A Partial Taxonomy of All Possible Methods for Solving Problems

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

Winsights No. 6 (18 May 1997)


Our whole method and system and theory first began to evolve soon after I first came into the literature on creativity, in 1967 while I was still serving full-time as a college teacher. My one real contribution was his asking the proposition: if you have a good method for solving problems, one of that method’s best uses is on the problem of how to create better methods for solving problems. One of their best uses is on the problem of how to create even better such methods…..

We in Project Renaissance have developed at least 40 “Toolbuilder” procedures by means of which to discover yet other and better procedures. You can make last week’s column, “Over-the-Wall” into a “Toolbuilder” with this simple method. Have on display, in the “Answer-Space” on the far side of that garden wall, a highly advanced future civilization where everyone is a solution-finder par excellence. Far beyond anything seen here on our own Earth. Just beyond this point of the wall, let there be whatever it is that’s made that civilization a population of ingenious problem-solvers. Let yourself be surprised by what you see there….

When hundreds of methods now exist in the art and science of creativity and effective problem-solving, we may need a map to find our way. Creating a “taxonomy” can provide us some sense of order and relationship among such methods.

Advantages of a taxonomy

Such advantages are essentially the same as those of the periodic table of the elements in chemistry. Grouping specific elements into more general categories is conceptually easier. It brings into view regularities which in turn suggest potentially useful models and theories.

Please note also the general principle that no categorical system is “right” or “wrong” (except for needing to be reasonably consistent), so much as it is more or less USEFUL for the purposes to which you put it.

This present draft outline is an initial cut only. In no way is it to be regarded as an authoritative taxonomy. It badly needs extensive criticizing, revision, and testing. We hope this present draft stimulates creation of alternative models, comparison of which will lead toward an authoritative (or at least generally useful) taxonomy.

All of the great minds of the past had hit into only one or a very few such methods as basis for their successes. YOU now have all these available to you! Many of the methods listed are self-evident from their descriptions, and so their inclusion here provides you with a wider working toolkit of methods.

Each category or sub-category below contains one or several specific techniques. Some of the more successful techniques involve more than one category.

Sector One

Based on resources within the problem solver him/herself, and generally techniques through which to bring subtle perceptions conscious:

A. Particular Ways to solve particular problems

Ways to extend or leverage perception and/or to see beyond the inbuilt, reflexive internal censor, “editor,” or inhibitive judgmental factor–

1. Some of these particular methods are based upon speed. Go faster than judgement. Examples–

a. “Brainstorming,” whose effectiveness is a function of how rapidly one can force a series of multiple responses within a context. (Previously, “brainstorming’s” effectiveness was thought to be a matter of “suspending judgement.” However, the difficulty of truly suspending one’s own judgement, and the higher effectiveness of “brainstorming” the smaller the group where each participant is forced into a more rapid series of responses, demonstrate that speed is the main basis for effectiveness here.)

b. Other rapid-flow expressive procedures, such as rapid-flow free association techniques, rapid-flow methods for describing ongoing phenomena, “Improvitaping” in music and “doodle build-up” in art: many other procedures which force a sustained rapid flow of expressive multiple responses.

c. Forced fast-answer, fast response techniques a la flashcard or tachistoscope.

2. Disengaging judgement (if not entirely suspending it as in # 1.a parentheses above). Trust that good answers WILL emerge if one just keeps pumping away with responses without paying too much attention to judgement until afterward. Some other judgement-disengaging techniques have been practiced by creative geniuses throughout history, from long before there emerged the present deliberate art and science of creativity:

a. “Sleep on it,” incubation, dreaming, various techniques for relaxing, for distracting, or displacing judgmental attention.

b. Psychological techniques for changing values behind the judgmental process.

c. Suspend bases for judging: take advantage of differing levels of sensitivity in brain and mind functions to “conceal questions” from the loud conscious, verbal-focussed, judgmental mind until subtler responses have been read from the visualizing unconscious mind in answer, or from physiological responses of the body as monitored by EMG, polygraph, Whetstone Bridge, PSE, EEG, SGR or other biofeedback-type equipment.

