Knowledge Processes and Strategies

It is commonly believed that people cannot produce problem solutions, including creative problem solutions, without knowledge. Knowledge is usually thought to be domain specific - for example knowledge of physics versus knowledge of knitwear design. The acquisition of knowledge within a domain is frequently held to result in the acquisition of expertise. Multiple studies have shown that this acquisition of expertise influences peoples' ability to produce creative problem solutions within a given performance domain.

What should be recognized here, however, is that the acquisition of expertise within a performance domain evidences certain key characteristics. First, experts, as opposed to novices, have more information available. Second, this knowledge is better organized with knowledge organization being based on underlying concepts. Third, relationships among concepts are well defined and articulated resulting in the acquisition of viable mental models. Fourth, well organized mental models facilitate recall of knowledge and recognition of discrepancies, or anomalies, in observations, or events, within this domain.

Although these attributes of expertise all contribute to creative problem solving, if people only had existing knowledge to work with it would be impossible to produce original problem solutions. Recognition of this point has led many scholars to propose models of the processing activities by which people work with expertise, extensive domain specific knowledge, to produce creative problem solutions. The most widely accepted model of the processes involved in creative thought is a model proposed by Mumford and colleagues.

Mumford and colleagues held that eight critical processing activities are involved in incidents of creative thought:

1. problem definition,

2. information gathering,

3. concept selection,

4. conceptual combination,

5. idea generation,

6. idea evaluation,

7. implementation planning, and

8. solution monitoring.

Within this model execution of an earlier process, for example problem definition, is held to provide an input into the operation of subsequent processes, for example information gathering and idea evaluation. These processes, moreover, are held to operate in a dynamic and recursive fashion over time, with people cycling back to reexecute earlier processes if an optimal solution is not reached at a given stage in a cycle of problem solving activities. Although these processes are held to be involved in most incidents of creative problem solving different processes take on special importance in certain domains. Thus the biological sciences stress information gathering where the social sciences stress conceptual combination.

Over the years, a variety of evidence has been accrued for the validity of this model as a description of the processes underlying creative thinking. For example studies have produced evidence indicating that the processes specified in this model, for example problem definition, conceptual combination, and idea evaluation influences the production of creative problem solutions. Effective execution of these processes has also been found to be related to real-world incidents of creative achievement such as a leader's ability to address critical incidents. Other studies have shown that effective execution of each of these processes makes a unique contribution to predicting performance on creative problem solving tasks. Still other studies have shown that the relationships observed among these processes are, in fact, consistent with this model. Finally, effective execution of these processes has been found to mediate the impact of abilities, such as intelligence and divergent thinking, on creative problem solving. Thus it appears this model provides a valid description of the key processes involved in creative thought.

What should be recognized here, however, is that each of the processes specified in this model represents a complex phenomenon in its own right. One implication of this statement is that any given processing operation may be executed in different ways. For example, in information gathering one might search broadly or one might search in depth. Similarly, in problem definition one might define a problem based on goals sought or, alternatively, the procedures to be applied in problem solving. The particular cognitive operations applied in process execution are what are referred to by the terms heuristics or strategies.

Of course, not all heuristics, or strategies, are likely to prove equally beneficial for effective execution of any given process. Thus a key question confronting students of creativity is what strategies do, or do not, contribute to effective process execution in creative problem solving efforts. Answers to this question are of interest not only for theoretical reasons but also for practical reasons with regard to the assessment and development of creative talent and the creation of work environments likely to promote creative thought. Accordingly, in the following section we will examine the available evidence bearing on the strategies contributing to effective and ineffective execution of these creative thinking processes.

Process Specific Strategies

One study of process specific strategies examined the strategies contributing to performance during problem definition. The researchers presented 124 undergraduates with four ill-defined problems. Participants were asked to select 4 of 16 alternative definitions of this problem. These alternative problem definitions were varied to reflect definitions stressing key diagnostics, goals, problem solving procedures, and restrictions of varying quality and originality. Subsequently, participants were asked to provide solutions to two advertising and two management problems known to call for creative thought. Solutions to these problems were scored for quality and originality.

When scores on the measures of creative problem solving were correlated with and regressed on the measures of problem definition strategies, it was found that problem definition strategies were effective predictors of the quality and originality of obtained solutions producing multiple correlations in the

0.30.range. More centrally, it was found that people who defined problems in terms of high quality procedures and high quality restrictions tended to produce more creative problem solutions. Use of more original material in problem definition was not related to creative problem solving. Thus use of strategies that result in clear definition of a problem with regard to approach (e.g., procedures, restrictions) but not specific outcomes or concerns (e.g., goals, information) appears to contribute to creative thought. In other words, strategies that result in specification of a viable approach to problems appear to contribute to problem definition.

