Creating more Disruptive Innovation by Leveraging Creative Problem Solving

Industries are increasingly recognising the importance of going beyond incremental innovation and trying to create a disruptive innovation program. Yet, when I researched the disruptive innovation methodologies, I found no overt link to Creative Problem Solving process, which is obviously a key component of all innovation. It was either inferred in the process or only addressed as part of the behaviours.

Creative Problem Solving is a process and methodology that can be taught and needs to be built into the disruptive innovation process – instead of assuming or inferring that it will be. To resolve this, I have outlined a disruptive innovation process incorporating the 4 Ps of Creativity (Mel Rhodes): Person, Process, Product and Press (environment). This article focuses on the Person.

 What is Dreakthrough Innovation?

Disruptive innovation is the creation of products, processes or business models that create new categories or even new industries as they fulfil untapped consumer needs. They typically challenge the status quo and make current products or competitors either outdated or irrelevant.

Whilst disruptive innovation can provide new pathways to growth, it is often seen as a threat in organisations because it takes resources from established parts of the firm to pursue opportunities that are risky, uncertain and not aligned to the business’ core competencies (and instead is aligned to its future desired competencies often three to four years out). If companies are serious about disruptive innovation, they must develop the capability for it, appropriately resource and then protect the function. Otherwise, the natural resistance to disruptive innovation will kill it.

Historical Approaches to Disruptive Innovation

Companies have experimented with creating a disruptive innovation process with none having found the silver bullet.  As Table 1 shows, there has been some key learnings from the approaches that have been tried in the past.

Approaches to Breakthrough Innovation Table 1

Method Name Description Key Learnings


Being an entrepreneur in the company


Relies too much on the individual




Small work groups separated from the mainstream organisation


Designed for individual projects, but not for developing a pipeline of disruptive innovation


Corporate Venturing


A firm takes an equity stake in a specialist firm with the objective to gain a specific competitive advantage


Successful financially but didn’t renew the core business, instead provided an alternative revenue stream


Internal Corporate Venturing


Divisions within the company created to innovate in projects that didn’t fit the current business model


Many disbanded as they weren’t seen as delivering new revenues in a timely fashion


What Disruptive Innovation Requires to Thrive  

It takes time, investment and senior organisational support to create a portfolio of disruptive innovation opportunities that can be nurtured to yield commercial returns.

For long-term stability disruptive innovation cannot be the latest fashion as it will always be vulnerable to the next direction of the firm. Instead, it needs to be entrenched in the organisation and treated as seriously as other functions like marketing and finance. However, due to its nascent qualities, it does need senior protection as it requires a longer timeframe in order to bear fruit.

What organisations have done in the past (Table 1) is experimented with different disruptive innovation functions. I am suggesting a process that companies can adopt as they will be able to scale it up or down. This process is linked to the Creative Problem Solving process, as creativity is critical to delivering innovation.


The Difference between Creativity and Innovation

Creative Problem Solving is a critical part of innovation, but people often aren’t clear of the distinct differences between the two.  A definition to use is Theodore Levitt’s classic definition of creativity and innovation: “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” Creativity is a meta model of innovation. Without it, you cannot have innovation.

The 4Ps of Creativity: Requirement for Disruptive innovation

In order for a disruptive innovation function to thrive, it is critical that the Four Ps of Creativity are addressed: Person, Process, Product and Press (environment).  The 4Ps represent the nature of creative Persons, the Processes they use, the Products or outcome of their efforts (innovation), and the Press, or environment that supports creativity (Mel Rhodes1961) and is the basis of the disruptive innovation model.

Deliberate Creativity

Some people believe that there are those who are born creative while others are not.  However, research has proven this assertion to be wrong.  Deliberate creativity can be taught. The idea that it can be taught is a recent phenomenon with the first approaches originating between fifty and seventy years ago by Alex Osborn, which forms the backbone of most of the teachings today.

If creativity is not a genetic endowment, what distinguishes individuals who are better at it and how can they be identified to work on disruptive innovation?

