When looking for solutions to problems, we humans have an unfortunate tendency to embrace the first solution that comes to mind. That can be counterproductive, but it can also blind us to more creative, effective and ultimately more profitable solutions, according to Jeffrey Baumgartner.

When looking for solutions to problems, we humans have an unfortunate tendency to embrace the first solution that comes to mind. Worse, if upon analysing the problem further, we discover our solution is not sufficient to solve the problem, we try to modify that first solution rather than consider alternative solutions.

However, the first solution to a problem is seldom the most creative and only occasionally the best solution. The first solution is, on the other hand, usually the most commonplace solution. It is the solution that most people ­ including your competitors ­ would adopt in the same circumstances. Applying the same solution as your competitors is not very competitive.

A hypothetical example

As an example, consider the (imaginary) Acme Garden Furniture Company which makes tables, chairs and that sort of thing for your garden (yard, if you prefer American English). Acme discover that sales, and hence profits are down. The CEO’s immediate reaction is to increase sales. In order to do this, she tells the marketing people to get on the phone with the ad agency and launch a new campaign to increase sales. When the Finance Director points out that Acme has increased advertising spend over the past five years, but has not seen a corresponding increase in sales, the CEO suggests they look for a new ad agency.

In spite of the evidence that advertising is not increasing sales, the CEO sticks to her original solution. A better approach would be to get out a piece of paper and spend an hour writing down every possible solution ­ no matter how crazy ­ to the problem. The best approach would be to bring together a variety of people from the company to consider every possible solution. This could be done via brainstorming or an ideas campaign.

Had the CEO trawled for alternative suggestions, she might have come up with ideas like these:

1. Stop selling cheap garden furniture and focus on the up-market furniture which brings a higher margin. Thus, the company does not need so many sales to achieve the same profits.

2. Stop selling the expensive garden furniture and focus on the cheap stuff because the cheap stuff sells better. Thus Acme can reduce operational costs and focus on easier to sell products.

3. Start selling on-line with the aim of eventually moving all sales on-line, thus saving the logistical costs of serving retailers and customers.

4. Start selling door-to-door using “Exterior Designers” who can help people choose the perfect set of garden furniture for their gardens.

5. Stop selling in certain locations because sales in those locations do not bring in enough income to cover the costs of serving those locations. So, although this would reduce the quantity of sales, it should increase profitability

Given time and a number of creative minds, the CEO can readily collect dozens of ideas. A criteria based evaluation helps the CEO choose the ideas that best fit her needs and a little market research should help her decide which solutions to implement.

As we saw above, the best solution might be counter-intuitive. For example, selling on-line exclusively might seem like a way to reduce sales. After all, it would mean effectively closing a major part of the company’s distribution chain. But the world’s biggest computer manufacturer (Dell) and the world’s biggest bookseller (Amazon) have found that focusing on on-line selling can be a very effective strategy.

The benefits of brainstorming additional solutions

That the best solution is seldom the first to come to mind is one reason behind the effectiveness of brainstorming as a problem-solving technique. Rather than simply taking the first solution that comes to mind, we push our minds further to come up with additional ideas. Typically, the first few ideas will be rather obvious and not very creative solutions. But once we’ve cleared our minds of the obvious, we must push our minds further to come up with new ideas. This is when creativity kicks in and powers our thinking.

The other reason why brainstorming can be so effective is that it is not one person’s creativity working on the problem, but several people’s. Ideally, those people will have different backgrounds and different areas of expertise. With such a variety of thinkers focusing on a problem ­ it would be hard not to come up with creative solutions.

Of course, even with a room full of creative thinkers brainstorming a problem, evaluation of the top solutions may well show that the first idea is in fact the best idea. But at least you will know that you’ve considered and evaluated all the options before selecting your first idea.

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of Bwiti bvba, a Belgian-based company that helps organizations to become more innovative and more creative. He writes and edits Report103, a weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention in business, and operates the website.