PROBLEM-SOLVING
THE CREATIVE WAY

By Ang Seng Chai
published by New Straits Times on Saturday, May 18, 1996

It is amazing how quickly we pass judgment before we even give a person a fair hearing. Ideas are immediately dismissed as unworkable. Comments like "It has been tried before", "It will never work" and "It's too costly or time-consuming" are often passed. In the process, enthusiasm and creativity are stifled. Seldom are remarks like "Let's give it a try" or "Yes, it might just work" expressed.

Doubting Thomas's are bound to be in our midst. Yet, time and again, they have been proven to wrong. The past is full of such examples. There was a time when people thought that flight was impractical, if not impossible.

Speaking movies were regarded as a pipe dream. D.W. Griffith, a film maker, remarked in 1920: "When a century has passed, all thoughts of our so-called speaking movies will have been abandoned. It will never be possible to synchronize the voice with the picture." Similarly, the "horseless carriage" was predicted to be a luxury for the wealthy only and would not become as common as the bicycle. We have been wrong on all three counts.

New horizons are continuously being created. The latest in anything soon becomes outdated. There seems to be no end to human ingenuity and creativity. Consider the numerable inventions that technology has given us, such as the cellular phone, the compact disc and the robotic factory assembly. Who knows what the future will bring us. What do we need to ensure that we continuously improve on what we have already achieved?

We need a mind open to all possibilities. We need to think creatively. Unfortunately, we do not do so habitually because the emphasis in our society -- at home, in school and at work -- has always been on logical thinking. From the day a child is born, he is continuously told how to behave himself. By the time he becomes a teenager, he has lost most of the freedom that he was born with and with it, the ability to function creatively.

Let us see whether this is true. When a group of managers were asked at a training course to guess the occupation of the persons in the picture (left), two things happened:

If we were asked the same question, we would behave in exactly the same manner. Our answers pertaining to the person on the left would be very carefully though-out ones, such as a banker, a lawyer, a doctor or some such professional person. None of us would have dared to suggest that he could also be a char koay teow seller or a hawker. "Hawkers do not wear a suit. Only executives do" -- that's what we all think. Why? This is because we are afraid of being wrong and being laughed at. In short, we are always thinking logically.

You may ask," What is wrong with that?" The answer lies in the fact that if we are looking for the right answer, we will cease to look for other possible answers, which may be even better. It is like the lady saying "Yes" to the first man who proposes to her. She denies herself the advantage of considering alternatives and, perhaps, better choices.

One may think that creative thinking is opposed to logical thinking. This is not true. In fact, they complement each other. In creative thinking, we seek to generate as many ideas as possible. We are not concerned for the time being whether the ideas are practical. We brainstorm by keeping an open mind. Once we have generated enough ideas, we then apply logical thinking to evaluate the soundness of these ideas. This way we have a choice of several possible solutions to select from.

In logical thinking, we deny ourselves this choice. Because we are looking for the right answer from the start, the moment we think we think we have found a workable solution, we start developing it and stop looking for alternatives without realising that there could be even better solutions.

Let's look at the benefits of applying creative thinking in solving common problems. A man who lent a friend RM5,000 was worried that he would not get his money back as his friend was in the habit of conveniently forgetting what he owed others. The former needed something in black and white in case his worst fears came true. An obvious solution was to ask him to sign a I.O U. note. However, the friend might not cooperate. He thought about his problem and came up with several possible solutions -- the most creative of which was to write to his friend claiming a debt of RM10,000. He immediately received a reply protesting that the sum owed was only RM5,000. It was a quick and effective solution. His worries were over.

The above example shows that most problems in life have more than one possible solution. Creative thinking enables us to apply the best of them. Because we are set in our ways, we constantly impose unnecessary limits on ourselves. We also have a tendency to evaluate ideas too quickly. By operating on automatic pilot, we are inclined to jump to conclusions. We do not challenge the obvious. We look for the easy way out . Finally, we are slow to change our old ways of doing things.

A woman gave away an expensive fish that her husband caught because it would not fit into her frying pan. It did not occur to her to either use a bigger pan or to cut the fish into smaller pieces. That was the pan she had always used and her mother before her and if the fish was too large for the pan, then it was of no use to her.

In creative thinking, no idea is too ridiculous to be considered. Not only should we not evaluate the ideas of others, we should not evaluate our own ideas if we want to think creatively.

When chairing a meeting, we should be on guard against any evaluation of ideas at the creative thinking stage. When someone does this, we should check him by saying; "That's an evaluation" or "Let's have the idea first and worry about its practicality later".

A general manager once confided to a consultant that he had ceased holding meetings with his executives because he was the only one doing the talking. Little did he realize that he was the cause of it. Creative thinking is not a new management technique. As the quotation below shows, the great Chinese Philosopher, Lao Tzu, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, knew a thing or two about this matter. This was what he said:

We have a lot to learn from children. Children are naturally creative. They are bubbling with energy and effusive with ideas. The story is told of a Sunday school teacher who asked her class how they could secure forgiveness for sin. Up shot a hand and a child replied: "First, teacher, we have to commit a sin." That's creative thinking!

Our lives will be richer and happier when we start to apply creative thinking to solve problems and make decisions. To do this, we need to restore the child in us.

As Dr. Edward De Bono (the guru of creative or "lateral" thinking, as he calls it) said we need also to be a little crazy. When we do this, we might find that even the most outlandish idea may just work.

Ang Seng Chai is the head of human resources at EON.

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