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Innovation and creative problem solving….Everyone agrees that they’re important for personal, team, organizational or even national success. Yet, what does it really take to nurture creativity? How can you solve problems creatively? How can we build a strong culture that supports innovation? 

In this article, we’ll attempt to break down this very complex subject into 3 parts. We’ll start by highlighting some specific ideas and tips for individual and team creativity, innovation and experimentation. Then, we’ll take a step back to see the wider macro picture, to understand why major, game-changing innovations can involve complex processes that take at least 10-15 years. Finally, we’ll outline how these ideas come together in the powerful case study of Pixar Animation.

Do check out our Innovation Bundle for our pick of the 6 best books for team innovation, and the Problem Solving Bundle for the top 6 best books for personal creativity and problem solving skills!

Creative Problem Solving Techniques and Approaches

In this segment, we’ll cover some practical ideas, tools and tips for creative problem-solving, and nurturing your personal and team creative potential.


Creativity really starts with a sense of curiosity and a hunger to learn. In Think Like Da Vinci, we learn how all-time genius, Leonardo Da Vinci, obsessively pursues the truth, questions everything, and develops every possible aspect of his brain and potential. There are 7 “Da Vincian Principles” that summarize what it takes to unlock your personal genius:Creative Problem Solving_7 Da Vincian Principles1. Curiosita: The Quest for Continuous Learning
2. Dimostrazione: Test Knowledge Via Practical Experience
3. Sensazione: Constantly Sharpen the Senses
4. Sfumato: Be Comfortable With Ambiguity
5. Arte/Scienza: Balance Science & Art, Logic & Imagination
6. Corporalita: Develop Poise: the Balance of Body & Mind
7. Connessione: Maintain a Big Picture Perspective

The good news is, each of these areas can be developed, and the book provides a number of practical tips and exercises that you can use, from journalling to honing and synthesizing your senses (check out our article on the 7 Da Vincian Principles here).


Unfortunately, not all of us have a high tolerance for ambiguity like Da Vinci (well, at least not yet!). If you try to go on a learning/brainstorming spree, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities and becoming even more confused.  This is where the Six Thinking Hats come in. This is a powerful technique to help you to systematically explore different perspectives towards a complex situation or challenge.

It allows you to focus on one thing at a time, yet switch between different perspectives (e.g. fact-finding, playing devil’s advocate, exploring your intuition), so you make better assessments and decisions. So, for those process-oriented folks out there who need something more tangible and structured to work with, this is a great tool to work with.Creative Problem Solving_Six Thinking Hats

This method can be applied as an individual or team — feel free to learn more about it in our Six Thinking Hats summary.


Still, thinking alone is never enough. The truest way to learn is to apply and experiment. In The Lean Startup summary, Eric Ries shares a powerful Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, that can be used to progressively test and  test any idea or innovationCreative Problem Solving_Build-Measure-Learn

How do you know if an idea could actually work, and how can you innovate without sinking tons of wasted resources into failed projects? Well, use this approach to (a) identify your critical assumptions/ hypothesis, (b) form the minimum viable product (MVP) to test it, (c) measure your results, make adjustments and (d)try again. Although the book was written for innovation of  new products or services, you can apply the approach to any personal, team or organizational challenge.

Simply by applying any or all of the tips above, you can start to make minor shifts that accumulate over time.  But, if you have the ambition to build a creative culture that transcends time, or if want to invent the next Google or Personal Computer that can change the world,  then it’s crucial that you understand the wider macro-environment and random forces that affect fundamental, long-term innovation. Read on!

Creative Problem-Solving: the Macro-Environment

In “Inside Real Innovation“, Fitzgerald explains the difference between Fundamental Innovations (FINNs) vs Incremental Innovation (IINNs) — FINNs change industries and behaviors in ways that would’ve been impossible without the innovations (e.g. the first steam engines and the first personal computers), while IINNs are minor improvements to what already exists (e.g. enhancements from Windows 8 to Windows 10). They are not mutually exclusive, and lie at 2 extreme ends of the same spectrum.

Creative Problem Solving_Systemic factorsIn the book, Fitzgerald details how Strained Silicon (a technology that greatly enhances the performance of integrated circuits) evolved over 20 years from a raw idea to commercialization. [In the next segment, we’ll also explain how Pixar’s Toy Story was also born after 20 years]. So, the sobering message is this – if you’re looking to build your own fundamental innovation that changes the world, be prepared for a loooong, complex journey (that involves many random factors beyond your control).  Fitzgerald summarizes the various ingredients & stakeholders in this universal model:Creative Problem Solving_Iterative Process

This model has important implications for innovators, investors, corporations, researchers and government policy makers alike – read more about in the Inside Real Innnovation summary.

So, how do all these diverse pieces come together in real life? Let’s take a quick look at the inspiring case study of Pixar.

Putting it Together: Lessons from Pixar

In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull shows how it took 20 years from his initial goal to make an animated film to the debut of Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995. As you follow the story (from his childhood dream to be an animator, to doing his PhD in Computer Sciences, heading a research unit, working at LucasFilms, selling imaging computers to finally creating Pixar’s animated  films), you’ll see many of the ingredients and processes from the model above at work. It also shows the amount of passion and perseverance it takes to bring an idea from concept to commercialization.

Catmull takes it further by sharing the behind-the-scene stories of how Pixar started out, and how they built and maintained a creative culture. In a nutshell, there are  4 foundations for creativity (which are paradoxically also barriers to creativity, as they are extremely uncomfortable for most people):

Creative Problem Solving_4 foundations and barriers

Many of these practices and approaches mirror the 7 Da Vincian principles covered in Part 1, applied in a corporate setting. Catmull also shares many of Pixar’s tools and approaches, and shows clearly why building and maintaining a creative culture is an ongoing, never-ending job. Do read more in our Creativity, Inc. summary. Creative Problem Solving_creative culture

Creativity is a complex subject with so many components.  The frameworks and tools above can certainly help you to get started.

This article merely provides an overview of the range of perspectives, tips and tools that you can use and consider. Do check out the various blog links above, or get our innovation summary bundle or our problem solving summary bundle at special promo rates!!

Best innovation books

Best Creativity books, best problem solving books

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