Creativity isn’t coming up with a great idea, it is solving the right problem

Albert Einstein was once asked, “If some imminent disaster threatened the world and you had one hour in which you knew you could save it, how would you spend your time?”

Einstein replied, “I would spend the first 55 minutes identifying the problem and the last five minutes solving it. For the formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

Most people believe that creativity is coming up with a great idea. Not so. The key to creativity is solving the right problem. See, the source of a problem is usually different than it seems. And the fact is, it does absolutely no good to generate ideas for solving the wrong issue. 

We have been taught that the initial impression or definition of a problem is the real problem. We have good reason for this — schools already set up the problems for us. 2+2=4. What is the capital of Poland? Warsaw. But to increase your likelihood of creating a breakthrough idea, it’s crucial to challenge your impression of what you think is the problem.  To do this you’ll generate questions; questions that challenge your initial definition of the problem. Because the language you use to describe a problem is going to dictate the kinds of solutions you generate. 

Let’s say you are doing a Google search. What is the most important thing to do? Ask a good question. But for the purposes of identifying the real problem, you’ll need a creative question. 

A creative question puts forth what you want to create. Not what you want to avoid. For example, “We don’t have enough money.” Good or bad question? Answer: Bad question. In fact, it’s a statement. When you hear that statement, your brain says, “OK, we don’t have any money.” Decision made. Move on.

Let’s try a different approach. “How might we raise the money for this project?” OR “How might we reduce the cost of this project?”Good and creative questions. 

Questions framed in this way provoke your mind to search for solutions. They tell your brain. “Let’s go find some answers. And because we are using the word ‘might,’ these can be any answers. We haven’t made any decisions yet. Look for options.”

The problem we see is the problem we solve. Invest the time identifying the true problem. Generate ideas only after you have clearly identified the best problem.

The time you spend identifying the “real” problem prevents you from generating ideas that are off target and action plans that have no traction.

Dr. Roger Firestien has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world. Roger is senior faculty at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State and president of Innovation Resources, Inc. He has written six books on innovation. His latest book, Create in A Flash:  A leader’s recipe for breakthrough innovation is available through Amazon or at

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