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How To Solve Problems

Using Creative Thinking to Energize Your Staff

Familiarity breeds stagnation. Often the more we know about a subject, the less we are open to new ideas or innovative concepts. When you hire a new employee, that person generally starts with unique, creative ideas but after a few months their innovation gets lost within the culture of the organization. His naivete disappears. How do you get your employees back to that naïve point of view and why should you care about encouraging this kind of thinking? The answer is simple. Creativity and innovation help you achieve business growth through the development of new ideas, new services and the processes to successfully deliver whatever you develop.

Creativity will help direct you to new markets. It will give you the vision to recognize opportunity and to adapt to change. And last but not least, creativity can provide cultural change within your company to stem the negative effects of narrow-minded stagnation.

Right now, how much time do you spend being creative? Just how much brainstorming goes on within your organization?

Brainstorming does not mean sitting in a room and simply asking for ideas. When you do this, energy and enthusiasm generally start out just fine and you will get some good ideas. However, as the meeting moves along, that energy begins to wane. Enthusiasm and participation too quickly fade away. This type of traditional brainstorming is really just a “brain drain.” It is rarely stimulating and usually not much fun.

In this article we’re going to elaborate on the subject of creative thinking. Using the concepts of Bryan Mattimore, a recognized authority on “breakthrough thinking” for business, we will apply his unique techniques to problem solving in the field of staffing.

Keep in mind that while the knowledge and experience you have as a staffing professional are critical to your success, you must always look at your business from a wide variety of perspectives. You certainly don’t need to subjugate your knowledge to be creative, but you do need to make a conscious decision to think outside the box and then come back with new knowledge. The techniques of Mr. Mattimore may seem odd, but they will allow you and your staff to loosen up and become creative. Sometimes we make creativity work when it should be play.


Of the benefits we listed in the introduction to the topic of creative thinking:

  • Development of new ideas
  • Achievement of business growth
  • Access to new markets
  • Recognition of opportunity, the single most powerful benefit lies in cultural change.

When you teach your staff to think creatively, problem-solving becomes a welcome challenge. Your employees will begin to seek the energizing environment of creative brainstorming as they recognize the positive results that these sessions provide. The “esprit de corps” of creativity promotes team solidarity. And that’s a benefit worth a great deal to your long-term success.


Action Plan

– Definitions of creative thinking techniques and examples of their use.

    1. Brainwriting
    2. Brainwalking
    3. Framing Techniques
    4. Question the Assumptions
    5. The Sacred Cow Technique
    6. Metaphors/Association-based Technique
    7. Worst Idea Technique
    8. White Boarding Technique

Implementation Plan

– When to use creative thinking techniques

– How to get started

– Selecting the technique to use

– Who should be involved


– The Do’s and Dont’s of creative thinking

Action Plan

The following eight techniques have been used successfully by a wide variety of companies to encourage creative problem solving:


A technique designed to involve every participant equally. It “piggy backs” thoughts to help those involved produce new and useful ideas. Here’s how it works:

    1. At a staff meeting, provide each person with an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper and a pen or pencil.
    2. On a white board or flip chart write down the question or problem you are attempting to solve. For example: “How can we increase our sales by 20% in the next 12 months?” The question can be as broad or narrow as you like for this technique to be effective.
    3. Have each participant write an idea to solve the problem you have posed.
    4. When everyone has written an answer, have each person pass their sheet one person to either the right or left.
    5. Now have each participant read their neighbor’s idea and either improve, build, add on to the idea or write a new idea if what they read triggers such a thought.
    6. When the participants have finished writing, have each person pass their paper two spaces in the same direction as the initial pass.
    7. Repeat step 5
    8. Repeat step 6 but pass three spaces this time.
    9. Once again ask each person to improve, build, or add to the idea before them or write a new idea triggered by what they’ve read on the paper in front of them.
    10. You can pass the sheets around as many times as you desire. Historically a total of five passes works well but you may use fewer or more depending on the number of people participating. According to Bryan Mattimore this technique works in meetings with as few as three participants and as many as one hundred.
    11. When you are done with your passes, return each paper to its original owner.
    12. Have participants highlight the idea they feel is the most useful. If there are a number of useful concepts, you may wish to prioritize the “winners” for further discussion or implementation.
    13. Brainwriting helps open the minds of the participants, validates the process because everyone contributes. This technique will allow you to uncover unique and generally better solutions to problems.


