Creative problem solving or 20 ways to defeat Godzilla
Like Tokyo in a Godzilla movie, librarians may feel under attack. Recently Harvard sponsored a debate on library obsolescence, an Illinois news report asked whether libraries are a waste of tax money (Davlantes, 2010), and the conversation “Are libraries necessary anymore?” appeared on CollegeNET.com (Are libraries really necessary anymore?, 2009). Combine this mindset with a weak economy and you have a tense work environment for many library staff. More complications arise for the “sandwich generation” who care for both children and aging parents. To run screaming is an alluring, though non-permanent solution. Initially I was tempted to run when I read that 80 percent of life’s problems should be approached creatively (Lumsdaine & Lumsdaine, 1995, p. 15). Creative problem solving seemed an overly complicated time drain for an already overloaded individual. Who need one more thing to do? Eventually creative problem solving justified itself by simultaneously identifying solutions, encouraging a more balanced life and lessening stress.
What is creative problem solving?
Creativity, appropriately enough, has many definitions. It integrates analytical and imaginative thinking to generate nontraditional solutions. It makes new combinations of objects, colors, notes, numbers, chemicals, or ideas to satisfy a need or desire (Olson, 1980, p. 11). Applying a creative thought process to a problem produces multiple diverse answers by linking apparently unrelated ideas. Formal education often teaches that there is only one correct answer. This single-answer mindset blocks creativity and must be overcome. Like any other skill some people may be naturally creative than others, but everyone has potential to increase their ability. Even though you may not have felt creative in a long time, creativity, like crabgrass, springs back. Clear a path and creativity will emerge (Cameron, 2002).
Stress impacts your thinking
Stress impacts thinking in several negative ways. When stressed we may develop tunnel vision and concentrate only on the problem at hand. Stress disrupts the rational parts of our brains leaving us vulnerable to negative thinking and hopelessness. In chronically stressed rats regions of the brain associated with executive decision making and goal directed behavior shrank while those involved with habit formation grew. Behaviors became habitual faster in stressed animals and the stressed animals couldn’t switch back to goal-directed behaviors. Stressed individuals get stuck in an endless loop instead of actually finishing the task and moving on (Angier, 2009).
Creativity fights stress
Creative thinking removes you from the nonproductive habit loop. It eliminates negative thought patterns. Creativity distracts from the problem and focusses attention onto a solution. When you are immersed in creative thought, you can achieve an intense focus similar to the focus and concentration you can achieve through meditation. Your body relaxes. (Scott, 2012). By identifying multiple solutions a person gains some degree of control. Creative thinking encourages exposure to a large variety of stimuli, resulting in a more balanced lifestyle Ruth Richards lists twelve benefits of living more creatively, one of which is better health. She reports that cathartic writing “not only boosts health clinically – both physically and psychologically – but also can boost measures of immune function ” (Richard, 2007, p. 294).
Though this article focuses on creative problem solving, creative self-expression is vital for stress relief. You experience events emotionally before reason is activated and the more intense your emotions the more likely it will influence your actions. That is why when faced with Godzilla we tend to let fear take over. You control how you manage that emotion. (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). At work and in public when faced with strong emotions we mute them to conform to societal and professional standards. Eventually strong emotions need expression. Experiment at home with different methods such as poetry, painting, sketching, modeling clay, dance or as Ruth Richard recommended, writing.. All these can express intense feelings which sometimes feel beyond words. Expressing emotions though verbal and nonverbal outlets does not solve the problem. Godzilla is still stepping on things. Expression gives recognition and dignity to a moment. Self-expression is an important act of self-respect. Once you acknowledge the emotions around the problem it is easier to being solving it.
