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Career Tips

Creating creative solutions

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
June 6, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 20


A group of people doing problem-solving around a table.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

If there is one thing we have had plenty of over the last couple of years, it is new and unusual problems. While we have all by necessity become experts at pivoting and virtualizing, our inventiveness may be stretched a bit thin. So when your team has a difficult problem to solve, here are some tips that can help you become more creative when searching for solutions.

Get together. Now that restrictions are being lifted in many places, getting the group together in person is again an option—and is usually the better one for collaborating when the goal is generating multiple solutions. In fact, virtual environments have been shown to inhibit the production of creative ideas. It is much easier for team members to be comfortable and share unusual ideas when they are actually in the same room and can read body language rather than just interact with a 2D head in a small box on a screen.

Concentrate on quantity. In the initial stages, keep the group focused on generating as many solutions as possible, and refrain from evaluating their quality. When someone proposes an idea, don’t let them just blurt out a few words; ask them to explain what that solution would look like. Members should be encouraged to share any idea that comes to mind, to build on others’ suggestions, to avoid criticizing, and, most notably, to strive for quantity instead of quality. Pick a large number and get the group to agree that they will come up with, for example, 50 solutions, no matter how impractical or ridiculous. Research has shown that emphasizing quantity leads to more good ideas (J. Creative Behav. 2011, DOI: 10.1002/j.2162-6057.2011.tb01083.x). Make sure to solicit input from those who aren’t speaking.

Build trust. The group will feel freer to share less well-formed ideas if they trust one another. Everyone wants their ideas to be accepted without ridicule. One way to build trust and acceptance is to start by asking if anyone wants to share a time in the past few months when they felt embarrassed. Of course, you need to make sure that the stories that are shared are appropriate for work and only mildly embarrassing. As the leader, you may want to be the first to share your own example.

Change point of view. When the group starts losing steam, try restating the problem in a different way to encourage more answers. Maybe the group can look at it from the point of view of the customer, the salesperson, or other stakeholders. What solutions would they like to see?

Prioritize. Only once you have your long list of potential solutions is it time to start evaluating them. At this stage, videoconferencing can be just as effective as in-person sessions (Nature 2022, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04643-y). The team will need to assess the effectiveness, cost, and short- and long-term consequences of each action, then determine which to pursue.

The world is full of problems, and some of them will become yours to solve. By using effective techniques to get the best possible solutions from your team, you will be well on your way to conquering them.

Get Involved in the Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to


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