Martin J. Eppler, Prof. Dr. is a full professor of media and communication management at the University of St. Gallen (HSG). At UNIGE, he teaches Creative Problem Solving, as part of the Entrepreneurial Leadership DAS program.
We asked Prof. Eppler if creativity is a skill that can be learned and what difference this three-days class makes in the professional lives of participants.
- What is Creative Problem Solving?
Prof. M. Eppler : It often happens that we are stuck in old solutions, and although the context has dramatically changed, we continue to apply old solutions to inherently new problems.
In my class, I try to help people to avoid falling into this so-called status quo trap. We live in a VUCA world; there is a lot of volatility and uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Therefore, one has to have solutions that are flexible, agile and can be adapted more quickly to the changing context.
Creative Problem Solving is a very hands-on module. It allows participants to re-discover their natural creativity and learn how to stop self-sabotaging it. It demonstrates how to improve the environment in order to facilitate sharing of ideas. It teaches to use constructive feedback and criticism as a catalyst for idea improvement, and provides tools not only to invent new ideas, but to also see them through. The content of the module is based on research and comprises a wide range of simple and clever tools, from visualization techniques to performance-based methods, including simple dialogue and feedback techniques, and all the way to architectural interventions like how to design a “creativity room”.
- Does this mean that creativity can be learned as a skill?
Prof. M. Eppler: Yes. That’s the good news, it can be learned. The bad news is that according to our surveys many managers are doing it wrong. Creativity is a habit, not a gift. Everybody can be creative, but you need to stop doing things that don’t work.
It is also essential to conceive of creativity as a team sport. All the major breakthroughs were the result of a team effort. You can see that with the examples of Steve Jobs, who created Apple together with Steve Wozniak, the Wright Brothers, who built the world’s first successful airplane, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who invented Google, and Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who worked together on all the HP inventions.
Creativity is all about collaboration, and in my class, I teach students how to successfully collaborate for creativity, bringing together different skills and competencies.
- Do you see improvements in the way participants approach problem solving in the course of your class?
Prof. M. Eppler: Yes, very much so, and this is due to a number of reasons.
Firstly, the research has shown that creativity improves if one does certain warm-up excises. You can’t just flip a switch and be creative, you need to get into that zone. In my class, I teach specific warm-up techniques, and they immediately make a huge difference.
Secondly, participants learn new configurations of working in teams of two, which is much more energizing than working in large teams. I show them effective techniques that are fun. These tools allow participants to come up with more ideas and more diverse ideas; the combinations of that simply leads to better ideas.
Moreover, we add a technology perspective on creativity. Students not only develop their ideas with paper and pencil, but also enter them into an idea competition platform (crowdsourcing creativity), which we created ourselves. The platform allows participants to rate each other’s ideas, visualizing the best ones in real time, and subsequently combine them.
What I like most about the course, is that we are not just giving participants the theory of creativity and good techniques. The course encourages students to apply them right away to their own problems. In just three days, participants see on their own example how much can be achieved when you use the right tools and, more importantly, when you stop sabotaging your own creativity.
Exploring creative problem solving further:
Capozzi, M., Dye, R., Howe, A. (2011) Sparking Creativity in Teams: An executive’s Guide. Mc Kinsey Quarterly, 1-11. Retrieved online at www.mckinseyquarterly.com
Thompson, L. (2003) Improving the creativity of organizational work groups, Academy of Management Executive, 17(1), 96-109.
McGrath, L., Bresciani, S. & Eppler, M. J. (2016). We Walk the Line: Provisional Icon Appearance on Virtual Whiteboards Triggers Elaborative Dialogue and Creativity. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, pp. 717–726.