Creative Problem Solving Tools
People behave creatively when they possess three attributes. You need in depth knowledge of a subject. It is hard to be a creative cook when all you know how to do is boil water. Library staff already has an in-depth knowledge of the work environment and most people have an expert knowledge of personal life. You also need the proper mental attitude. Creativity requires tolerating chaos. If you have a need for orderly thinking this may be challenging. You may be inclined to solve problems quickly and move onto the next one. This need for order and resolution may block creativity. Solving problems creatively takes time. Ideas need to be incubated; they do not always pop out fully formed. Creativity can be a mentally messy process. Accept this. (Edwards, 1996). Once the thinking is done you must have a willingness to take action. Thinking is the easy part, action requires risk. Failure is part of risk. Not all attempts will work. Be prepared to make changes on the fly, to adapt and correct as needed.
With an in-depth subject knowledge, chaos acceptance and willingness to act, you are ready to begin the creative problem solving process. I derived the following steps from many resources on artistic and business creativity, several of which are in my bibliography. The bullets represent ideas I use to accomplish each step. Some may work better than others depending on the individual, the problem and your state of mind. You may develop other ways that work better and that should be celebrated.
Step 1. Feed the open mind
Skills need to be practiced and muscles toned. This is ideally done before the crisis hits. The creative environment exposes us to new ideas without totally disrupting daily life.
- Learn 3 things a day. Read unusual blogs. Wander into the library stacks. Select a random call number range and pick a book at random. Read until something new or different strikes you. I recently grabbed “The Bankruptcy of Marriage” by V.F. Calverton published in 1929. He wrote that marriage exists in cultures where the man has “excessive and inequitable power over the wife.” Cultures where there is no economic or legal advantages have a loose succession of cohabitations. (Calverton, 1928, p. 6) Is this true? I don’t know, but to me it was a new idea. Playing online word game with my daughter, she played the word Qi. I looked it up. Qi is an active principle part of any living thing. Often translated as life energy, life force or energy flow. (Qi, 2012) Another new idea to me was that Godzilla is considered a metaphor for the United States and nuclear weapons. .
- Stretch all senses. I recently saw a list of 100 things to eat before you die. Some I have consciously chosen never to eat, but new tastes count when broadening the mind. Listen to different music. Music you know well you may tune out. Music from a different genre may cause you to listen in a different way. Some bad music may make you tune out completely, but again the point is to experience different sounds.
- Unplug. Take a break from electronics. This allows for a different input into the brain. When there is less competition for attention, the brain can focus.
- Practice breaking barriers. Often we solve problems within imaginary constraints. I spent a short amount of time with a different work schedule. The world is a different place when you are at home at an unusual time. When I was at home in the morning I discovered a woodpecker was violently attacking my house.
- Keep a private journal. Write for a solid block of time. You may think of a problem and write on that, but do not be judgmental or worry about spelling or grammar. You want a continuous thought flow. Many authors recommend doing this first thing in the morning. I have tried but cannot do it, so I journal at night. Fatigue often is good for creativity because your internal censor is weaker and allows for a summary of day’s events. Writing early in the morning may reveal what has been on your mind at night. Keep a separate list of creative ideas you should pursue.
- Try creativity exercises. What are 100 uses for a square foot of aluminum foil? List 6 ways to express half of 12. What is the one thing I would do if I knew I could not fail? List 20 ways you could stop Godzilla from destroying Tokyo.
Example: I read a New York Times article on global language death. I remembered that I have read several articles in library literature about MARC dying. MARC is that language the catalogers speak to each other and the catalog. Exposure to one idea enabled me to relate that to a work situation.
Step 2: Define the problem
Attack the wrong problem and you may not attain desired results. To get the right answer you need to ask the right question. Problems have two components a difficulty and an opportunity to improve.
- Prioritize. Where do you (or your department) want to be in 2 (or 5 or 10) years. What is preventing you from getting there? That is a problem. If there are other problems that do not impact on your goals they may be less important.
- Make sure it is the problem and not your perception of the problem.
- Get to the root problem by asking why?
- Break large problems into smaller parts.
- Research so you thoroughly understand the problem.
