Creative problem-solving is like brainstorming on steroids

Solve your trickiest problems in four hours.
article cover

Rudzhan Nagiev/Getty Images

· 3 min read

Today, CFOs are called upon to solve organizational problems—and, often, to do so quickly. One tool they can use to do so is a method called Creative problem-solving (CPS). (You may know it as “the thing with all the sticky notes.”)

The advantage of this method is its speed, according to Loreal Jiles, VP of research and thought leadership and global head of DE&I at the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). She and Marsha Huber, a CPE ethics trainer and former director of research at IMA, recently published an IMA Statement on Management Accounting report on the topic.

“The thing that’s comforting to me about CPS is it can be deployed within three to four hours,” Jiles told CFO Brew. “Imagine you just block half a working day and say, ‘We’ve got this issue and by the time we leave this room we will have a path to a solution defined.’”

CPS in a nutshell. CPS was first developed in the 1950s by Alex Osborn, a founder of advertising giant BBDO and the guy who coined the term “brainstorming.” It’s used today by such organizations as IBM, Deloitte, and the US military.

In a CPS session, a trained facilitator leads a small team through a four-step process over the course of three or four hours. The steps include:

  • Clarifying: gathering facts and refining the problem
  • Ideating: brainstorming, clustering ideas, and choosing the best ones (this is where the sticky notes come in)
  • Developing: discussing the pros and cons of potential solutions and how they could be made more workable
  • Implementing: prioritizing, creating action items, assigning roles, and laying out a timeline.

Beyond brainstorming. Though CPS uses brainstorming, the method goes beyond brainstorming to help teams generate solutions that aren’t always top of mind, Jiles said.

News built for finance pros

The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.

In a traditional brainstorming session, “everyone throws out ideas in the beginning, and then it kind of pauses,” she said. At that point in a CPS session, the facilitator steps in with techniques to keep the ideas coming. They might ask participants to look at a picture to see what connections it sparks, or to role-play someone else and think about how that person would approach the problem.

The process can feel awkward at first, Jiles said, especially for people who are more accustomed to dealing with facts and figures. “There’s this initial discomfort,” she said, and then people generally reach an “aha moment” about halfway through the session.

Diverse perspectives lead to more creative solutions. A strength of CPS is that it can bring together people who might not normally work together, Jiles said, which can generate more innovative solutions.

The nature of the process “forces you to think of ideas that you wouldn’t ordinarily come up with; it forces you to combine your ideas” with others’, she said. “Whereas historically, the business comes to the finance function with an issue within finance…CPS says you need to meet with many more stakeholders across different areas, and even some that are unrelated, so that you can get a more diverse perspective.”

Learning CPS or similar innovation techniques can help CFOs earn a “seat at the table” as strategic business partners, Jiles said.

“To maintain a competitive advantage as an organization, we have to have innovative solutions,” Jiles said. “And CPS provides a path to that—not the only path, but certainly a viable path.”—CV

News built for finance pros

The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.