Person: The Disruptive Innovation Innovator Profile

To create a disruptive innovation function, you need to find the right people to be on the team – the Person of the 4Ps of Creativity. Research done by Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen identified five discovery skills that disruptive innovators. Most importantly, they are good at “associational thinking.”  They define associational thinking “as the way the brain processes information through integrating patterns, seeing contextual relationships and connecting seemingly unrelated elements to create new ideas with an idea being a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.”

The other four discovery skills are triggers to associational thinking.  Specifically, disruptive innovators engage in the following behavioural skills more frequently:

  • Questioning: Disruptive innovators show a passion for inquiry with their inquiries frequently challenging the status quo.

  • Observing: They carefully watch the world around them for insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things.

  • Networking: Disruptive innovators do more than spend time testing their ideas through a wide network. They actively search for new ideas by seeking out people who have radically different views. They go beyond talking to people in analogous categories and instead search out people who are changing the status quo, regardless of their industry, and use them as a source of inspiration.

  • Experimenting: Finally, disruptive innovators are constantly experimenting. They are not hampered by fear of failure and are instead driven by the thrill of discovery.  To quote Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Collectively, these five discovery skills form the ideal profile of a disruptive innovator. How well do you stack up?

Creativity+ Rewiring Your Brain for Creativity Workshop

A short video of the Creativity+ Rewiring Your Brain for Creativity workshop on the 1 June 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was part of Vivid Sydney the world’s largest light festival that celebrates the intersection of creativity and technology. The event was sold out.

The Workshop Overview: Creativity+ Rewiring Your Brain for Creativity

Creativity+ Rewiring Your Brain for Creativity is an experiential workshop of discovery and exploration. You will learn techniques that will tickle and tease your imagination. Ignite your inner innovator and leave inspired to share your insights.

Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself creative. Your creative self is your best self and it’s time to get reacquainted. Find out how to value your talents and how to inspire ingenuity in those around you – at work and play.

Grounded in neuroscience, reflective of our culture and based on over 50 years of study, this interactive workshop will give you skills you can apply to improve your life.

Join us for this mind-bending three hour adventure in which you’ll:

  • Demystify the creative process
  • Awaken your creative self
  • Alter forever how you see your world.
Comments: Creativity+ Rewiring Your Brain for Creativity
  • “Great energy because the premise of the class is honesty. The activities, tasks and processes were all useful and valuable for the class.”

  • “Loved the group activities and the workshop environment helps to get me out of my comfort zone and share experiences and collaborate.”

  • “Exercises were wonderful. I got so much out of them.”

  • “A terrific experience – Paulina has great energy.”

  • “I had some true breakthroughs and insights.”

  • “This really helped me solved some problems I was working on.”

  • “Absolutely loved the course.”

  • “Great delivery, simple and interesting.”

  • “Paulina is fantastic. A bit more theory and drawing on her immense experience would be wonderful.”

  • “Brilliant class.”

  • “Great class. Great examples. Really fun group of people. Loved the real workshop format. Great at creating energy for the end of the week bump!”

  • “Paulina was a really motivating, encouraging teacher. I’m going to use these lessons a lot and I am really grateful to have come. Thanks!”

  • “Thanks for an inspiring afternoon!”

  • “Fantastic and thank you!”

  • “The world needs more teaching like this. Thank you”

Create a Culture of Innovation with Creative Problem Solving

The World Economic Forum’s the Future of Jobs Report moved creativity in 2020 to the #3 list of skills you need to thrive at work (up from the 10th place in 2015). The reason is without creativity you cannot create a culture of innovation. Creativity is the catalyst to innovation. However, it is useful to distinguish between creativity and Creative Problem Solving. The former is an act of creation focused on the generation of new ideas.

The latter, Creative Problem Solving, is the science of creativity which is backed by over 50 years of research into our natural creative processes. It goes well beyond the production of novel ideas. It takes into account the affective (emotional) and the cognitive (thinking) skills. It also covers the full gamut of the creative process from dreaming of a better way of doing things through to implementing an innovation. That’s why Creative Problem Solving creates a culture of innovation.

