A Robust Creative Problem-Solving Process
When you’re solving business problems, it’s all-too-easy easy to skip over important steps in the problem-solving process, meaning that you can miss good solutions, or, worse still, fail to identify the problem correctly in the first place.
One way to prevent this happening is by using the Simplex Process. This powerful step-by-step tool helps you identify and solve problems creatively and effectively. It guides you through each stage of the problem-solving process, from finding the problem to implementing a solution. This helps you to ensure that your solutions are creative, robust and well considered.
In this article and in the video, below, we’ll look at each step of the Simplex Process. We’ll also review some of the tools and resources that will help at each stage.
Watch this video to learn how you can use the Simplex process to solve complex problems.
About the Tool
The Simplex Process was created by Min Basadur, and was popularized in his book, “The Power of Innovation.”
It is suitable for problems and projects of any scale. It uses the eight stages shown in Figure 1, below:
Rather than seeing problem-solving as a single straight-line process, Simplex is represented as a continuous cycle.
This means that problem-solving should not stop once a solution has been implemented. Rather, completion and implementation of one cycle of improvement should lead straight into the next.
We’ll now look at each step in more detail.
1. Problem Finding
Often, finding the right problem to solve is the most difficult part of the creative process.
So, the first step in using Simplex is to start doing this. When problems exist, you have opportunities for change and improvement. This makes problem finding a valuable skill!
Problems may be obvious. If they’re not, they can often be identified using trigger questions like the ones below:
- What would our customers want us to improve? What are they complaining about?
- What could they be doing better if we could help them?
- Who else could we help by using our core competences?
- What small problems do we have which could grow into bigger ones? And where could failures arise in our business process?
- What slows our work or makes it more difficult? What do we often fail to achieve? Where do we have bottlenecks?
- How can we improve quality?
- What are our competitors doing that we could do?
- What is frustrating and irritating to our team?
These questions deal with problems that exist now. It’s also useful to try to look into the future. Think about how you expect markets and customers to change over the next few years; the problems you may experience as your organization expands; and social, political and legal changes that may affect it. (Tools such as PEST Analysis will help you to do this.) It’s also worth exploring possible problems from the perspective of the different “actors” in the situation – this is where techniques such as CATWOE can be useful.
At this stage you may not have enough information to define your problem precisely. Don’t worry about this until you reach step 3!
2. Fact Finding
The next stage is to research the problem as fully as possible. This is where you:
- Understand fully how different people perceive the situation.
- Analyze data to see if the problem really exists.
- Explore the best ideas that your competitors have had.
- Understand customers’ needs in more detail.
- Know what has already been tried.
- Understand fully any processes, components, services, or technologies that you may want to use.
- Ensure that the benefits of solving the problem will be worth the effort that you’ll put into solving it.
With effective fact-finding, you can confirm your view of the situation, and ensure that all future problem-solving is based on an accurate view of reality.
3. Problem Definition
By the time you reach this stage, you should know roughly what the problem is, and you should have a good understanding of the facts relating to it.
From here you need to identify the exact problem or problems that you want to solve.
It’s important to solve a problem at the right level. If you ask questions that are too broad, then you’ll never have enough resources to answer them effectively. If you ask questions that are too narrow, you may end up fixing the symptoms of a problem, rather than the problem itself.
Min Basadur, who created the Simplex process, suggests saying “Why?” to broaden a question, and “What’s stopping you?” to narrow a question.
For example, if your problem is one of trees dying, ask “Why do I want to keep trees healthy?” This might broaden the question to “How can I maintain the quality of our environment?”
A “What’s stopping you?” question here could give the answer “I don’t know how to control the disease that is killing the tree.”
Big problems are normally made up of many smaller ones. This is the stage at which you can use a technique like Drill Down to break the problem down to its component parts. You can also use the 5 Whys Technique, Cause and Effect Analysis and Root Cause Analysis to help get to the root of a problem.
A common difficulty during this stage is negative thinking – you or your team might start using phrases such as “We can’t…” or “We don’t,” or “This costs too much.” To overcome this, address objections with the phrase “How might we…?” This shifts the focus to creating a solution.
4. Idea Finding
The next stage is to generate as many problem-solving ideas as possible.
Ways of doing this range from asking other people for their opinions, through programmed creativity tools and lateral thinking techniques, to Brainstorming. You should also try to look at the problem from other perspectives. A technique like The Reframing Matrix can help with this.
Don’t evaluate or criticize ideas during this stage. Instead, just concentrate on generating ideas. Remember, impractical ideas can often trigger good ones! You can also use the Random Input technique to help you think of some new ideas.
5. Selection and Evaluation
Once you have a number of possible solutions to your problem, it’s time to select the best one.
The best solution may be obvious. If it’s not, then it’s important to think through the criteria that you’ll use to select the best idea. Our Decision Making Techniques section lays out a number of good methods for this. Particularly useful techniques include Decision Tree Analysis, Paired Comparison Analysis, and Decision Matrix Analysis.
Once you’ve selected an idea, develop it as far as possible. It’s then essential to evaluate it to see if it’s good enough to be considered worth using. Here, it’s important not to let your ego get in the way of your common sense.
If your idea doesn’t offer a big enough benefit, then either see if you can generate more ideas, or restart the whole process. (You can waste years of your life developing creative ideas that no-one wants!)
Techniques to help you to do this include:
- Risk Analysis, which helps you explore where things could go wrong.
- Impact Analysis, which gives you a framework for exploring the full consequences of your decision.
- Force Field Analysis, which helps you explore the pressures for and against change.
- Six Thinking Hats, which helps you explore your decision using a range of valid decision-making styles.
- Use of NPVs and IRRs, which help you ensure that your project is worth running from a financial perspective.
Once you’ve selected an idea, and are confident that your idea is worthwhile, then it’s time to plan its implementation.
Action Plans help you manage simple projects – these lay out the who, what, when, where, why and how of delivering the work.
For larger projects, it’s worth using formal project management techniques. By using these, you’ll be able to deliver your implementation project efficiently, successfully, and within a sensible time frame.
Where your implementation has an impact on several people or groups of people, it’s also worth thinking about change management. Having an appreciation of this will help you assure that people support your project, rather than opposing it or cancelling it.
7. Sell Idea
Up to this stage you may have done all this work on your own or with a small team. Now you’ll have to sell the idea to the people who must support it. These may include your boss, investors, or other stakeholders involved with the project.
In selling the project you’ll have to address not only its practicalities, but also things such internal politics, hidden fear of change, and so on.
You can learn more about how to get support for your ideas with our Bite-Sized Training Session, Sell Your Idea.
Finally, after all the creativity and preparation comes action!
This is where all the careful work and planning pays off. Again, if you’re implementing a large-scale change or project, you might want to brush up on your change management skills to help ensure that the process is implemented smoothly.
Once the action is firmly under way, return to stage 1, Problem Finding, to continue improving your idea. You can also use the principles of Kaizen to work on continuous improvement.
Simplex is a powerful approach to creative problem-solving. It is suitable for projects and organizations of almost any scale.
The process follows an eight-stage cycle. Upon completion of the eight stages you start it again to find and solve another problem. This helps to ensure continuous improvement.
Stages in the process are:
- Problem finding.
- Fact finding.
- Problem definition.
- Idea finding.
- Selection and evaluation.
- Selling of the idea.
By moving through these stages you ensure that you solve the most significant problems with the best solutions available to you. As such, this process can help you to be intensely creative.