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The Creative Path from Problem to Solution: Know Your Options

Einstein imagine

Engineering is a natural process for most of us. We are continually developing solutions to challenges that are framed by constraints and criteria. In our work with teachers, we often break the Engineering Design Process down into three phases

  1. Know Your Problem

  2. Know Your Options

  3. Develop a Solution

The more specific steps of the process fit into these phases and the non-technical nature of our description supports use across all subject areas and grade levels.

Engineering Design is somewhat of a well-choreographed journey in and out of convergent and divergent thinking. It challenges you to first think carefully about a problem or challenge and to map out all of the constraints and criteria that delimit a viable solution. This involves moving in and out of different reference frames, along with some degree of systems thinking. In a way it involves thinking big in order to create a more manageable design space. We explored the idea of truly knowing your problem in the first of this three-part series. Knowing your problem involves moving from a somewhat undefined divergent space into a space defined by the convergence of constraints and criteria.

 Phase one involves a lot of critical thinking. The second phase, knowing your options, is primarily about divergent thinking, creativity, and lateral thinking. And although it is a lot of fun, it may be a challenge for students used to the highly convergent (one approach, one right answer) world of traditional education. In this blog, we explore some ideas to help make Phase two productive.

This is what often gets called the brainstorming phase, but there is a lot more to it than the random production of ideas. Most teachers tell us that this is the most challenging phase to implement, so we have learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work. Let’s start with what to watch out for.

Top 3 Things to Avoid

  1. Convergent and conditional words and phrases. Jump in there as soon as your hear words and phrases like “but”, “if”, “it won’t work…”, “there is not enough ________ “. They should never be part of the conversation when all ideas should be on the table. Idea generation will shut down before it begins if you focus on the reasons why something won’t work. Words like “and” and “or” are far more divergent and idea-fostering. Listen to the conversation and stop any limiting language.

  2. Groupthink.  It’s a real thing and we have all seen or experienced it. Groupthink is defined as “a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people’s common sense desire to present alternatives” and it limits our ability to fully explore all options. We try to avoid it in both our teacher workshops and in classroom settings by allowing time for quiet, individual idea generation (brainwriting) before group brainstorming discussion. Our own experience as well as expert research indicate that this will help the group come up with more ideas. As a teacher, you need to be on alert for that group that has the problem solved before they begin – it almost always means groupthink is at work.

  3. Silence and order. Be prepared to intervene when the noise level in group sessions starts to go down. Change a constraint, eliminate obstacles, or create a new condition. What if money were no object?  What if you need to create shoes with more than one purpose?

 Here is a great example from Japanese art of

chindogu, or the creation of unuseless objects.  Using paradigm shifts to jumpstart stalled brainstorming sessions is a very effective technique. Some of the ideas below can help you get students to take a new approach.

Three Methods that Create Lots of Ideas

  1. Word Merge

This is based on the idea that we often innovate by combining actual objects or their attributes. Think of the smart phone (computer + phone + lots more) or luggage with wheels. There are many ways to do this but the simplest is to have students pick random words from a bag or box and then partner with each other to create new things.

Michael Michalko (author of Thinkertoys and other creativity books) calls a version of this idea One + One = One . His version might be fun to try in your classroom.



SCAMPER is a well-known acronym that is used to encourage different ways of thinking about a challenge or solution. It stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. The words are meant to prompt questions that make you shift your thinking. SCAMPER can be used in many ways. You can even facilitate a whole-class brainstorm by assigning different letters to different groups. SCAMPER is also a helpful means of providing prompts if idea generation slows down.

  1. Brainwriting

Brainwriting is used to describe several idea generation techniques, but in most cases it refers to having individuals create ideas before any group discussion takes place. It is an effective means of giving everyone a say and it limits the opportunity for groupthink. When we use it, we ask participants to spend a few minutes generating ideas without talking and to record each individual idea on a Post It. The group then gets together and shares their ideas. This process normally leads pretty naturally to the next phase (Developing a Solution). Most groups will begin to look for similarities and patterns as they compare individual ideas and they will begin to form a convergent consensus about what a potential solution might be.

Phase 2, which involves exploring all options, is often the part of the Engineering Design Process that teachers and students will skip or minimize. Many will go directly from problem to solution. But innovation is rarely found on such a straight path. If you really want to encourage creativity in your classroom, you need to give students time to generate and evaluate multiple options for solutions. In most real challenges, there is never one right answer. Generate lots of options and then encourage your students to settle on one to test and modify as they search for the optimal solution to meet the constraints and criteria. In Part 3 of this series, we will explore this third phase of the Engineering Design Process, Developing a Solution. This is a phase where students will need to move back to more convergent thinking, which can be a challenge once they have those creative juices flowing!

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