Back in the 1940s, advertising executive Alex Osborn turned his attention outward, sharing his insights on creative thinking.  As co-founder of advertising agency BBDO, Osborn lived a creative life.  He worked alongside hundreds of team members that were churning out new ideas constantly.

Studying how people came up with ideas and experimenting with group creative thinking sessions, Osborn discovered that the key to creative thinking is to generate lots of ideas.

In 1942 Osborn published a mini-book titled “How to Think Up,” in which he introduced the group method.  [i]

“You can think up better if you team up with others.  Two heads are better than one, and five are better than two, but only if their owners will honestly make them work for the good of the group”
– Alex Osborn


Osborn later coined the term brainstorming – “using the brain to storm a problem” and defined it as a team deliberately generating a lot of ideas – in other words, diverging.   The principles that Osborn shared have since been adopted widely.  The rules, simply put are:

Source Book for Creative Problem Solving, A Fifty Year Digest of Proven Innovation Process (1992), Sidney J. Parnes. (Ed)., The Creative Education Foundation Press, MS.

  1. Go for quantity (the more ideas the better)
  2. Withhold judgement (allows all minds to contribute)
  3. Welcome wild ideas (unconventional is good)
  4. Build on ideas (for the team)

These guidelines highlight the importance of divergent thinking.  Diverging can be thought of as “making lists”, and converging as “making choices.”

Osborn’s wisdom about creative thinking was twofold: that each of us are capable of tapping into our imagination, and that groups can and should creatively think together, with the benefit of structure.

“Each of has an Aladdin’s lamp which psychologists call creative imagination”
– Alex Osborn

Programs to foster creativity

Osborn went on to establish the Creative Education Foundation, and in  1955, Professor Sidney Parnes joined Osborn to further study of creative thinking and develop a comprehensive educational program.

Since those early days many others have contributed to the study and practice  of creativity and innovation, evolved creative thinking models and expanded programs to help people nurture and apply their creative thinking abilities in their working and personal lives.

The Creative Education Foundation and the annual Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI)  is the original open source for sharing and learning about creativity and innovation.   CEF provides the forum and environment for academics, teachers, researchers, and practitioners to exchange and grow in their creativity and innovation endeavours.

The bedrock of applied creativity

CPS can be thought of as a foundational or bedrock model.  Many of the techniques that were originally associated with CPS have been adopted and incorporated in design thinking practice.  Creative Problem Solving is an “open system.”

Whether the thinking model you are familiar with is based on Design Thinking, Lateral Thinking, or another model, you will find CPS complementary.

The Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process can be applied to everything from improving work culture to a new business pitch.

The CPS process today

The Creative Problem Solving process has evolved from Alex Osborn’s initial thinking, through many iterations and a significant amount of research.

Where it started as a series of seven steps, the Creative Education Foundation has in recent years adopted a four stage process that embodies the original and proven sequence of thinking.

The first stage is Clarify, which involves exploring the challenge and ensuring that we start with a precise problem, and that it is the right problem.  There are three steps in this stage:  Explore the vision, gather data, and formulate challenges.

The second stage is Ideate.  In this stage we generate ideas.

The third stage is Develop.  We work on strengthening the ideas that emerged and fill in the puzzle to create a detailed solution.

The final stage is Implement.   We plan for action. To implement the idea, we need to be clear on how it will work and what needs to be done.

An update on brainstorming

Osborn’s concept of brainstorming has never been more relevant.   In today’s world of innovation centres, co-creation and agile, groups thinking creatively together is the norm.

Studies have challenged the efficacy of group brainstorming.  Some researchers would say that individual brainstorming is as effective, if not more effective.  Alternating between group and individual brainstorming has been found to be highly generative.

Suspending judgement is another aspect that has been critiqued.  Dissent and debate may help the creative process in some situations.

The key is to experiment with guidelines and technique, focusing on the outcome rather than rigidly following a formula.

Avoid jumping to solutions

The CPS process represents a universal truth – the stages align with the way our minds want to work. CPS works in a group setting and we can apply it working on our own.

It is essential that in each stage, we continue the discipline of diverging – canvassing broadly, developing lots of options or ideas, before converging – selecting the most important or highest potential.

The big idea with Creative Problem Solving?  It helps us overcome our biases, provides rails for everyone to be involved to explore what might be, quickly sparks connections that might otherwise not occur, and prevents us from jumping to solution mode prematurely.

True to Osborn’s original insight, deliberate process, guidelines and techniques do help us think up better, and work better together.

6 June 2019

[i] Source Book for Creative Problem Solving, A Fifty Year Digest of Proven Innovation Process (1992), Sidney J. Parnes. (Ed)., The Creative Education Foundation Press, MS.