If you want creative ideas, you need to invest your creative energy not in ideas, but in understanding the problem and formulating provocative challenges, instructs Jeffrey Baumgartner.

If you want creative ideas, you need to invest your creative energy not in ideas, but in understanding the problem and formulating provocative challenges. Once you’ve done this, creative ideas are remarkably easy. However, if you are not used to doing formulating provocative challenges, or you need to facilitate an idea generation group, it is useful to have a structured approach to work with.

Deconstruct the issue

The first step to formulating provocative challenges is to deconstruct the issue at hand in order to understand it better. The first thing to do with any problem is ask “Why is this a problem?” five times. This will enable us to identify the negative consequences of the problem.

We now need to try and understand how the problem has occurred. Again, we ask the question, “why has this occurred?” five times. This ensures that we think about the problem in detail. Very often the first reason we give for a problem is not the primary reason. By digging deeper, we can get to the root causes of a problem and devise a creative challenge that addresses them.

Third, we need to determine the urgency of the problem. This is unlikely to affect the challenge itself, but it can speed up the innovation process and is highly valuable during the evaluation phase of the process. If the problem is urgent, solutions need to be quickly implementable.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to see how your competitors are dealing with the situation. You probably don’t want to take the same action against the problem as one or more of your competitors has done, because that’s likely to be fruitless.

How to devise provocative challenges

Once you have deconstructed an issue, the underlying problems become more obvious and you can begin to formulate creative challenges based on these problems. However, be careful, a common mistake at this point is to frame what I call “wussie” challenges. These are uninspiring, boring challenges that will lead to uninspiring, boring ideas. Such ideas may useful for incremental innovations, but they are neither creative nor fun.

However, if you can make your challenges provocative, then you, members of your team and anyone else involved in idea generation will be inspired to be far more creative. Indeed, with suitably provocative challenges, stunningly creative ideas will spew forth like magic!

Let us look at a few tricks you can use to make your challenges more provocative.

Use superlatives

Superlatives are the best. If you’ve forgotten your English grammar, a superlative is the form of the adjective that indicates the highest quality, degree or quantity. Superlatives include words like “best”, “fastest”, “biggest” and so on.

Putting a superlative into your challenge can transform it. Compare: “In what ways might we improve the quality of our customer service?” with “How could we provide our customers with the best service in the world?” Or, compare: “How might we simplify the user interface on our product?” with “How might we make our product the world’s easiest to use?”

Connect with powerful emotions

Emotions or feeling-related words such as “love”, “adore”, “crave”, “desire” and “hate” are all very powerful and can elicit strong feelings in all of us. Incorporating these words into challenges can make them very provocative indeed. Challenges that appeal to the emotions might include, “How could we make our customers love us like their mothers?” or “How could we make the user interface on our product sensuous?”

Change the perspective

Since most creative challenges are about improving our businesses or ourselves, we tend to look at them from our own perspective. Changing the perspective to that of our customers, our enemies or a completely different industry can bring new insights to a problem.

For example, “Imagine you are one of our customers. What would make our customer service incredible for you?” If your company is a high-end consulting operation looking to expand its market, look at a completely different service industry. Ask, for example, “How would McDonalds [fast food restaurants] expand their market in this situation?” or “What would a McDonalds regional manager suggest we do to expand our market?” And, of course, there is this classic challenge you should ask yourself from time to time: “What could our chief competitor do tomorrow that would put us out of business by the end of the year?”

Calls to action

Instead of posing a challenge based on a question, frame a call to action. Demand that participants do something, design something or perform some specific action that will lead to creative results. “Design a user interface that is so easy your grandmother could use it with no instructions!” or “Devise a services based business model!” or “Prepare a short performance demonstrating how our help desks can solve problems faster!”

Bring in someone or something unexpected

Adding an unexpected person or object to a challenge is a good way to make it more provocative. If you are dealing with complex technologies, a grandmother can be useful. Many, albeit not all, grandmothers are not familiar with new technologies. Asking, as we did above, “Design a user interface that is so easy your grandmother could use it with no instructions!” is a good example.

If your company designs personal grooming products for men, you might ask “How might we make our products more appealing to women?” This is not because you want to increase your market share, rather it is an acknowledgement that many men will use beauty products in order to make themselves more attractive to women.


Metaphors are a variation on the above tip. A metaphor is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable:” For example (but at risk of a sexual harassment lawsuit), you might ask: “How could we make visiting our shops as pleasurable as making love?” Less riskily, you might ask, “How might we ensure our production line runs as smoothly as a fine Swiss watch?”


Extremes are always good. Framing challenges as extremes is almost always a great way to provoke creative thinking. For instance “How might we make our customer experience absolutely incredible?” or “How might we make our products a joy to use?”

A word About humor

Humor is great, but it is challenging in a couple of potentially dangerous ways. Most people are not as funny as they believe themselves to be. And if the humor does not work with the audience, it can be a disaster. Moreover, a lot of humor can seem abusive, racist, sexist or cruel. What might seem funny to a group of white, wealthy, executive males could seem crass to low-income women. If the latter group is part of your customer base or part of the group generating ideas, what seems to the the male manager a funny challenge can come across to the women participants as cruel or sexist. When this happens, you generate far more bad feelings than useful ideas.

That said, humor can be effective for provoking creative thinking. Better still, it relaxes people, so they are more likely to be less censorious of their more creative ideas. So, do use humor in your provocative challenges, but be sure that it is not going to be offensive to anyone, and especially to no one who will be involved in the idea generation or implementation.

Keeping the creativity

By using one or more of the techniques above, you can turn problems or goals into provocative challenges that will ensure creative ideas are generated. Indeed, as I stated before, if you focus the bulk of your creative energy on devising relevant, provocative challenges, you will get far more creative results than if you focus that energy on generating ideas for vague, challenges or problem statements.

It is also worth bearing in mind that some of these techniques – such as the use of superlatives or extremes – may push people to generate more radical ideas than you actually want. However, in most organisations, creative ideas lose their creativity as they are reviewed by numerous risk-adverse committees and managers. So, if you start with an extremely creative proposal, there is a good chance that a moderately creative project will be approved at the end. Whereas, if you start with a moderately creative proposal, there is unlikely to be any creativity left after it has been diluted and approved by the various committees. So, even if you need only moderate creativity, you need to push for highly creative ideas!

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.