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4 ways to become a creative problem-solver

Ulli Appelbaum offers four simple ways you can overcome mental biases and become a better creative problem solver.

6 min read

MarketingMarketing Strategy

4 ways to become a creative problem-solver

mohamed Hassan / Pixabay

Creativity and creative problem-solving are highly valued and sought-after skills, especially in the world of business and marketing.

In fact, new ideas – the outcome of creative problem-solving – typically lead to innovation and breakthrough brand and communication ideas and ultimately to brand and business growth.  

Unfortunately, our brains are not wired to be innovative and creative and to explore the world of the unfamiliar. Instead, our brains like the familiar. 

So, what prevents us from thinking creatively and coming up with truly new ideas to solve our business problems or brand positioning assignments? The answer is our biases. 

How biases influence marketing decisions 

1.) Personal biases

First, there are our own personal biases and thought patterns which are based on our experience, on the ways we’ve been taught to analyze information, on our beliefs and our value system. 

The list of personal biases that affect our ability to absorb and select information and turn this information into truly novel ideas is long. Most readers will, for example, be familiar with “confirmation bias” (the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions). Or will have experienced the “conformity bias” (the tendency to give an opinion that is more socially correct than one’s true opinion, so as to avoid offending anyone). The list goes on and on and I am sure we have all witnessed these biases in our work environments.

2.) Corporate biases

Beyond those personal biases, corporate biases involuntarily stifle the creative problem-solving ability of an organization. In fact, many organizations have a way of doing things, a certain understanding of how their business works, a certain set of practices, behaviors and beliefs about how to build their brands. 

These biases are usually the outcome of years of experience in building their business and typically have some legitimacy. But that doesn’t mean that those beliefs, practices and behaviors are a guarantee for success in the future. These corporate biases taint the thought processes of the individuals within the organization and tend to limit the creative problem-solving skills of employees. This leads to a predictable outcome, one which is deemed acceptable within the organization.

3.) Cultural biases

Last but not least, there are what I would call cultural biases where we project the value system and beliefs of the culture we live in (or embrace) and apply it to the type of solutions we are trying to identify for the brands we work on. I would argue, for example, that the obsession with “brand purpose” is in most cases a cultural phenomenon and bias rather than the outcome of a rigorous process. 

Many marketers and strategists, especially the younger ones, crave more meaning in their lives and the desire to do some good, so they tend to project these desires onto their work.

These three biases and patterns help us manage life’s complexity and fit into our environment. But, they are not useful when trying to think creatively and come up with truly original solutions. 

4 creativity techniques to overcome mental biases 

Overcoming a mental bias in the business world when trying to solve a problem is actually not that difficult. Below are four exercises that can help you do so. Which exercise will work best for you and your organization will vary, so I would encourage you to experiment and find out what works for you and the group you are working with.    

How would “XYZ,” a businessman you admire, approach this exercise? 

The idea is to get the group to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and thus get out of their own mental blocks. I typically start by asking the group to make a list of all the business people they admire. Note: I don’t allow them to choose Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Elon Musk.

I then ask them to select their top two most admired ones. I then ask the group to list all the things they admire about these business people. Once that is done, I ask them how their chosen businessman or woman would solve this exercise.

Do a negative brainstorm

It is sometimes easier to harvest the negative energy of a group rather than its positive energy. Try doing the exact opposite in your exercise. Instead of asking what are the attributes of the brand, ask instead what is the brand not? If the original question is “how can we associate ourselves with and become part of today’s prevailing mommy culture?” for example, ask instead “what should we do to be excluded by today’s moms?” 

Once you have generated a list of negative ideas, go through each generated item with the group and have them list the opposites. You’ll be surprised by how many rich ideas a negative brainstorm can harvest. 


Another way to get the group going is to ask them to start generating ideas on their own and in silence by writing at least 10 ideas on a piece of paper. It helps to put a time limit on this exercise. 

Once this step is completed, ask the participants to pass their list of ideas to their neighbor on the left and take the sheet from their neighbor on the right. Ask them then to get inspired by what their neighbor wrote and have them add 10 new ideas to that list. 

Do this another couple of times by passing the lists around and you’ve harvested hundreds of ideas from an uninspired or less than collaborative group. 


You can also increase the energy level and productivity level by limiting the time available for each exercise. It is deceptively simple but amazingly effective. There are many more exercises you can apply but those four are simple enough, always work, and can easily be applied to the territories.


Ulli Appelbaum is the founder of Minneapolis-based brand research and strategy firm First-The-Trousers-Then-The-Shoes-Inc. The column above is based on portions of his book, “The Brand Positioning Workbook: A simple How-To Guide To More Compelling Brand Positionings, Faster,” available everywhere Amazon sells books. You can find him on LinkedIn.


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