Viewed this way, 60 percent of the skills listed on the World Economic Forum’s report are Creative Problem Solving competencies, including Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Emotional Intelligence, Cognitive Flexibility and Judgement and Decision Making. It is critical to creating a culture of innovation.

Creative leaders are not the same as ideas people

Another report, IBM’s global survey of 1,200 CEOs in 2010 found that Creative Leadership was the #1 competency CEOs needed to future-proof their business. They are not looking for creatives — people who are responsible for generating ideas. Instead, they are looking for Creative Problem Solving leaders. They guide teams to resolve complex, ambiguous problems by asking better questions and resisting the temptation to rush to judgement. They also cultivate the creative talents of everyone in the organisation, regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy. They are key to creating a culture of innovation.

What’s needed is training in Creative Problem Solving

Despite the broad agreement that Creative Problem Solving is a critical skill, most organisations do not invest in training their people in it. If there is any training in this area, it is usually in innovation processes like Design or Lean Thinking or Agile, failing to appreciate that Creative Problem Solving is the catalyst for innovation. Without Creative Problem Solving you cannot create a culture of innovation. In the innovation methodologies, you will find creativity relegated to the ideation phase — while the power of the Creative Problem Solving model is that it provides the mindset and the tools you need at every stage of the innovation process. Creative Problem Solving ensures you generate better ideas, avoid premature judgement and manage stakeholders better to improve the chances of your innovation succeeding. All of these are required to create a culture of innovation.

Creative Problem Solving Drives Productivity

Businesses also have a concern that if you encourage creativity in the organisation, you will lower productivity. Theresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, said, “Creativity is undermined unintentionally every day in work environments that were established — for entirely good reasons — to maximise business imperatives such as coordination, productivity, and control.” No wonder that Adobe’s State of Create 2016 report found that 80% of American and British workers feel pressured into being productive rather than creative. Sadly, these types of environments cannot create a culture of innovation.

Create a Culture of Innovation with Creative Problem Solving

While creative thinking skills are in demand, most organisations are not clear how to cultivate it. To permeate creative thinking throughout an organisation, we also need a more sophisticated understanding of leadership, specifically creative leadership. As Theresa Amabile said, “One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.”

Outdated leadership models think in terms of leaders and followers. Creative leadership is less about leading and more about creating an environment where everyone — not just management — are empowered to use their creative thinking skills to improve the organisation. It doesn’t mean that everyone is generating ideas, rather that everyone is empowered to ask, is there a better way and are personally accountable for implementing solutions that improve the workplace. This is why productivity and Creative Problem Solving amplify each other and drive a culture of innovation.

Creative leadership has a lot in common with transformational leadership. Transformational leadership is about changing and transforming people, which is also the remit of creative leaders. Why creative leadership is more powerful is it has a proven methodology and process for how to become a change agent to create a culture of innovation.

A Case Study of the Transformational Power of Creative Problem Solving

n 2013, when I was working as the head of Creativity and Innovation at Pernod Ricard Winemakers and studying for my Master of Science in Creativity and Change Leadership, I spearheaded a pilot for a creative leadership school which we called the TH!NK Creative Leadership Lab (TH!NK). The pilot was so successful that it became an annual program that ran for the four years while I remained with the business before founding my creative training and innovation constancy agency.

Annually, 25 of our senior leaders in the Asia Pacific region were trained in the mindset, toolset and skillsets required for Creative Problem Solving. TH!NK addressed personal and professional transformation and all the training was applied to real-life problems in the business generating innovation as an output.

TH!NK was a key pillar in a series of initiatives to integrate creativity at every level of the business to achieve the company’s goal of being an industry leader in innovation. While its output was innovation, its purpose was to create enduring cultural change by transforming people from managers to creative leaders who, in turn, can build creative teams. This results in a more innovative and dynamic company where everyone is responsible for driving innovation. By giving our people the skills they needed to ask better questions, they were personally invested in creating initiatives to increase operational efficiency, provide better customer experiences, drive business growth and, in the process, foster a culture of creativity and innovation.

