Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


    In this presentation I want to discuss the creative process as applied to problem solving. I will be drawing heavily from the work of Roger von Oech (A Kick in the Seat of the Pants New York: Harper Perennial, 1986).


    Technical advances can be described graphically by so-called "S Curves." At the point of inception technological progress is slow, as advances are made only gradually. There comes a point, though, in which progress accelerates considerably, as more and more is learned about the technology. This rate of advance cannot be sustained, and gradually slows down. A technology at this point is said to be in a "mature" phase. These stages take the form of S-shaped curves.


    There are many examples of this type of advance as described through S Curves. In the area of transportation on water, rowing boats provide a good example. Rowing boats began with dugout boats with one to several rowers. It was soon realized that by arranging the oars in a row a large increase in speed could be achieved. This gave rise to the monoreme. Then, rapidly came the bireme, and the trireme. In sailing ships, the first development was a single mast ship. Then came the two-mast, three-mast, four-mast, and even a seven-mast ship. In the field of electronics, a major development was the vacuum tube. In the beginning a simple two electrode device, the diode, was invented which allowed control of the direction of current flow. Very soon thereafter came the triode, quatrode, pentode, and multi-electrode vacuum tubes. All these examples show a common thread, the development of a technology by gradual adaptation and improvement. This can be considered as advancement along a single S Curve.


    In order for there to be major advances, progress has to be made by jumping from one S-Curve to another. An example of this comes from the electronics field, where jumps were made from vacuum tubes to transistors and to integrated circuits. These jumps represent revolutionary changes or "paradigm shifts" which completely change the dominant technology. It is precisely these types of quantum advances that involve creativity and originality.


    Problem solving can be thought as involving three phases, a creative phase, a decision phase, and an application phase. In the creative phase ideas are developed, and a person adopts the role of "artist." In the decision phase the ideas developed in the creative phase are evaluated, and a person adopts the role of "judge." Finally, in the application phase, the ideas are brought into action, and the person takes on the role of "warrior." It is important to keep these roles separate. For example, in the "artist" phase where ideas are generated, it's important for the "judge" not to come in too early, as fresh ideas may be suppressed because they are still not developed. Likewise, in the "warrior" stage where ideas are to be implemented decisively, it can be counterproductive for new ideas to be suggested by the artist.


    Originality and creativity have a preeminent role in the first phase, the artist phase. Following Roger von Oech, there are a number of blocks that need to be overcome. These can be dealt with as follows: 1) Use soft thinking. 2) Look beyond the right answer. 3) Don't be afraid to make mistakes. 4) Think ambiguously. 5) Adopt roles. 6) Break rules.



1.      Use soft thinking. Roger von Oech categorizes two types of thinking.


Metaphor Logic

Dream Reason

Humor Precision

Ambiguity Consistency

Play Work

Approximate Exact

Fantasy Reality

Paradox Direct

Generalization Specifics


The soft type of thinking is more diffuse, more able to deal with contradiction, and the most appropriate for creativity. The hard type of thinking is more focused and precise, and best used in the "judge" phase of problem solving.


2.      Look beyond the right answer. We have been trained throughout our education to look for the "right" answer. As the philosopher, Emile Chartier put, "Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, if it's the only idea you have." Very often we limit our creative process when we reach an apparent solution. It is important when having reached an answer, to continue to look for a second right answer. This may give rise to a better solution.


3.      Don't be afraid to make mistakes. The Nobel prize winner, Linus Pauling said, "In order to have a good idea, you should have many ideas." This means that a lot of the ideas you have will be wrong. You should not be afraid to be wrong. Mistakes can be stepping stones to the right solution. Columbus discovered America thinking he was traveling to India.


4.      Think ambiguously. Many problems can be tackled using different viewpoints. Don't be afraid to reinterpret the problem statement.


5.      Adopt roles. In the creative process, sometimes it is useful to adopt roles. Two possible roles are those of the "fool" and the "magician."

The fool was the court jester in the Renaissance and Middle Ages. He had an important function. The king in those days was all powerful, and there was a tendency for his subordinates to be yes-men. The role of the fool was to challenge ideas and provide new perspectives.

The magician deals with symbols which can be useful in creativity. The magician can show that nothing is impossible.


1.      Break rules. Very often we are limited by our perception of boundaries. It is important to go outside accepted norms in order to reach solutions. This sometimes means breaking rules.






1) Creativity requires special thinking outside of the normal.


2) Adopt roles: artist, judge, warrior.


3) In solving problems, don't be limited by perceived boundaries.