Creative Problem Solving

John Ostrowski
Management Consultant
Vancouver, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the eleventh in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

Are you a creative bureaucrat? Oxymorons aside, you will probably say that you are creative some of the time. Would you like to be more creative? Would you like to have the people around you be more creative? Would you like to have a creativity manual to refer to?

You probably would like more creativity in your life but I'll bet you don't believe that creativity can be outlined in a manual. I should probably agree with you since I've been saying for many years that if you want things done the same way every time, you need a procedures manual. And if you want creativity you don't want a procedures manual.

However, public works is all about motivating people and solving problems. So, if there is a better way to solve our toughest problems we've got a good handle on half of our job.

Basic Creativity
I'm going to quickly cover some things about creativity and then I'm going to explain how a creativity manual already exists and where you can get one.

Creativity is what human beings are all about. We've been multiplying ourselves at an alarming rate (makes one wonder why we need clones) and we've been building roads and sewers and all the other good stuff we need to keep up with our personal creativity.

Most creativity theory says that we just have to find a way to tap into that innate creativity and release it. We talk about thinking outside the box and other clever phrases to describe what we have to do to break free from the self-imposed shackles we've put on our creativity. One approach we can use to get us out of our box is to think of the problem we're trying to solve from some other (often ridiculous) perspective. This gets us looking at the problem differently and helps us drop our biases momentarily.

Another often-used approach is brainstorming. In brainstorming we suggest ideas without criticizing them so that we don't throw out good ideas before their time. We evaluate the ideas later but the method is supposed to keep negative thinking out of problem solving.

infoNOW Communities and Creativity
Then there's the Kevin Bacon/Degrees of Separation approach. There's a good chance that for every public works problem you face there is someone who has already faced it and solved it. You may not know that person directly but you do know someone who knows someone who knows someone who does. Technology has shortened the process of closing the gap between you and your solution. If you belong to an APWA infoNOW Community you've already seen this in action.

Genrich Altshuller and Problem Solving
Okay, so much for the easy stuff. Now let's get into organized problem solving and how you can take advantage of it. I'm going to tell you about someone that you've probably never heard of. I've asked public works people about him for several years now and they just don't travel in the same circles with the people who know all about him. I only found out about him through a friend at my athletic club who is an entrepreneur. People in business seem to know about Genrich Altshuller but they apparently don't talk about him to their government friends.

Altshuller was a Russian patent official who analyzed all the inventions he saw and found that the problem-solving approaches used could be categorized. He also discovered that most of our problems have already been solved.

He contended that the Kevin Bacon approach worked because while we already have the solution to 32% of the problems we face, the people we work with can solve another 45% of our problems. Beyond that, other people in our industry can handle another 18% of the problems we need to solve. So, somewhere in your experience or that of your coworkers or other public works people in APWA, there is a solution for 95% of the problems we'll encounter. We have to go outside our industry for another 4% of our solutions leaving 1% of our problems to some genius to make a revolutionary breakthrough.

If you're wondering what we can learn from some other industry, consider the case of the diamond-cutting business. They were trying to reduce the fractures when diamonds are cut and therefore get better, more valuable diamonds. They found a solution in the agricultural industry where stems are plucked from peppers more cleanly if the whole process takes place under reduced or increased pressure (I forget which). When the same process is applied to diamonds, cutting cleaner cuts resulted.

TRIZ as a Manual for Problem Solving
Altshuller developed TRIZ—the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (the letters in Russian make the acronym work).

But TRIZ is more than networking and agricultural ingenuity. What Altshuller did that was revolutionary was to develop a catalogue of how to solve problems. The catalogue is important because many times we design things by making compromises. For example, if we want to transport beverages in metal cans we need the cans to be strong enough so that we can stack a lot of them in trucks for delivery. But we also want them light so we can maximize our payload on each delivery. We could compromise and produce cans that are a little weaker than we'd like and then deliver a few more cans per truckload, but we'd still be limited by the strength of the cans which will determine how many we could stack. Or we could use TRIZ and go to our chart of solutions to various problems and find that one of the ways to resolve the contradiction between strength and weight is to change the shape. We'd then produce aluminum cans with that little curl near the top and an indented bottom. That means we solved the problem without compromising either strength or weight.

Resolving Conflicts Rather than Compromising
TRIZ is about not making compromises but rather finding the already known ways that can be used to resolve design conflicts. This can get pretty technical but I'm counting on the engineers out there to jump right into this. There's plenty of information on TRIZ available on the web. Or you can read Altshuller's book: And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared. Fortunately, Lev Shulyak translated the book from the Russian. Or you can sign up for a TRIZ class from one of the many providers of this service. I should point out that I have purely an intellectual interest in TRIZ and am not affiliated with nor do I benefit from any TRIZ organization.

Taking TRIZ to the Next Level
There's another reason that I think public works folks could benefit from investigating TRIZ. It has to do with that compromise problem. So much of what we do in government is compromise. We start out with a proposal to save some portion of the environment but after working its way through the legislative process, our proposal looks like something created by a committee. Which it was. Altshuller thought that it might be possible to apply TRIZ to governmental operations. He didn't think that all of the solutions that involve scientific principles could make the transition but he thought that some could and that someone should work on that.

I've worked on it a little but I'm only getting started. One of the problem-solving methods is to use an indirect force where a direct force is ineffective. Usually this means changing the body we're working on with a force field of some sort. For example, adding magnetic powder to wooden match heads makes them easier to package because they can be oriented with a magnetic field. Applying a magnetic field allows us to orient our matches more easily than doing the job directly by hand. What does that have to do with government you ask? When I read about this approach I was reminded of a story that my friend John Lang told me about a proposal he once took to his city council for approval. He knew that he had no clout with one key council member so he hired a lawyer who happened to be that council member's campaign chair. Coming from his mouth the proposal sounded wonderful. Coming from John's mouth it would have been dead on arrival and he knew it. So he applied an indirect force that did have influence on the body being acted upon and got the approval he needed.

So there's one physical principle that we can apply to governmental operations. That's as far as I've gotten. Now it's up to you to investigate TRIZ for yourself and use it to be more creative in solving your everyday technical problems. When you've gotten bored with that you can join me in my search for analogous approaches to solving our everyday governmental problems.

John Ostrowski is a management consultant who established JOMC in 1999 after more than 30 years in various phases of public works administration at the state, county and city level. He was Public Works Director in Vancouver, Washington for 17 years. A member of APWA's Leadership and Management Committee, John can be reached at (360) 573-7594 or

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment