When it comes to creative problem solving, which is more effective? Focusing on the problem at hand, or on setting goals for what we’d like to accomplish? Jeffrey Baumgartner explores this perplexing question and comes to a very clear conclusion.

If you stop and think about it, people more often use creativity to find a means of achieving a goal rather than solve a problem. A book author does not see herself as bearing the problem of having written insufficient books, rather, she has the goal of writing another book. A business may not lack products, but management may feel it should develop an exciting new product to liven up its line.

Moreover, any problem can be reiterated as a goal. Sales are down? Your goal, then, would be to increase sales. Your production line is inefficient? Then you want to improve the efficiency of your production line.

Why goals are better than problems

More importantly, I believe that there are important advantages to using the word “goal” as the aim of the creativity process. Firstly, translating a problem (if you are starting from a problem) into a goal encourages you to question the problem. This, in my experience, is where most people fail when trying to solve problems. They immediately try to come up with ideas rather than try to understand the problem properly.

Formulating goal statements from problems, makes you think about the problem and what aspect of it you actually wish to solve. If you say “we need to increase sales”, most people will immediately reply, “of course you do. Every business does! What do you want to do? Improve your sales process? Improve your marketing communications? Make your product more desirable?”

With these questions, you may realise that your goal is to generate more leads for your sales team. Or you might realise that your products are perceived as out of date by the young people you are trying to sell to, so you need to make your products more modern and ‘sexy’. Clearly, these two goals are very, very different! Yet either or both could be goals you need to strive for in order to achieve your overriding goal of selling more.

In addition, I believe that using creativity to achieve a goal is more positive and motivating than using it to solve a problem. Sure, it is essentially the same thing. But which challenge do you think most people would find more interesting?

“Our line of girls’ shoes is outdated and sales are falling. How can we solve this?”

– or –

“Let’s make our line of girls’ shoes trendy and exciting! How can we do this?”

Goals and sub-goals

Working with goals instead of problems also makes it easier to divide big goals into smaller sub-goals which may become a part of the final solution. This can be important too. I find that when people come to me with problems that need solving, these problems are the result of multiple issues, each of which need to be addressed. However, at least to my mind, the notion of root-problems and sub-problems seems odd. Worse, it seems depressing!

Of course problems are still relevant to creative idea generation. If we face problems, in business or personally, that we wish to solve through creativity, it is still essential to deconstruct and analyse those problems. Formulating a goal statement is ultimately a reworking of a problem statement. Nevertheless, I believe that if we aim to focus creativity on attaining stated goals, we will get more interesting results. What do you think? What is your experience?

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.