The Results

Some quotes from participants are:

“Th!nk allowed us to unlock a complex business issue we had been tackling for some time. Really showed the power of creativity and what you get thinking differently.” Customer Marketing Manager

“I have always thought I wasn’t creative, but I have completely changed my mind and now have a new view on my potential. Th!nk also gave us time to focus on a valid business challenge in a new creative way.” Corporate Finance Manager

“From the first day there were tools that could be easily implemented into day to day business. I found myself challenging those around me… Saying, “How might we make this work?” Strategy Development Manager

At the end of each year’s TH!NK Creative Leadership Lab program we had ready to implement plans for their business challenges resulting in innovation in the areas of customer service, improving culture, operational efficiency and marketing. In 2014, the company was featured in BRW Australia’s Most Innovative Companies list.

If you are interested in creating a working environment in which critical thinking, new ideas, and creative solutions can flow unencumbered, then invest in Creative Problem Solving training. Innovation process training will make your innovations better, while Creative Problem Solving training will do that and transform your company culture.

As Tom Kelley of IDEO says in his book, Creative Confidence, “If you acknowledge that creative thoughts are the engine that drives innovation, suddenly creativity becomes really important.” There is nothing more satisfying than watching your people fulfil the human need to create and have their creative contributions benefit the organisation and its customers.


To learn more about Creative Problem Solving see this blog I posted previously

Want to know how to be more creative? Apply these Three Tips

How to be more creative Tip 1: Learn to defer judgment

Want to learn how to be more creative? Learn how to postpone your rush to judgement.  The brain is trained to think of the world in dualities like black and white, right or wrong, yes or no. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have survived as a species. But the thinking that kept us safe in the jungle isn’t the same as the thinking we need to be more creative.

Alex Osborn, the “O” in BBDO you might know from the TV series, Mad Men, pioneered the early thinking around brainstorming and its key tenet of deferring judgment.  It means ignoring your first thoughts of “how might this not work” when you hear a new idea and instead entertaining the thought of “how might we make this work?”

The surprising thing about deferring judgment is it is much easier to do on other people’s ideas than your own.

We are constantly battling our self-talk, which can include unproductive thoughts like “how can I be so stupid,” or “this will never work” or “what a bad idea, I better not say it.” One of the easiest ways to silence the doubts is to learn how to laugh at them.

When you are laughing, you are your best self, naturally. You are free, you aren’t worried what the world is thinking about, and you are entirely in the present moment. When you want to generate a lot of great new ideas, create an environment that encourages laughter and join right in. You’ll find the ideas will flow. This is one of the easiest ways to be more creative.

How to be more creative Tip 2: Reverse your assumptions

Another tip is how to be more creative is learn how to question your assumptions. Ever come across a lateral thinking puzzle and struggled to see the answer? For example, a man marries twenty women in his village but isn’t a polygamist. How did he do it? He’s a pastor.

The reason that was hard to solve was that you were held firmly in the grip of your assumptions and beliefs about how the world. A man who marries must be a husband until you were forced to challenge that belief – if he wasn’t a husband then what could he be – and then the answer comes quickly.

Challenging your assumptions about a creative challenge works much the same way. You can do it on a piece of paper at your desk. On one side write down all your beliefs or “rules” about a problem and then on the other side of the paper one by one – challenge them.

You will quickly begin to see new possibilities and how many ways there are to solve it, becoming instantly unstuck.

How to be more creative Tip 3: Make time for incubation

My last tip to increase your creativity is – don’t be afraid to be kind to yourself and take breaks. In fact, use the breaks as an opportunity to “get away from yourself.”

The easiest way is to go for a walk outside, with the added benefit of getting some exercise. Take time to observe the world around you and let your mind drift away from the problem. At worst, you’ll come back feeling energised and refreshed. At best, don’t be surprised if you have an “ah-ha” moment and get a sudden flash of insight into your problem.

These three simple techniques are brilliant and will help you to be more creative and don’t take any specialised training or tools. They require a mindset of openness to seeing the world differently. When you do that, you will not only be more creative, but you will be at your best.How to be more creative Tip 1: Learn to defer judgment


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