Designers are often asked to “solve a problem” that exists. These problems need to be fixed because people are unhappy about something that’s either happening or not happening—there’s a perceived need. It’s commonly understood in the business environment that “design” is a solution to a problem. That other kind of design activity—creating—is reserved for interior decorators and artists and is more easily recognized in reception areas than in the cubicles and offices where people do their work.

What does a problem look like?

Company X has a problem. Upset customers have lodged dozens of complaints about rude and unhelpful customer service representatives. The manager of this group of employees is convinced the problem can be solved by better training. She convinces her supervisor that the CSRs need training designed to solve their problem. The supervisor agrees to find a solution.

What does a solution look like?

Company X CSRs are put through a 2-day training program. They’re told that customer surveys will be used for 30 days following their training to collect data that will verify the effect of training.

What is the outcome?

Customer surveys do indicate that the problem—irate customers—is less intense. Complaints against the CSRs drop by 50 percent and the supervisor’s successful handling of the problem is recognized during a meeting the following month.

Then, within a matter of four months, the 50 percent drop in complaints disappears. What happened?

According to Robert Fritz, who worked with Peter Senge and then went on to found DMA and develop the Technologies for Creating curriculum, the following happened: “The problem led to action to solve the problem. The action lessened the problem. Less action was needed to solve the problem. Less attention was given to the problem, and the problem resurfaced. Problem solving,” Fritz explains, “provides a way to organize our focus, actions, time, and thought process. Designing solutions to problems gives the sense that something important is being done.”

He adds, “…it’s an illusion.”

What’s the alternative if designing solutions to problems doesn’t work?


Creating and problem solving involve very different states of mind. Creativity activates positive thoughts while problem solving is focused on what is negative. Creating is forward focused; it’s building toward the future. Problem solving is focused on the past; it’s resisting what has been.

What does creating look like?

Fritz has identified five steps in the creative process, which are types of action (not a formula). These steps are:

  1. Conceive of the result you want to create. Creators start at the end by knowing what they want to create.
  2. Know what currently exists. If you don’t know what has already been created, it’s impossible to know what to do next.
  3. Take action. When you know what you want and what you currently have, take action. Creating is a learning process, so every action may not work. When actions don’t work, readjust.
  4. Learn the rhythms of the creative process. There are three phases: germination, assimilation, and completion.
  5. Create momentum. Professional creators create momentum. The seeds of their next action are planted and germinate in their present actions.

Notice that the word “problem” is not present in these five steps. The tone is positive and growth oriented.

What do you think could happen at Company X if customer complaints were approached from a creative rather than a problem-solving mindset?

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