3. Transfer the terms of the problem to a non-judgmental medium. This usually means some form of work with analogy and/or in artistic self-expression.

a. Einsteinian “mind-game,” as featured in Synectics, to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”

b. Describe sensory or imagined sensory experience, usually rapid-flow (see # 1 above), in a contextual “neutral zone warmup” such as the garden in “Over-the-Wall” (next chapter), while beyond a barrier of some sort rests the answer-space. Surprise at the contents of the answer space is seen as indicator that fresh input has been discovered from beyond where we do our conscious thinking, judgmental censoring, and mulling-over of what we “know.”

c. Psychological (mainly Psychosynthesis, Psychegenics, and “Borrowed Genius” procedures from Project Renaissance) methods to externalize the seeming source of the information to beyond oneself, and thus from beyond the seat of the internal inhibitory judge. Van Oech’s use of roles or “hats” fits here and, in view of a parallel dynamic for accelerated learning in Suggestopedia, might well be expanded upon to greater effect.

4. Methods to Force a Way Past The Censor–

a. Random forced relationships for fresh perspective and generation of ideas, as in deBono’s “Provocative Operation” (P.O.) relating random dictionary words to the problem in search of possible solutions.

b. By some form of formula process – stochastics, Edisonian “process of elimination,” “scientific method,” some elements of Synectics and of modern Osborn-Parnes method as per Creative Education Foundation, etc. Quantification routines.

c. By pursuing formula theory: prediction and testing (as per “scientific method,” above); inductive and deductive reasoning from formulas ranging from rigidly fixed ideas to various social and behavioral theories, physics and math. In this category we found it instructive in issues of social concern to introduce incentive theory as an analytic and solution-generating system, together with equilibrium theory and general systems theory – not only in Chapter Ten above, but much more so in Incentives book (INCENTIVES AS A PREFERRED INSTRUMENT OF CORPORATE & PUBLIC POLICY. 2nd Edition, 1995, Project Renaissance). Long-lasting major societal problems are a complexly homeostatic, equilibrated system: analyze the incentives acting upon those who affect or who could affect the problem; solve(?) the problem by modifying some of those incentives to redefine equilibrium.

d. Categorizing and sorting – most effective if this is done rapidly and in various quickly recorded forms, to capture some of the same dynamics as “brainstorming.” Tony Buzan’s “Mind-Mapping” technique, derived in part from systems analysis (which also serves as a way to force relationships to generate ideas — see # 4.c. just above). This draft taxonomy itself is partially an example.

B. Ways to Generally Nurture a High State of Personal Creativity:

1. Especially important: exercise and build observational skills. The “serendipity” discussions in creativity-related literature are in substantial error. Everyone, sooner or later and often, is “in the right place at the right time” but as Churchill observed, most walk away from it. Only those who practice observation and/or are observant, generally, will notice and make the discovery. The rest of us trudge numbly on and wonder why life passed us by.

a. Nurture practices and environments associated with high creativity. These were categorized extensively by Dr. John Curtis Gowan. Bring such an environment around with you by carrying around and constantly using notepad or pocket recorder. Create an aesthetically rewarding “special haven” to work in. Meditate or frequently resort to art. Other examples.

b. Reinforce creative and solution-finding behavior – in yourself; mutually among friends, associates or co-workers; in groups.

c. Clean “noise” or disorder from internal “channels.” Blow them away in intense work-bursts, or drain them away by meditation, the arts, breathing methods, gardening, various other “incubation” techniques.

d. Improve attitudes – especially self-esteem.

e. Sustain or build physical health & stamina to see matters through to an implemented solution.

Sector Two

–obtaining solutions from resources external to the problem-solver:

A. “Serendipity”

An elaborate word for “luck.” This factor is far slighter than the creativity literature suggests. “Many men,” said Winston Churchill while language was still male-bound, “stumble over discoveries. Most of them pick themselves up and walk away.” In truth, everyone is often in the right place at the right time, but very few have practiced enough observation to notice it when it happens. Fleming’s penicillin antibiotic response was apologetically shrugged off by at least 27 previous researchers in print (and Fleming himself got around to examining the odd effect only after 15 years, at the urging of a student who didn’t know any better!). Reportedly, the breakthrough on discovering a plasma test for effects of Dioxin (Agent Orange) was made by similar “accident” at the Center for Communicable Diseases in Atlanta, Georgia. Reportedly one of the research team, who liked to hunt, noticed how clean his bullets were. Investigating how and why, led to a new method of hyper-cleaning the parts to a mass spectrometer, using ammunition casing brass and dried corn cobs. The extra cleanliness, in turn, enabled the mass spectrometer to operate far more sensitively, a discovery ranging far beyond the Dioxin project.