This technique is a “first cousin” to brainwriting and it’s a lot of fun.

Using flipcharts placed around a meeting room the process is identical to brainwriting except that the participants move from chart to chart rather than sitting and passing sheets of paper. Having people actually move around the room generates its own kind of energy, which can be beneficial to the creative process. Also the more passes you have when brainwalking, the better the results. As people build, improve, and add on to what came before, you begin to see more and more “out-of-the-box” thinking. Conventional ideas always appear first. Once they’re on paper, the door is open for truly creative thinking.

You should get 15-20 good ideas from a session using brainwriting or brainwalking.

Using these two techniques involves everyone in attendance. Even those who are shy and don’t like to talk publicly (but may have great ideas) get to participate on an equal

footing with your most talkative and extroverted sales staff. Your people feel good and

you reap the benefit of creative thinking. Try it-it works!

Framing Techniques

To insure that an issue is approached so the problem you want addressed, is in fact, the problem that is addressed, you need to frame the issue correctly. The way you define the problem will determine what kind of solution you receive. There are two techniques that will help.

Question the Assumptions

Before you hold any type of group creative thinking session, question yourself about the issue and list all the assumptions you have made. For example, let’s say business is off and you’ve decided to start a new specialty, like placing clinical technicians, as a way to increase sales. In doing this, you’ve made the following assumptions:

  1. The need for medical personnel is growing.
  2. There are not enough trained clinical technicians.
  3. No current staffing companies specialize in this type of placement in your area.
  4. There are available candidates (you found this out by placing an ad and got a great response from clinical technicians who would love help finding jobs).

Now question these assumptions and just maybe you’ll find there’s a reason why no other staffing service places clinical technicians-perhaps, the customer who has need for this type of person simply will not pay for your placement services or won’t pay enough to make this worthwhile. Maybe you would need malpractice insurance before you could send this type of applicant out as a contingent worker. Malpractice insurance is so expensive it could negate any profit from such a venture. Get the picture? Question your assumptions before framing an issue for creative thinking.

The Sacred-Cow Technique

This is another way to help you frame an issue. Simply think about and list (this works in a group session as well as individually) all the things you would never, never allow to change in your company. Are there things on that list of “never, no-way, no-how” that could turn from a negative to a positive? For example, let’s say that on your list you had an item that said “We’ll never get into light industrial temporary help. We don’t like it. We don’t want it. Period.”

Hold a creative thinking session and frame that “sacred cow” issue differently. Ask the participants “Is there any way we could get involved in light industrial temporary help without confusing our client base about who we are and what we do?”

Try challenging your sacred cows. You just might find some extra profit hiding there.

Metaphors/Association-Based Technique

Using this technique really helps those participating think outside the box. Sometimes to get new ideas or really creative solutions you have to get out of your current thought process completely. For instance, did you know that Henry Ford was inspired to create his innovative assembly line for Model-T car production after touring a slaughterhouse? Such outside stimuli forces your mind to consider possibilities you’ve not previously taken into account. Instead of touring a slaughterhouse, try this exercise in your next creative thinking session:

  1. Flip through magazines and randomly select pictures. Cut out a number of such images and put them in a folder for your next creative thinking meeting.
  2. At the meeting, frame whatever issue you want to discuss. For example: “How could we generate more enthusiasm and energy in our quarterly financial review meetings?”
  3. Pass out the pictures you clipped to the meeting participants.
  4. Ask each person to relate the picture they are holding to the problem being discussed.

You will be amazed at the ideas that come from using this technique. Sure, there’s a lot of fancy and some foolishness but that’s part of the fun of “breakthrough thinking techniques.” If you get one or two truly seminal ideas that everyone gets excited about, you’ve solved a problem and had fun in the process.

Worst Idea Technique

Here’s an off-the-wall creative thinking technique that only the bold and adventuresome should try. It’s a lot of fun but you can end up in some really weird scenarios before solutions pop up. Here’s how it works:

    1. Let’s say you are thinking of adding some new aspect of staffing service to your company’s mix of business.
    2. At a creative thinking session, have the participants come up with a list of 35-45 of the worst ideas they can think of for this new service.
    3. Select one or two items from that list and encourage the participants to push this bad idea further until it produces something good. In other words take a really worthless concept and make it work.

