Viewpoint: Creative problem solving (outside the box)
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 print issue with the headline: Things that come in boxes for $200, Alex.
By Frederick Marks
I used to work for a dull guy whose standard answer to a problem was to encourage you to “think outside the box.” He also pronounced the word “interesting” using four syllables, but that’s a story for another time.
My answer was usually to ask, “Where is this box?” Is it his cube, my cube, our office? Is it Booth Two of the men’s room, or our entire building? And how do I know if all my thinking inside the box was unsuccessful?
I think he meant I should apply creative thinking to solve a problem, but “thinking outside the box” was his standard way to express problem solving. Corn flakes and tissues belong in boxes. Management or purchasing problems don’t. Why limit your ability to solve a problem by boxing it? The only box is the one you have imposed on yourself. Once you realize there is no box, you are on your way to creative problem solving.
Don’t worry about being wrong. I’ve almost made a career out of it. By taking the shackles off your brain, you can expand your options. What’s the worst that can happen? We have abolished flogging in management. Anything you can do to solve your problem creatively will work, including being wrong. Even a frivolous answer might contain the germ of an idea. And, there is no rule that says you have to be practical, either. Let others restrict themselves to saying, “We can’t do that.” Being logical is also restrictive. Life and problems aren’t logical; why should you be logical to solve them?
When brainstorming, don’t discount the easy answer. Sometimes an easy answer is the best. To prove that an egg could stand on its end, Columbus simply mashed the end in to form a base. Problem solved! Of course, he broke the egg, but the point was that it could be done.
Gather that group of people you trust and start to solve your problem. Make sure they are the approximate level you are so there is an evenness to the discussions. If you add someone with a fancy-schmancy title, people tend to defer to the title and not the ideas or solution. Don’t forget to add that very odd person in the end cubicle. Every office has one of those guys with the strange posters on their walls and a peculiar smell to their lunch. Sometimes they are the one with the best solution. And, don’t think there is a perfect or right answer to all problems. There isn’t! There are best answers given a set of circumstances. And your first answer may not be the best one, so come up with a few.
Learn how to ask the right questions — how to direct the thinking of you and your group. Don’t be bound by a formula or book on “How to solve your problem in 10 easy steps.” Develop your own methods to suit your background and experience. Don’t think that you don’t have creative problem solving skills. They’re in our professional DNA. Ever since the first buyer came out of the primordial ooze to solve a management problem, we have been helping our organizations become more efficient and professional. Look for the problem solving challenges, build up your resume of skill sets. The more you undertake challenges, the better you become at solving them.
Frederick Marks is a retired purchasing officer who has held positions as a supervising buyer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as director of material management for Northern Virginia Community College. Contact him at email@example.com. This article appeared originally in Government Procurement, a sister publication to American City & County.