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Creativity and the key to problem solving

We all want to be 'creative', don't we? Have you ever reflected on how creative you are yourself, whether at home or at work? Do you aspire to be more creative as a qualitative researcher and if so, what does it mean?Creativity, says Caroline Pakel-Dunlop, is a skill a qualitative researcher cannot do without.

In this paper, I would like to attempt a brief review of the 'world' of applied creativity and its value to us as qualitative researchers. I want to look at what it means to be 'creative'; to ask whether everyone can be 'creative'; review some key schools of thought in creativity; and suggest how applied creativity can enhance every step we take in every qualitative project.

Creativity and Qualitative? Can we be both?

There is plenty of evidence that creativity in some form is accepted as part of what we do. Bill Schlackman - arguably the founding father of UK qualitative research - once said: 'The most important skill we can offer our clients is our creativity.' (Burns, 1999). We show creativity each time we decide exactly how to conduct a piece of qualitative research. The creative choices involved in conducting a qualitative study also extend to the analysis (McGivern, 2003) and to the final presentation of the qualitative learning (Gordon, 1999). So, creativity of some kind is an inherent part of how we approach every stage of a qualitative project.

But are we really geared up for applied 'creativity'? Philly Desai says 'qualitative research and creativity make uneasy bedfellows' (2002:48). He argues that 'qualitative researchers possess a set of skills relevant to facilitating innovation, but their outlook, mindset and priorities can often inhibit creativity' (2002:49). And maybe it's true that as qualitative researchers, we are traditionally more experienced at exploring and evaluating new ideas than at generating them in the first place.

But these views are not incompatible; the writers are just talking about different things. Certainly, traditional qualitative research with consumers alone may not help much in pure 'ideation' the generation of new ideas. Consumers are not inventors and cannot necessarily tap into their creative potential as and when we desire (Earls, 2002). The traditional format of the group discussion is indeed 'reflective' rather than 'generative'.

Beyond this, however, it is my view that creativity tools and techniques can be applied to every aspect of problem solving - and this is what we are commonly doing in qualitative projects. 'Creativity' approaches can help with defining or redefining the problem and with exploring and understanding its context. They can help in obtaining reactions to newly generated ideas and can indeed help assess the validity of an action plan for example (Bystedt et al, 2003).

Outside commercial research, people are certainly applying 'creative' approaches to qualitative methods: see, for example, the use of metaphors in qualitative analysis (Aubusson, 2002) or in research with families (Deacon, 2000). And clients increasingly expect us to be more imaginative and innovative qualitatively (Kiddle and Williamson, 2002). So, as qualitative researchers, we could and should be as 'creative' as we wish to be... like Nancarrow et al (2004), I think we need to break the rules, even break with the traditions of qualitative research. We need to integrate applied creativity within our daily qualitative work - to become, if you like, 'qualitative creatives' (Desai, 2002).

I would like to propose that there are many mindsets, approaches, tools and techniques that can be learned from the applied creativity world and usefully applied to qualitative marketing or social research.

But before we go on, let's consider what it means to be 'creative'.

What is creativity?

Here are two definitions to mull over.

Being 'creative' is about 'producing or using original and unusual ideas' (The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Online Version, Second Edition) and perhaps having 'the ability to make or otherwise bring into existence something new, whether a solution to a problem, a method or device, or an artistic object or form.' (The Encyclopaedia Britanica). Most will agree that 'creativity' is a realm where the concepts of imagination, originality and innovation prevail. Could we all be imaginative, original and innovative in our thinking?

Western society may be seen to restrict individual creative potentials through prescriptive and conditioning rules adopted at birth or sourced from different experiential realms over time: personal, educational, societal and cultural. In fact, many creativity consultants dedicate their time to reversing the learning of those rules and helping people get in touch with their inner creative self - learn to tell stories or learn to draw, for example (Pearson, 2005).

Some people are able to switch into a creative thinking and behavioural mode relatively naturally, while others can access and learn techniques to do the same. Importantly, many experts say we can all be (more) creative in our personal and professional lives (Buzan, 1974).

There are a couple of factors widely recognised as essential to 'creativity'. First, the road to creativity inevitably starts at a particular gate: the ability to suspend one's judgement. That is, we have to overcome our habits and resist the temptation to attach a value to an act, an experience, a thought or an idea.

This is widely regarded as essential in the initiation of the creative process or in the adoption of an associative approach - i.e. making associations through words, pictures and ideas. It is also key in helping us shift from the more usual, logical, evaluative and rational way of thinking (left brain, convergent thinking, making choices) to the imaginative, intuitive, and irrational way of thinking (right brain, divergent thinking, making lists) in order to 'learn to use both sides of our brain' (Buzan, 1974).

Emotional energy is also key to the creative process, many regarding it as essential in fuelling any creative effort or creativity session. Positive energy and emotions have been directly linked to creative ability and experiences (Seligman, www.reflective So, creative sessions are often planned with warming-up and energising exercises (Michalko, 1991), in order to trigger and nurture a light-hearted and playful mindset, to create a non-judgemental and positive, 'creative' mood. And we can learn to release this in ourselves and others.