- Keep in mind that some things are best left unchanged. In my house I cannot be creative with dinner. Especially when other elements of life are stressful some old things should be dependably the same.
- Don’t try to attack too many problems simultaneously.
- Once you identify a problem, formulate a positive problem statement.
- Sample Problem: My job isn’t respected. Positive Problem Statement: In what ways could I bring positive publicity to my profession?
- Smaller chunk : How can I identify and publicize professional skills? What are additional nontraditional uses for metadata?
- Sample Problem: My job isn’t respected. Positive Problem Statement: In what ways could I bring positive publicity to my profession?
Example: If you had Rheumatoid Arthritis your first reaction could be emotional. The problem is not the disease but how we deal with the disease. Form a positive problem statement: In what ways could I improve my quality of life? What are specific actions I can take to help my joints? What are ways to have more enjoyable weekends?
Step 3: Idea generation
Once you have identified a problem, imagine and document as many different and varied solutions as possible. Do not make judgments. Go beyond the expected. Break thought patterns and challenge assumptions. I try to have a twenty idea minimum, but it depends on the situation.
- Write down the obvious normal answers first.
- Play what if I was Walt Disney or The Incredible Hulk, or Donald Trump. What would he/she/it do?
- Put your thinking in reverse. How could we make the problem worse?
- List your assumptions about this problem and consciously challenge them.
- Change your environment. Think outside or in a museum.
- Relate your problem to a random physical object or idea.
- Get someone else’s perspective.
Example: Problem statement: What are nontraditional ways to use library metadata?
I know online games are popular. I play them all the time. Could the library take advantage of that? Having just played Words with Friends, I think you could play a Scrabble-like game with metadata. Imagine that instead of letters you could draw subject heading subfields. Then you would create a subject heading out of the pieces you drew. The playing board would know what the correct order is and what is geographically subdividable.
How about playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with the Library catalog? Instead of paper it would say “Catalog card” It could also say “Rush flag” for paper. There are many kinds of paper in libraries. Instead of” rock” the catalog would say “withdrawn book” or “dead computer”. Scissors might have to remain scissors. Games would have a defined ending point when the Library catalog would play “Electronic Databases” which defeats everything else.
Can we play RDA (Resource Description and Access) Jeopardy? That would be a fun way to teach and train on rules changes. Note this idea is not a new way to use metadata but came in the flow of game ideas. I write it down and later move it to a different list. (I’ll take Manifestations for $500)
What if pieces of the MARC record resulted in certain musical notes being played. Subject headings could be trumpets. Main entries could be flutes. The note fields could be various percussion instruments. That way you could hear a MARC record. What if you could artistically express a MARC record? What if each field was a geometric shape? Or each field is a piece of a great painting? Then the catalog would be a museum.
What if RSS feeds allowed me to pick any metadata field and tell me anytime any resource was added anywhere with that chosen field. I could choose the subject heading Jazz and no matter what the metadata scheme used or where it is database it is in I would get a list of newly added resources.
I then become stuck. I ask myself what Donald Trump would do with metadata. He would say we have great metadata and need to advertise it. He would assign it as a task to his apprentices. Maybe he would bet on it. Is there any way to bet on metadata? He would want to have the best high-class metadata in the world. Donald Trump would say “We need to make it sexier or I’m going to have to fire it”. Great metadata needs a great system to exploit it and make it sexy. Ideas generated: Develop a way to bet on metadata. Develop extravagant metadata. How do we make metadata sexy?
Still stuck, I try reverse thinking. How could we make our metadata less useful? It could have only one field. It could not crosswalk anywhere and only be useful in one setting. It could be totally incorrect. It could not work with our search systems. It could have typos. This way of thinking indicates the factors that are important. To be useful to searchers the metadata needs to be of good quality. (Playing Rock, Paper Scissors with it does not require quality).
