Generating More Ideas is Not the Key to Innovation…So What Is?

Most people believe that Creative Problem-Solving is coming up with a great idea. Not so. In fact, the key to creativity and innovation is solving the right problem.

innovation-on-keyboardWe have been taught that the initial impression or definition of a problem is the real problem. We have good reason for this — school already sets up the problem for us. 2+2?4. What is the capital of Poland? Warsaw.

In my entire career, facilitating thousands of Creative Problem-Solving sessions, there has only been one occasion when the original definition of the problem was the actual problem. One out of thousands.

As a leader, it’s crucial that you challenge your first impression of what you think is the problem. Don’t generate ideas first. Generate ideas after you have clearly identified the best – the correct – problem to solve.

Leaders in organizations often loathe spending time clarifying their problem. They want to leap to generating ideas. Think about this. It does absolutely no good to generate ideas for solving the wrong issue. The problem we see is the problem we solve. Invest the time identifying the true problem.

Albert Einstein was once asked, “If some imminent disaster threatened the world and you had one hour in which you knew you could save it, how would you spend your time?” Einstein replied, “I would spend the first 55 minutes identifying the problem and the last five minutes solving it. For the formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

So, how do you identify the real problem?

Ask lots of questions.

Those questions begin before the idea phase. Most people associate creative thinking with brainstorming and generating lots and lots of ideas. However, we know that it doesn’t do any good to generate lots of ideas for solving a problem that doesn’t address the heart of your issue. So, it’s critical to invest time developing many different ways to define the problem at hand. Then you can generate solutions for the best definition of the problem.

For example, you are doing a Google search. What is the most important thing to do?

Ask a good question.

You have a tough problem to solve. What is the most important thing to do?

Ask a creative question.

When you ask a good question, you get good results. Ask a lousy question you get lousy results.

Ask a creative question, you get creative results. 

To make this very clear: the language you use to describe a problem is going to determine whether you create a good question, a lousy question or a creative question. It also dictates the kinds of solutions you will generate.

For example, “We don’t have enough money.” Good or bad question?

Answer: Bad question. In fact, it’s a statement.

When you hear that statement, your brain says, “OK, we don’t have any money.” Decision made. Move on. However, we can frame our problem another way:

“How might we raise the money for this project?”

“How might we reduce the cost of this project?”

Good and creative questions. Questions framed in this way provoke your mind to search for solutions. They tell your brain. “Let’s go find some answers. And because we are using the word ‘might,’ these can be any answers. We haven’t made any decisions yet. Look for options.”

Saying, “We don’t have enough money,” blocks your thinking and sends a message to your brain — “there aren’t any ideas out there, don’t bother looking.”

A creative question puts forth what you want to create. Not what you want to avoid.

Give it a try. Next time you need to solve a tough problem, back up a step. Brainstorming is a common tool for generating creative ideas for solving a problem, but it’s just as useful for generating ways to redefine the problem you’re trying to solve.

Use these guides to generate creative questions:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Strive for quantity
  3. Seek wild and unusual questions
  4. Combine and build on other questions

Use the phrases below to begin your questions. Then generate lots of questions to get a different view of the problem.

How might…

How to…

What might be all the ways to…

In what ways might I…

When you are redefining the problem, you want questions that open up your thinking.

So, when you have a challenge to tackle, write down at least 15 different creative questions for redefining your problem. Then select the question that describes the main obstacle keeping you from your goal. Only then, begin generating ideas to solve your problem.

Coming up with over 15 ways to restate your problem with creative questions should only take five to ten minutes. It is time well spent – guaranteed.

If you want creative ideas, you need creative questions. Lots of them.

Dr. Roger Firestien

Dr. Roger Firestien

Dr. Roger Firestien has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world. He is senior faculty and an associate professor at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State and president of Innovation Resources, Inc, an innovation consulting firm. Roger's new book is Create in a Flash: A leader's recipe for breakthrough innovation. For more information, please visit

No Replies to "Generating More Ideas is Not the Key to Innovation...So What Is?"