Similarly, tens of thousands of researchers, teachers and students have had the same experience as did Dr. Michael Zaslov in his 1987 discovery of a new antibiotic at the National Institutes of Health, as reported by A.P. in most major newspapers. His case, too, will no doubt be cited in the literature as “another instance of Serendipity.” But being observant was the critical variable here, not luck. Millions have partially dissected frogs, then returned them still living to their highly septic medium overnight, and gone on with them the next morning, and thought nothing of the fact that they were still alive and uninfected. Millions with that experience, and only one Michael Zaslov.

The most potent technique presently known for building powers of observation is the simple practice of Image Streaming, as taught earlier in this book.

B. External Expertise. Today this strategy is relatively overinvested, but can still often be useful, not least of all because the outsider has not yet learned all the places where s/he should not look, and moreover has not yet neuronally habituated on the matter in question. Thus, we (I emphasize the “we” – that includes you) can often solve one another’s problems more easily than we can our own.

1. “Library research,” data in the computer or in Internet and in other records. Information explosion and the information revolution illustrate both some of the plusses and minusses of this strategy for solution-finding. Note that it seems natural to try to solve a problem based upon what we know about it – but if the problem does not solve fairly readily by that means and most don’t, what we know about it becomes the problem because that “knowledge” obscures our view of the fresh perceptions needed for that solution.

2. Consultant experts – mostly overinvested, relative to other ways of finding solutions, but still productive at times.

3. Charisma, “rally the troops” en masse to the task so that some of them, at least, will manage to solve the problem(s).

4. Train more people to be effective problem-solvers – the avowed purpose of our own programs and publications.

C. External Power, external leverage

The effectiveness of this category of techniques can be argued but is uneven. Strong cases have on occasion been made for each of the various following approaches–

1. Call on The Boss to do it.

2. Call on the Godfather to do it.

3. Magic – some way to manipulate the territory from the map, however necessarily the one differs from the other.

4. Call on God to do it – some way to manipulate the Owner of the territory, commonly called “the power of prayer,” but “prayer” in the sense of telling God what to do instead of “prayer” in the sense of listening.

5. Depend upon Luck, or the passage of time, or for the problem to somehow solve itself.

Sector Three

Though discussed briefly at the start of this draft taxonomy, Sector Three deserves to be a major division of problem-solving methods despite its usually being ignored: Reinvest whatever are your best methods for solving problems, into the problem of how to create new and BETTER problem-solving methods! Pursuit of this principle of reinvestment can build and has built phenomenal methodological capital over time.

Extending this “Sector Three” into a concluding comment:

Traditionally, each main school or proponent of creative problem-solving, developed (or borrowed!) one or a few good techniques and practices, and offered these as The Way to effectively solve problems.

In a world where problems are accumulating far more rapidly than solutions, we strongly urge more people to begin applying this principle of re-investing methods into better methods, building effective problem-solving into an even better science than it has recently become.

One way you can start doing this is to start brainstorming out, sorting out, and “taxonomicizing” everything that you know about creativity and answer-finding. You may have a lot more of this than you yet realize.

Hey – the whole universe is yours to draw upon. The resources available to your mind truly appear to be without limit, and having read this far, how can you not put at least some of all this to legitimate test. Having tested these matters and found something of what truly is at stake, how can any living human being not go forward with this, without apparent limits? –And look at all that wonderful scenery you get to take in along the way!

Indeed, we concur in yet one more regard with Dr. Jean Houston, who in her recent lectures has been saying that “for the uses we put our remarkably developed brain to, we are obscenely over-endowed!” You, for instance, have brains enough to run a galaxy. What have you been doing with them?