Good problem solving requires the exhaustive exploration of all available options. Most of us are not good problem solvers, however. We get lazy, quit too early and select the first solution that adequately meets our criteria. Psychologists call this error in thinking “premature closure.” But, as Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming, wrote, “The piling up of tentative ideas is an indispensable part of any problem solving project. Almost always we have to think up a number of unusable ideas in order to arrive at one that may work.”
I once had the good fortune to facilitate a technical problem solving session involving more than 30 scientists, engineers, executives, managers and laborers involved in electricity generation. They were trying to solve a persistent emissions issue. After defining the issue and structuring the problem statement, we began brainstorming.
After we had about 50 solutions, participants became frustrated and the energy in the room began to diminish. We had no really good options. I drew a line and challenged the group for one more push, for another ten solutions. A few moments later somewhere around the 57th option, one engineer’s eyes lit up, and we had the aha we were looking for.
There are dozens of tools available to help you structure your brainstorming and ensure that you generate many alternatives. One of my favorites is the Solution Web. There are various software programs and online tools available for such “mind mapping.” One free online service I use is Mind Meister. But it’s quite easy to create your own Solution Web using the model above.
Begin by stating your challenge in the center box. A useful way to structure the challenge statement is to complete this cue: “In what ways might I ….” Then simply brainstorm as many solutions as possible with the accompanying action steps. Those artists among us like to draw the challenge, solutions and action steps, sometimes completely dispensing with words!