In a study of the strategies contributing to creativity in information gathering researchers asked 137 undergraduates to produce solutions to the four advertising and management problems which were scored for quality and originality. To measure information gathering strategies participants were presented with a series of four novel, ill-defined problems through web-based administration. They were then presented with a series of cards presenting different types of information bearing on the problem: cards reflecting:

2. diverse information,

3. information bearing on goals,

4. information bearing on restrictions,

5. information bearing on core concepts,

6. inconsistent information, and

7. irrelevant information.

Time spent reading these cards was used to measure the depth of processing of each information type.

It was found, again, that depth of processing different types of information was strongly related to the quality and originality of solutions obtained on the creative problem solving tasks producing multiple correlations in the 0.40 range. More centrally, it was found that people who spent more time encoding information bearing on key facts and inconsistent, or anomalous, information produced both higher quality and more original solutions on the creative problem solving tasks. Thus people who employ a focused, albeit open, search strategy, looking for critical information and anomalies during information gathering, are more likely to produce creative problem solutions.

A related study examined the strategies that contribute to creativity in concept selection. Again, the quality and originality of solutions to advertising and management problems provided the basis for assessing creativity. To assess concept selection strategies people were presented with five social innovation problems that might be understood using a number of different concepts. People were then presented with eight key concepts, reflecting general principles, specific actions, long-term actions, and evaluation of actions, where they were asked to select the two concepts they believed to be most useful in problem solving. Again, these strategy measures were found to be effective predictors of creative problem solving producing multiple correlations in the 0.30 range. More centrally, it was found that people who preferred to work with concepts bearing on long-term actions, but not concepts reflecting general principles or specific actions, produced more creative problem solutions. Thus, in concept selection, broad abstract concepts or concepts dictating a specific course of action are of limited value. Rather, creative problem solutions arise from people who prefer to employ concepts guiding long-term actions.

A study of conceptual combination provided evidence indicating that analogical thinking strategies might promote creative problem solving. More specifically, the investigators argued that identification of key features of each relevant concept, mapping the similarities and differences in these features across concepts, and elaboration of the implications of emergent features might account for the success of peoples' conceptual combination efforts. In fact, the findings obtained in this study and others support these propositions with regard to creative problem solving with the notable proviso that people may use metaphors (e.g., birds fly and flight represent freedom) when they are asked to map shared features of highly diverse concepts.

In a more recent study of conceptual combination strategies researchers asked 284 undergraduates to draw aliens. Instructions were given to think of aliens in abstract features or concrete attributes of earth animals. It was found that more original drawings of aliens were obtained when people employed abstract features in thinking about aliens. Thus, in conceptual combination, a search for abstract features linking concepts coupled with elaboration of emergent features of new concepts arising from conceptual combination contributes to creative thought.

Although new concepts provide the basis for generating the new ideas that have been the hallmark of creativity, these new concepts must be used to generate ideas. One set of studies examined the strategies contributing to idea generation. Broadly speaking, their findings indicate that a strategy where the practical implications of emergent features are explored contributes to idea generation. Thus, in a series of studies they provided participants with abstract forms. They asked participants to imagine using this form and found that more creative ideas are produced when people envision alternative uses of the form. Moreover, creative idea generation improved when people were asked to think about problems associated with use of this object. Thus in idea generation a strategy of contextualizing emergent features to craft potential products and a strategy of identifying restrictions on the application of these products appears beneficial.

Although these strategies contribute to idea generation, multiple ideas will be generated, and, in a real-world context, these ideas must be evaluated. Thus idea evaluation is an important aspect of creative thought. Researchers have argued that idea evaluation is not simply a passive appraisal process but, instead, involves actively working with ideas. To test this proposition, one study asked 148 undergraduates to assume the role of a marketing manager developing an advertising campaign for a new product - the 3D holographic television. The advertising campaigns developed for this new product were appraised for quality, originality, and feasibility. In developing these campaigns people were presented with initial ideas of varying quality and originality. They were instructed to appraise these ideas with respect to innovative or operational efficiency standards and suggest revisions to these ideas with respect to innovative and operating efficiency standards.