Bryan Mattimore gave an example of using this technique at a Campbell’s soup product development meeting. The attendees came up with “worm soup” which they then pushed into an idea for a line of gross-sounding kids’ soups like worm, spider, insect, etc. soup. In the end, the story goes, the product was indeed launched and kids loved it!

While this technique is a bit odd, it can be very creative and uninhibited. It certainly lets a participant’s mind venture into unusual and unique possibilities.

White-Boarding Technique

This last technique has proven very useful. It’s so easy to implement you can try it right away. You currently have an item in your office that is an on-going problem solving device. That item is a white board. Here’s how the white boarding technique works:

  1. Select a problem that’s important for you to solve. For example: “How can we get appointments with more decision makers?”
  2. Write the problem at the top of a white board which is hung in a conspicuous place that your employees pass regularly during their work day.
  3. Attach a calendar to the corner of your white board. This problem will be posted for only two weeks to one month (your choice). Mark off each day that passes with an X.
  4. Anytime an employee has an idea, they write it on the board.
  5. As time passes, ideas grow and interesting connections between ideas begin to surface.
  6. You get stimulus without having to rack your brain and your staff participates in providing solutions.
  7. At the end of the allotted time, you note all the ideas that have been offered, and erase the board. You can try the technique again when you have another issue worth exploring.

Implementation Plan

Initiating any of the techniques identified in this issue simply involves getting yourself out of the box. If you complain about your employees, if business isn’t as robust as you’d like, if you’re just feeling a little stagnation-creative thinking offers a sure cure.

When can you use these techniques? Virtually anytime. At a breakfast meeting or a lunch get together. As a planned activity once a week or once a month or use them only when a really big problem has got you stuck and you need input from others. The more these techniques are used, the faster you and your staff will appreciate the benefits of creative thinking.

How to get started? Pick a technique that you think will work in your office environment. Make sure you understand how it works (you can always contact me for help). Roll it out for your staff. Expect complaining from the “nay-sayers.” What you’ll be initiating is different and it will get criticism. Just remember, these techniques are proven. They work.

Which techniques to use? It depends. You might want to start with a simple technique like white boarding. It’s a concept to initiate, people like it and it’s fun. When you confront a really difficult situation like deciding to enter a new segment of the staffing arena, you ought to check the framing technique that questions assumptions. Once you’re ready to proceed, a technique like worst idea could very well produce the best idea.

For simple everyday kinds of problems either brainwriting or brainwalking can provide dozens of good ideas.

In short, try them all. And finally, who should be involved? Literally anyone and everyone. Sometimes the very best ideas for increasing sales, as an example, come from staff members not directly involved in the sales process.

Certain techniques will work great in one situation and fail in another. Don’t give up. Creative thinking always energizes your staff even if the ideas produced are not currently practical. Getting your employees and getting yourself to think outside of the box is always a great way to prevent your company from standing still.

The Do’s and Dont’s of Creative Thinking

The Do’s

  1. Do involve as many people as you can in a creative thinking session.
  2. Do try all the techniques we’ve explored.
  3. Do try these techniques more than once.
  4. Do take a sufficient amount of time for any creative thinking session you conduct.
  5. Do use those techniques that allow the introverts as well as the extroverts to participate.
  6. Do frame the issue carefully so you get the answer to the question you need to address.
  7. Do encourage freedom of thought. There are no dumb ideas when you’re thinking creatively.
  8. Do alternate session leaders and encourage staff members to use these techniques regularly.
  9. Do continue to explore other creative thinking techniques-there are dozens!
  10. Do have fun with this process!

The Dont’s

  1. Don’t exclude participation from your administrative or support staff. These techniques work best when a variety of people contribute.
  2. Don’t find one technique that works and forget to try the rest. You’ll get bored if you do.
  3. Don’t give up. If you try a technique and it fails, take a look at the components. Who was involved, what time of day was the session held, how was the question framed, how much time was allotted? Make some changes and try again.
  4. Don’t forget that great ideas often come from people who don’t talk a lot. Use techniques that force these folks to participate.
  5. Don’t criticize the ideas of others. A really great solution could come from “piggy backing” off a really bad idea.
  6. Don’t forget to circulate the leadership of these sessions. It will help keep them fresh.
  7. Don’t be negative. If a technique doesn’t work on one issue, it may work well on another.
  8. Don’t forget to have fun!
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