This post was originally written by Facilitator Emeritus John Pfeil. 



How Creative Problem Solving Could Benefit the US Government

While I will be the first to acknowledge that ours is the best system of government that I know of in the world, that does not mean it does not need to be improved—especially given the enormity of the problems we face (unemployment, deficits, education, terrorism, etc.). Our two party system has become inadequate—even dysfunctional—for solving the huge problems that face the US. In many ways, our government’s current process is actually the antithesis of the best practices of Creative Problem Solving (CPS), which has been so successful in promoting innovation in the corporate world. 

subbasementI happened across an article by Jolie Lee of regarding a new Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). It was heartening to learn that there is a segment of government embracing the principles and practices of CPS—that have been proven in the business world—to effectively define and address tough public issues. However, it seems that awareness of the Innovation Lab is low, and ironically, it's located in the sub-basement of OPM’s headquarters. So, how do we bring the effective practices of CPS out of the basement and onto the floor of Congress?

What's Not Working?

Political parties, like many corporations, often “silo” their problem-solving efforts, which increases the likelihood of everyone getting stuck in their own limited perspectives. For example, when a major problem (or opportunity) emerges—such as unemployment/job creation or deficit reduction—each group separately looks at the problem and gathers facts from their perspective, be it through the lens of experience, beliefs or agenda. From that limited perspective, they each “define” the problem in their own way—which may not always get to the core issue. Each party then generates a limited set of possible solutions for the problem as they have defined it from their view-point. 

Once each party is entrenched in their chosen solution, they approach the other party and argue (fight) to prove they are right. They tend to listen to the other party not to understand the other perspective, but rather to defend their perspective and discredit the other party’s facts and perspective.  At this point, each party goes back and selectively searches for more facts that support their position so they can continue to discredit the facts of the other party. It is not unheard of for parties to distort or even falsify facts in order to strengthen their position to sell the public on their perspective as the one right way to see and solve the problem. The result is two parties not seeing the big-picture—only a limited view entrenched in defending what are likely two sub-optimal solutions and no progress being made on the core problem at hand.  

As a government and a nation, we are stuck. The solutions are less about identifying and addressing the core problem and more about supporting a party’s core agenda. 

What We Need

We need the best practices of Creative Problem Solving (CPS) brought to Congress. Here are some basics:

  1. Both parties agree there is a problem that it is not clearly defined and that they have a common goal to find a solution that is best for the American people—one that all stakeholders can agree upon.
  2. Agree to look at the problem from ALL perspectives objectively and without judgment. Agreeing that we all have assumptions and biases (both conscious and subconscious) that can limit our perspective and ability to see the bigger picture is a big step in the right direction.  Agreeing to listen long enough to understand all perspectives and to see the bigger picture—not just defend a position or distort another perspective—actually sets the foundation for solution-finding.
  3. Invite all stakeholders (perspectives) to the table, e.g., representatives from both parties, economists, citizens representing different needs, etc. 
  4. Have an objective, expert CPS Facilitator who can:
    • Create an environment where it is safe to take risks, where participants look for what is good in an idea (what moves the team toward a solution), and where they can creatively overcome concerns and barriers to an idea so it does move to solution.
    • Bring a set of problem-solving tools to help everyone become aware of, challenge, and break assumptions. 
    • Stretch the team’s thinking beyond the obvious to more innovative solutions.

Next week, I will address the specific process points that would make our political party system more effective in solving problems. Until then, please chime in with any comments or questions you may have.

Click here to read part 2!

John Pfeil is an Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go. He facilitates customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies across all market categories and industries. 

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Ideas To Go

Ideas To Go is an innovation agency that leads start-ups to Fortune 500 companies through insights exploration, ideation, and idea and concept development while incorporating the voice of the consumer.