It was found that when people were presented with original ideas, use of efficiency evaluations resulted in the production of the most creative advertising campaigns. When, however, people were presented with high quality ideas, use of innovative standards resulted in the production of the most creative advertising campaigns. Thus the most effective strategy in idea evaluation is a compensatory approach where people appraise and revise ideas to remediate deficiencies. Use of this compensatory strategy, moreover, implies that people must recognize unique weaknesses of ideas, and, in fact, other studies have shown that a search for idea deficiencies contributes to creative thought. This idea evaluation apparently requires a search for deficiencies in ideas and express attempts to compensate for these deficiencies.

Presumably, active idea evaluation will result in an idea one can work with to bring a new product, a new picture or a new drug, into the world. However, development of a new product is an inherently complex undertaking. Studies examining planning processes suggest that three critical strategies are involved in planning, including planning creative work. First, the person must mentally simulate the actions required as they unfold over time. Second, they must forecast the effects of various events on effective execution of this model. Third, they must develop back-up plans for opportunistic exploitation of emergent opportunities and to compensate for problems likely to arise in the work.

Some support for the relevance of these strategies has been provided. In one study, researchers asked 174 undergraduates to prepare a plan for operating a new experimental school where they had assumed the role of principal. These plans were evaluated for quality and originality. Prior to preparing these plans, participants were given training in the application of relevant implementation planning strategies (e.g., forecasting). It was found not only that these training interventions to improve strategy application resulted in the production of more creative plans but that instruction in application of these strategies proved especially beneficial for people evidencing creative ability - high divergent thinking scores. This mental simulation, forecasting, and development of both positive and negative back-up plans appear to represent critical strategies for implementation planning.

Plans and actions, of course, have consequences. Thus monitoring has also been considered a critical process in creative problem solving. Effective monitoring, however, appears to be based at least in part on planning with monitoring markers being formulated with respect to both plans and back-up plans. Thus creative people appear to employ a wider range of plan based markers in monitoring, considering both markers of plan success and back-up plan markers. In addition to searching for a wider array of markers, creative people in monitoring, also appear to focus on crisis events - events that disrupt progress toward long-term goals. Thus broad monitoring and extensive monitoring of crisis events appear to represent two strategies commonly contributing to effective performance among people working on creative tasks.

Cross-Process Strategies

Although many strategies are tied to execution of a particular creative thinking process, some strategies may prove beneficial for execution of multiple processes. For example, one study examined the effects of three cross-process strategies that might contribute to creative thought: brainstorming (generating multiple ideas), hierarchical thinking (finding things in common), and changing perspectives (considering alternative viewpoints). Undergraduates, 92 in all, were given training in the application of one of these strategies, and asked to generate solutions to a creative problem. It was found that the hierarchical strategy, by allowing access to shared features, resulted in the production of the largest number of new ideas. Thus some evidence is available for the value of at least some cross-process strategies. Broadly speaking, five cross-process strategies have received attention in recent years:

1. variability,

2. forecasting,

3. exploration,

4. causal analysis, and

5. meta-cognitive control.

The assumption underlying variability as a strategy is that producing more material, and a wide range of material, will prove beneficial in creative thinking by providing people with more material to work with in execution of creative processes. Although the value of having more material to work with is limited by cognitive processing demands, there is reason to suspect that variability may contribute to creative thinking. For example, in one recent study researchers provided 60 undergraduates with hints as they worked on a computer task. Some hints were intended to encourage variability but others were not. They found that hints that indicated varying specific aspects of the task induced the highest variability in contrast to no hints and a general hint to vary. Other work has shown that increased variability results in improved performance on creative tasks such as painting. However, increased variability may also require the imposition of standards for selecting the material to be retained in cognitive processing.

The assumption underlying the impact of extensive forecasting on process execution is related to the potential impact of variability. In forecasting people predict the consequences, or implications, of various actions on events. As the forecasting of downstream implications of process execution increase more material is taken into account and critical emergent issues are identified resulting in improved process execution. Thus the extensiveness of forecasting is held to contribute to creative thinking.

In a recent study, researchers asked 149 undergraduates to develop advertising campaigns for a new product - a high energy root beer. These advertising campaigns were the creative product of interest and they were appraised for quality and originality. Prior to preparing these campaigns, study participants were asked to forecast during evaluation of ideas and during implementation planning. Attributes of those forecasts were assessed. One factor which emerged from these attributes was the extensiveness of forecasting. It was found that the extensiveness of forecasting during idea generation, and the extensiveness of forecasting during implementation planning, contributed to the production of higher quality and more original advertising campaigns. Because there is reason to suspect that other processes might also benefit from extensive forecasting, for example extensive forecasting might contribute to the identification of anomalies during information encoding, there is reason to suspect that extensive forecasting might represent a viable cross-process strategy.

