How to Be More Creative: Be a Problem-Finder (not just a Problem-Solver)

Decades ago, my advisor, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (just call him “Mike” if you ever see him) and a team of researchers from the University of Chicago set out to answer the questions, How do creative works come into being?” and “What makes some creative works more ‘creative’ than others?

To answer these questions, Mike and his team recruited about 30 student artists to take part in an academic study. In this study, Mike and his research team asked these artists to first examine a table full of various objects for inspiration, and then create a piece of artwork.

As the artists created, Mike and his team carefully observed their creative process.

From their observations, it became quite clear that the student artists approached their creative work with either a problem-solving style or a problem-finding style.

The artists who approached their work in a problem-solving style took about 5 minutes to select a few objects, and then right away they began getting to work on their artwork – spending most of their time refining and adding details to their piece. Their approach was to quickly formulate a visual problem, and then focus their effort on solving this problem.

The second group of artists took quite a different approach to their creative work. In this group, the artists spent a great deal of time arranging and rearranging the objects on the table, making choices and changing their mind often. They started their artwork, but then often would completely erase their work and start over from scratch. These artists would spend up to one hour formulating and reformulating their ideas, and then would complete their piece in about ten minutes. Contrary to the first group of artists, who took a problem-solving approach, this group spent much more time finding the right “problem” or opportunity to work with.

So which group produced the most creative pieces of art?

From the title of this post, it is probably obvious that the problem-finding group consistently produced art that was judged by expert artists as being more "creative" compared to the problem-solving artists’ works.

But what might not be so obvious is that the long-term career success of these artists could also be predicted by which style they used. Those artists who took more time to ask themselves better questions about how to proceed in their work actually had more successful careers in the art world, were more respected by art critics, and had more paintings in reputable art galleries compared to those artists using the problem-solving approach.

Why is problem-finding so critical to creative success?

Although problem-solving is an important and desirable skill to possess in any field, problem-finding is the primary driver of creativity and innovation.  It also is a skill/process that most people (and organizations) do not fully utilize.

In today's fast-paced world, we often are eager to jump to formulating solutions, checking things off our to-do lists, and "getting things done." There are plenty of problems out there to solve. Our customers, our colleagues, our professors, our bosses - they all have things they want us to solve and devote time towards. These problems are known as presented-problems - problems that are somewhat already defined and there for you to solve (and often come from some external source).

Tackling these problems can make us feel like we are being productive, but approaching our work with a problem-solving mindset (and not devoting any time to problem-finding and opportunity-identification) can actually hinder our creative progress.  

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
–Henry Ford

Henry Ford, and many other creative geniuses, understood that true innovation comes from discovered-problems - problems that take quite a bit of curiosity, research, experimentation, reflection, evaluation, and re-formulation in order to be defined (and are often internally generated or constructed).

So what can I do to become a better problem-finder?

Becoming a better problem-finder starts with the type of questions you ask yourself and others as you explore potential problems and opportunities.  In my free e-book, How to Become a Creative Badass: A 9-Step Guide to Mastering the Creative Process, I give you 5 techniques that you can use in order to become a better problem-finder and ignite your creative performance.  You can get it now, if you want, by putting your e-mail in the box below. You will be sent a download link for the e-book, and over the next few weeks, will also be sent my top 10 favorite creativity-boosting books.