For more ideas I relate the problem to a physical object. How can metadata relate to Angry Birds? They travel in large flocks. Each individual bird has separate parts just like a bibliographic record. Sometimes birds work as egg layers. Hens live in big buildings, don’t have very fulfilling lives. The people who buy eggs never see where the eggs come from. Eggs are actually an ingredient in many foods yet the egg goes unnoticed. A bad egg can ruin a food and make many people ill. The public uses metadata every day and don’t think about where it comes from or under what conditions it was produced. Metadata is like an egg. We can use it by itself, but most often it is used as an ingredient in a more complicated dish. The trick is to identify the other ingredients and not simply try to feed people a raw egg.
Step 4: Creative idea evaluation
Play with all ideas. Think how an idea could be changed to work. Continue to defer judgment.
- Don’t throw the crazy ideas out immediately. See if there is a way to make them work or if they reveal something else.
- Sort and combine ideas. Ideas that might not work on their own might be merged
- Reverse brainstorm. Point out flaws in every idea so you know what they are.
- Identify criteria for success. If a solution does not meet criteria yet you feel bad crossing it off your list, pay attention and determine if the criteria need to be amended.
- What are possible positive and negative side effects? Create an advantages and disadvantages grid. Recognizing and positives and negatives will help in the implementation phase.
- Select the one that you feel best about and that you feel is most likely to succeed.
Example: Resources I need for research are being moved from the building where I work to a location across campus. Problem statement: In what way can I easily access resources I need? One of my crazier ideas was find a library near a beach with my research material. Upon deeper reflection this reveals that I would like to take a beach vacation. Perhaps not a permanent solution to this particular problem, but the desire should be acknowledged. There are good libraries by beaches. This combines with by wanting to have a higher quality of life. This solution might solve multiple problems. I like the idea.
Step 5: Solution implementation.
This is hardest step. Charles Kettering said “Action without intelligence is a form of insanity, but intelligence without action is the greatest form of stupidity (Thought of the day archives, 2002). “Success depends less on the ability to think of something and more on the ability to do something” (Olson, 1980, p. 191). Creative individuals need to expend effort and have high levels of persistence. Remember the story about Edison inventing the light bulb. He failed before he had success. Implementing a solution is very energy intensive.
- Be prepared to sell. Accompany ideas with a plan of how this would get done. If you need permission to act, you must convince others that this solution is worth pursuing. A good idea should be beneficial to everyone and meet everyone’s goals.
- Some institutions are interested in products not ideas. Make the proposal solid. Make sure your idea is a real thing.
- For an idea to have the greatest chance of success it should not be too expensive or too cheap. Not too simple and not too complicated.
- People will criticize. Some people are determined to criticize everything and anything. Expect it like rain or snow.
- Learn from failure.
- Celebrate small successes whenever and wherever they occur.
- Be ready to adapt the idea as needed. Evaluate as you go.
- Don’t seek perfection. Accept flaws and correct them as they are identified.
- Plan in small steps.
Example: I had the idea that a dying language may be similar to MARC which may or may not be dying. I looked at article submission guidelines and calls for articles. I researched and wrote a proposal. After proposal acceptance I wrote the article, submitted it, and rewrote following reviewer comments. Idea implementation required time and work. I keep an up to date list of good article ideas and work on them one at a time. Now that I have an established process, it is easier to follow through.
Confucius says “Habits take us where we were yesterday and attitude keeps us there” (Olson, 1980). Creativity changes our attitude. Some problems require immediate instinctive action, such as running away from the monster. This action does not permanently solve the problem. Creative problem is an active process. It is not possible to give this much attention to all problems, but as you start the process with one or two, multiple answers will appear even when you aren’t consciously looking for them.
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Qi. (2012, April 30). Retrieved May 10, 2012, from Wikipedia : The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qi
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Richard, R. (2007). Twelve Potential benefits of living more creatively. In R. Richards (Ed.), Everyday Creativity and new views of Human Nature Psychological, Social and Spiritual Perspectives (pp. 289-319). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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