Individual creative or thinking styles may be measured in a number of ways. One of these is the KAI (Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory) assessment, based on 32 multiple choice questions. Go to to find out where you can take the KAI assessment. It will help you understand your personal, creative, thinking style: whether you are more of an 'adaptor' and tend to think 'better' (like Edison), or whether you are more of an 'innovator' and tend to think 'different' (like Leonardo Da Vinci).

Adaptors and Innovators

At a recent conference, two different creative styles were vividly demonstrated. After taking the KAI assessment, people were divided into groups according to their individual ratings. They were classified as:

<li>Adaptors: who think 'better' like Edison<li>Innovators: who think 'different' like DaVinci

They were given blank sheets of paper and a competitive challenge to 'prepare to fly as many planes as possible' across a line drawn on the floor. The result was striking.

Those assessed as more 'adaptive' - with a more structured, 'within paradigm', thinking bias - laboriously collaborated to create as many paper planes as possible within the allocated time. They even tested their paper planes for their flying ability, before the competitive test.

Those assessed as more 'innovative' - with more of an unstructured, 'beyond paradigm', thinking bias - individually created huge numbers of flying paper balls or paper 'things' to throw across the line during the final test.

So quantitatively, the 'innovators' won the challenge by the sheer number of paper balls they were able to produce. But qualitatively, the adaptors won since they made the largest number of things closest to 'flying planes'.

Many other tests exist to evaluate individual style. Though not strictly about creativity, the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) tells you about your individual leadership (and thus facilitation) style - see for more details and testing.

Roads to the land of creativity

Apart from understanding key principles and checking out your personal creative style, where can you go for inspiration and help in developing applied creativity? I would now like to briefly review four major threads in the world of applied creativity:

1) The Osborn-Parnes Process (or Creative Problem Solving: 'CPS')
2) Synectics
3) De Bono: 'lateral thinking' and the 'Six Hats' method
4) The Triz method

The Osborn-Parnes Process

The Osborn-Parnes Process (aka 'Creative Problem Solving' or 'CPS') was conceived by Alex Osborn (the O in the advertising agency BBDO) and Dr Sidney Parnes. Osborn is said to have coined the term 'brainstorming', a process he instituted in 1939 in response to the agency's financial and marketing problems. He set out to teach people to be more creative and his 'Applied Imagination', published in 1953, was the first creativity textbook.

Part of the value of CPS to qualitative researchers is that it was invented to be applied in a real business environment. The process, in its simplest form, has three components - the exploration of the challenge, the generation of ideas and the planning for action. It makes use of both divergent and convergent thinking tools in each component. It can be used to solve all types of problems, including the kinds of things that qualitative researchers are asked to tackle.

Useful ideas found within CPS include (divergent) techniques for fully exploring the context of a problem, like the '5W's and H' approach: 'who, what, where, when, why and how'. It's a way of systematically 'gathering data' on a problem from many directions. Another one I find useful is exploring an idea from the perspective of your favourite people - I might think about what David Bowie would think about this idea, or Nelson Mandela, or Princess Diana. The opposite also works - thinking about it from the perspective of someone you dislike. And so on.

To find out more, a good place to start would be Parnes (1992) - it has all you need to know to carry out structured problem solving using the CPS process.

Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono - probably the most familiar name in this field - created the method of 'lateral thinking' in the mid 60s. This is thinking that is neither linear nor rational, based not on analysis but on the use of a (random) 'provocation' - e.g. a word randomly chosen in a dictionary and used to generate associative ideas. It offers a way to divergent
thinking that is conscious, methodical and organised. Its main aim is also to help us change how we perceive the world around us, and to help us change how we traditionally or habitually construct and refine concepts. Changed perceptions then sometimes lead to new solutions or ideas.

De Bono opposed other approaches to creative thinking that favour inspiration, intuition or the sub-conscious, believing instead in approaches to creative thinking governed by reason. He believed that creative thinking was a skill that could be taught directly and also supported individual creativity against collective creativity.

This theory contains many practical ideas. For example, the 'Six Hats' method is a way to code in an organised way the contributions made by each participant. Each of the 'six hats', each a different colour, is associated with a different intent, i.e. red for emotion or intuition, yellow for a positive and logical thought, green for a creative thought...etc. This idea can be used in different ways - for example by asking a group participant to think just from one 'hat' for a while, or to use one they habitually avoid. Again, this method represents a form of conscious control over the creative process, which De Bono generally advocated.

The best De Bono source to start with, of the many available, is probably the original and now classic 'Lateral Thinking' (1970).


