Study the existing space...
Be investigative and look at the problem from other angles.
Generate ideas...
Be explorative and try everything that comes to mind.
Assess your ideas...
Be evaluative, leave your biases and put your self in other people's shoes.
Explain your solutions...
Be engaging and tell the right story for your audience.

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