Catalyze creative problem solving



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Organizations and product teams cannot innovate without creativity and creative problem solving. As such, it’s important for their leaders to have a framework for how they can maximize their team’s ability to come up with innovative solutions.

Creativity and creative problem solving defined

Creativity, one of several components of design ability, is used to refer to the production of new ideas that are both useful and appropriate. [1]

“Effectively leading the creative process is essential to shipping well-designed products.”
Photo by #WOCinTech. Creative Commons Attribution.

Photo by #WOCinTech. Creative Commons Attribution.

Closely related to the concept of creativity is the act of creative problem solving, which refers to the processes and complex set of skills used to arrive at new and appropriate solutions to a problem. [2]

The stages of creative problem solving are generally laid out as follows:

  1. Problem construction
  2. Information search
  3. Idea generation
  4. Evaluation

Additionally, much has been written about the influence of leadership on creative problem solving, with results suggesting that leaders enhance creative problem solving when they can act as:

  • Conduits
  • Provocateurs
  • Shepherds
  • Motivators

Let’s unpack some of these:

Conduits: making the search and transfer of knowledge and information easier and more efficient [3]

Leaders are uniquely positioned to act as connectors between pockets of knowledge within their organization and in outside professional networks. Because leaders often have the space and status to develop relationships with people in other teams and other companies, they have access to sources their subordinates may not know exist (or at least know to leverage).

If you’re a leader, work to strengthen these networks so that when the time comes, you can connect your team members to the right sources and supercharge the creative problem solving process.

Provocateurs: provoking and encouraging new ways of constructing problems [4]

A perhaps misattributed Einstein quote reads:

If I had 1 hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes solving it.”


Leaders will help the creative problem solving process if they can encourage their team to come up with multiple ways of framing the problem. This will provide a springboard for a wider information search and will increase the likelihood of having more novel solutions. It also mitigates the risk of groupthink (opens PDF), which plagues everyone from product teams to governmental organizations.

“Leaders encourage their team to come up with multiple ways of framing the problem.”

Shepherds: stay close, but not too close [5]

I’ve never tended sheep, but I imagine that if a shepherd were to be up in his (or her) sheep’s business all the time, the sheep wouldn’t do the things that sheep need to do: eat, make baby sheep, and grow their fleece.

Lackluster analogies aside, leaders who aren’t micromanagers—but are readily available for support when needed—help their teams arrive at more creative solutions.

“Leaders readily available for support help their teams arrive at more creative solutions.”

Motivators: inspiring subordinates to see a greater significance in their work and pushing them to have higher aspirations for themselves and their company. [6], [7]

Great leaders get their subordinates to see their work as valuable—and playing a part in something bigger than themselves. This intrinsic motivation helps build resilience and perseverance in teams to work together, tolerate failure, and push through discomfort and uncertainty.

Whether you’re directing a team of one or an entire practice, effectively leading the creative process is difficult but essential to shipping well-designed products and services. Godspeed.


  1. Cross, N. (2007). Designerly Ways of Knowing. Springer Science & Business Media
  2. T M Amabile, A Model of Creativity and Innovation in Organizations, Research in Organizational Behavior, 1988
  3. Abraham Carmeli, Roy Gelbard, and Roni Reiter-Palmon, Leadership, Creative Problem-Solving Capacity, and Creative Performance: the Importance of Knowledge Sharing, Human Resource Management 52, no. 1 (January 24, 2013): 95–121, doi:10.1002/hrm.21514
  4. Roni Reiter-Palmon and Jody J Illies, Leadership and Creativity: Understanding Leadership From a Creative Problem-Solving Perspective, The Leadership Quarterly 15, no. 1 (February 2004): 55–77, doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2003.12.005
  5. Jan Kratzer, Roger Th A J Leenders, and Jo M L Van Engelen, The Social Structure of Leadership and Creativity in Engineering Design Teams: an Empirical Analysis, Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 25, no. 4 (December 2008): 269–86, doi:10.1016/j.jengtecman.2008.10.004
  6. Lale Gumusluoğlu and Arzu Ilsev, Transformational Leadership and Organizational Innovation: the Roles of Internal and External Support for Innovation, Journal of Product Innovation Management 26, no. 3 (May 2009): 264–77, doi:10.1111/j.1540-5885.2009.00657.x
  7. B M Bass, Two Decades of Research and Development in Transformational Leadership, European Journal of Work and Organizational … 8, no. 1 (1999): 9–32, doi:10.1080/135943299398410

This was originally posted on the HANDSOME blog.


Jonathan Lewis
Jonathan is the Experience Design Director at Thinktiv, a strategy and innovation firm in Austin, TX, where he manages their ethnographic research and interaction design practices. He has worked with teams ranging from seed-round start-ups to Fortune 100 companies to design and ship successful businesses, products, and services. Jonathan is also an instructor at the Austin Center for Design where he teaches courses focused on Design Research in the context of large-scale social and humanitarian issues.

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