Synectics represents an approach to creativity mainly based on analogies and metaphors. It was developed by W. J. J. Gordon from 1943 and was mainly related to technological invention. Gordon's desire to identify and understand the underlying processes of 'creativity' led him to observe four patterns in creative thought:

<li>the tendency to include the irrelevant or incongruous<li>the importance of a playful mindset<li>the use of metaphors<li>the experience of a pleasurable sense of excitement when reaching the initially set goal

The Synectic method is based on making the familiar odd and the odd familiar. Gordon suggested the use of different types of analogies. One useful technique is a six-stage process. First you need to define the problem, say there is a water shortage. Then you (perhaps with a group) develop direct analogies: 'it is like running out of blood supply for surgery and transfusion'. The next stage is to make the analogies personal: 'it feels like being starved of food'. Then you work on opposites: 'it is not like having to face an avalanche'. You return to direct analogies, building on what's gone before: 'now it's like running out of vaccines with the threat of an epidemic'. Finally, there is a stage of synthesis, where you review the process for key words and themes that you can take forward.

The best book I've found on Synectics is, sadly, only available in French at present (Aznar, 2005). But there is information on the approach to be found at

The Triz Method

The Triz method (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) is our fourth and final approach to creativity, presented in 1956 by its Russian creator, Altshuller (1990). Rather than study underlying psychological mechanisms to creativity, he decided to analyse 200,000 invention patents and looked for patterns in the inventing process itself. He deduced eight laws governing an evolution process in technical systems - mirroring the principle of human biological evolution - and twenty key principles leading to invention which are non-domain specific (i.e. of general use).

The Triz method tends to be ignored for general applications, although it is useful for solving technical or engineering problems. It is, however, recognised as one of the foundational pillars of creativity theory and might be worth looking at as an example of a quite different approach. It might even be directly useful to a research problem with a physical component such as retail or product design. To find out more about Triz, the site gives a full review of the approach.

What can I do with this?

Through training, and personal and professional development, there are opportunities to integrate many of the creative tools and techniques used in the 'world' of creativity to our everyday work. We can generate new ways to brainstorm, find fresh approaches to consumer workshops or reconvened group sessions and look differently at how to use what we learn from these sessions.

So, get to know yourself better and unleash the creative potential you may personally still withhold. There's plenty of reading matter listed here, along with some useful websites. Take some tests and attend workshops and seminars focussing on applying creativity in personal and professional lives - I'd recommend the CPSI annual conference in the US or the CREA European conference.

Ultimately, you may also decide to make the leap across to ideation and offer idea generation sessions with clients as part of your future qualitative remit. This, I believe, represents a logical extension of classic qualitative research, extending our existing skills, and brings true value for clients. We will then have to re-define qualitative research in the context of applied creativity and create a new word for the upcoming new breed of qualitative researchers - personally, I like 'Qualitative Creative'.

Welcome to the land of creativity!


Altshuller, G, Shulyak, L, Clarke, D Sr (1990)
TRIZ Keys to Technical Innovation, Technical Innovation Center

Aubusson, P (December 2002)
Using Metaphor to Make Sense and Build Theory in Qualitative Analysis, The Qualitative Report, Volume 7, Number 4

Aznar, G (2005)
Idees, Editions d'Organisation

Briggs Myers, I (1998)
Introduction to Type, 6th edition, CPP Inc.

Burns, Alastair (September/October 1999)
Gospel According to Bill, AQR, In Brief

Bystedt, J, Lynn, S, Potts, D (2003)
Moderating to the Max, Paramount Market Publishing

Deacon, S A (March 2000)
Creativity within Qualitative Research on Families: New Ideas for Old Methods, The Qualitative Report, Volume 4, Numbers 3 & 4

Desai, P (2002)
Methods Beyond Interviewing in Qualitative Market Research London, Sage

Desai, P (July/August 2002)
The World is our Oyster, AQR Brief

Earls, M (2002)
Welcome to the creative age, Wyley, UK

Gordon, W (1999)
Goodthinking, Admap

Kiddle, J, Williamson, M (2002)
Creativity and Market research - Compatible or Incompatible?, Market Research Society, Annual Conference

McGivern, Y (2003)
The Practice of Market and Social Research, FT Prentice Hall

Nancarrow, C, Tinson, J, Brace, I (2004)
Breaking the Rules: Greater Insight and Greater Value?, Market Research Society, Annual Conference

Osborn, A F (1963)
Applied Imagination: principles and procedures for creative problem solving. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons

Parnes, S J (1992)
Source book for creative problem solving, Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation Press

Pearson, J (2005)
Drawing as a Brain Tool, CPSI Conference

Suggestions for further reading

Buzan, T (1974)
Use Both Sides of Your Brain, New York, NY:E.P. Dutton, Inc.

De Bono, E (1970)
Lateral thinking, London, England: Penguin Group

Kirton, M J (1994)
Adaptors and Innovators: Styles of Creativity and Problem Solving, Routledge

Michalko, M (1991)
Thinkertoys, Ten speed Press, Berkeley, California - for ideas, tools, puzzles, games and techniques for creativity

Parnes, S J (1997)
Optimize the Magic of Your Mind, Bearley

Useful websites
An extensive list of creativity tools and techniques
Dates and details of forthcoming seminars and conferences in Europe
Dates and details of forthcoming seminars and conferences in North America
Details on the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) assessment
Help on understanding personality types


Caroline Pakel-Dunlop
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005