Creative Problem Solving: Getting the Best from Yourself

Editor’s Note: The following piece by Lain Chroust Ehmann is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.

You might think that as a technical writer, you don’t have much room for creativity in your job. Not true. Although you may be writing about the intricacies of a network system rather than creating poetry about the summer sun, technical writers have as much room–and need–for creativity as any other kind of writer.

Taking a creative approach to your work doesn’t mean just thinking up fourteen synonyms for “display.” It means using different ways of thinking and interacting to solve on-the-job problems, from personnel concerns to how to fit all those graphics on the same page.

“…I, along with many other experts, predict that creativity will become one of the most important personal and business strategies for survival and success,” writes Jordan Ayan in the preface to his book Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas.”

Ayan says the world is becoming more complex every day. When we’re faced with these constant transmogrifications of what we’re asked to deal with, we need to think quickly, decide quickly, and act quickly. And the old solutions–the ways that have “always” worked–just won’t cut it on the new frontier. So here are three keys to help make you a more effective–and creative–worker.

Key #1: Fill the Well

Just as your body can’t run properly if you don’t give it enough fuel, your brain can’t function if you don’t give it something to work with.

In The Artist’s Way, her best-selling book on enhancing creativity, Julia Cameron encourages students to “fill the well” to creativity. “If we don’t give some attention to upkeep,” she writes, “our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked.”

So how does this translate into real life? New ideas don’t spring up in a vacuum. In order to develop original thoughts, you need to stock up on “food for thought.” You just never know where that next great idea is going to come from.

Keep your internal reserves balanced. Read. Have conversations with interesting people. Go to trade association meetings. Watch the news. Pay attention to the world around you. This will give your mind plenty of raw material to work with and will make sure you’ve got the juice to go the distance when you need it most.

You might find the answer to your layout dilemmas in your daughter’s Girl Scout handbook. Or maybe you’ll see an innovative approach to describing a complex computer infrastructure in a “Smithsonian” article on astronomy. Don’t filter the information in before you’ve had a chance to learn something new.

Key #2: Fraternize with the Enemy

How often do you listen to your teenager’s music, or read a book by an author whose work you don’t particularly care for? And how often have you sat down in a non-threatening manner with the folks from the marketing or manufacturing department to hear about what they do all day–not because you need the information, but because you want to learn more about their approach to your company’s business?

If you’re like most people, you stick with what you know and like. It only makes sense; with a limited number of hours in the day, why on earth would you spend time doing something you are fairly certain you’re not going to enjoy–or care about?

The answer is: because it’s stimulating. New material, conflict, even arguments make you think, bringing new information to tired brain cells, and helping you clarify your own tastes, values and priorities. And they can also help you become more creative.

Key #3: Separate Yourself from the Results

Yes, it’s not enough to just come up with new ideas. If you’re to keep your job–and your reputation–you need to come up with good new ideas. A breakthrough design for your online help section won’t win you accolades if the consumer can’t use it.

While results are critical, when you’re trying to come up with new thoughts, release the concept of judgment–just for a while. This is the idea behind the process of brainstorming, where participants are challenged to come up with as many ideas as possible, without regard to the quality of those ideas.

Creative people know that there is a time and a place for generating possibilities, and a time and a place for evaluating those options. If you start evaluating before you’ve given free rein to the brain’s idea-developing center, you’re going to unnecessarily limit yourself.

This suspension of judgment can be tougher than you think. Most of us are equipped with an extra-loud “inner critic” voice that gives a running commentary on all our thoughts and ideas. Mine sounds something like this: “Why’d you put that idea down? That’s a stupid idea. It’ll never work. And that one–where’d you get that notion? You say you have a college degree? Was it mail-order? You should just forget it and do it the old way.”

Sound familiar?

Beating the inner critic has been the subject of scores of books and the topic of therapists’ groups for decades. But how to vanquish it can be summed up quite easily: Ignore it. Some people do this by arguing with it; others just barrel on. My technique is typically something along the lines of reminding myself that there is a time for editing and picking through my ideas, and that time is later.

Another way to get rid of the inner critic is through making a requirement to come up with a certain number of ideas. You might take a piece of paper, write down the numbers one through ten, and then tell yourself that you cannot budge until you come up with ten new product names, or ten ideas about how to fill the lost head count in your department without spending any money. Then, when the critic pipes up, you have a legitimate reason for writing down what might seem like “dumb” ideas.

Pulling It All Together

Creativity isn’t some abstract concept that sounds good on paper but has little bearing on your own life. Quite the opposite; the more creative you are, the better life–and work–are.

Whether you’re trying to figure out how to finish verifying your latest set of documentation while in Milwaukee at a trade show, or what to make for dinner out of a stale box of Bisquick and a half a pound of salami, or how to launch a new Web site in an already-saturated market, creativity can help. And if you’re like most working stiffs, you’re probably trying to do all of the above concurrently–and who couldn’t use a little help with that?


The Woman’s Book of Creativity by C Diane Ealy, Ph.D. Beyond Words Publishing, 1995

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron. Tarcher. Putnam, 1992

Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas by Jordan Ayah. Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1997

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