One outcome of extensive forecasting is that it permits exploration of a variety of alternatives during process execution. Given the findings of previous studies there is reason to suspect that more extensive exploration of the products produced in execution of all of the cognitive processes underlying creative thinking would prove to be of value. Commonly, the use of an explorative strategy is subsumed under one of two creative thinking styles: (1) exploration versus assimilation; or (2) innovation versus adaptation.

In one study of exploration and assimilation, researchers asked 87 undergraduates to solve two creative problems - the two-string and hatrack problems. Behavioral statements were used to assess peoples' preferences for applying an explorer or an assimilator style in problem solving. For example, people were asked to indicate whether "I prefer to stick to a set of principles when I solve problems" (assimilator) or "I prefer to develop new principles when I solve problems" (explorer). They found that explorers typically produced better solutions to novel problems, although assimilators produced better solutions when working on less novel problems. Thus there is reason to suspect that more extensive exploration will generally contribute to execution of a number of the processes held to underlie creative thought.

One particular value of exploration is that it allows identification of critical causal variables shaping the construction of creative problem solutions. In fact, studies of historically noteworthy cases of social innovation found that intensive analysis of key causes was typically associated with creative efforts. The identification of key causes, moreover, may influence the effective execution of a number of processes such as concept selection, idea generation, and implementation planning.

One recent study examined the effects of causal analysis strategies on solving creative problems. The researchers asked 180 undergraduates to solve six social innovation problems known to call for creative thought. Problem solutions were scored for quality and originality. Prior to starting work on these problems, participants were given training in strategies that would result in better causal analysis. For example, think about causes that have big effects or think about causes that effect multiple outcomes. It was found that training in causal analysis strategies resulted in the production of more creative problem solutions - particularly when the problems presented were more novel. Thus there is reason to suspect that intensive analysis of causes might prove to be a general cross-process strategy contributing to creative thought.

A final set of cross-process strategies that might contribute to creative thought may be found in the area of meta-cognition. Meta-cognitive strategies are employed to organize and structure thinking processes. In a recent study, researchers asked 36 elementary school students to solve a treasure hunt on a deserted island creative thinking problem. After completing their work on this problem, participants were interviewed with respect to meta-cognitive strategies employed during problem solving. It was found that participants who applied a meta-cognitive strategy of mindful learning typically produced more creative problem solutions. Although these finding suggest that a mindful learning strategy may contribute to creative problem solving, and execution of multiple processes held to be involved in creative thought, further research is needed to identify other meta-cognitive strategies that might contribute to creative thought.


Taken as a whole, it seems clear prior research has provided a stronger understanding of the strategies, or heuristics, contributing to creative thought. Not only have the strategies contributing to effective execution of critical processes such as conceptual combination, idea generation, and problem definition, been identified, but so too have the strategies, or heuristics, that contribute to effective execution of multiple processes. In this regard, however, it is important to bear in mind another point emerging from recent research. More specifically, a number of variables exist that act to moderate the impact of any given strategy on creative problem solving. Broadly speaking, these moderators fall under two general rubrics: (1) characteristics of the person solving the problem; and (2) characteristics of the problem.

Person Characteristics

People bring to creative problems knowledge and expertise. As noted earlier, strategies are executed with respect to a particular knowledge base. As a result, it can be expected that knowledge and expertise would represent potentially powerful moderators of strategy application. This issue has been examined in a recent study.

In this study, 190 undergraduates were asked to devise a plan for directing a new experimental school with these plans being scored for quality, originality, and elegance.

A conceptual combination task was presented prior to generation of these plans through a consultant's report and a series of strategy execution exercises. In one condition the consultant's report presented concepts, schematic knowledge, and asked participants to apply feature search and mapping processes. In the other condition, cases, experiential knowledge, were presented and participants were asked to apply strength analyses and forecasting strategies. It was found that application of both sets of strategies could result in the production of creative problem solutions. However, when working with schematic knowledge, having more concepts was beneficial. When working with case-based knowledge, having fewer cases was beneficial. Thus knowledge type appears to moderate the effectiveness of applying different strategies.

Not only does the type of knowledge being applied moderate strategy application, with experience people acquire procedural knowledge, knowledge about strategy application, as well as declarative knowledge. Because expertise contributes to the acquisition of procedural knowledge, it can also be expected that expertise would serve to moderate the impact of various strategies on creative problem solving. In fact, prior studies have provided evidence in a comparison of expert and novice designers that strategy shifts are also observed as a function of expertise.

In addition to knowledge, another set of characteristics people bring to creative problems are base abilities such as divergent thinking and intelligence. Given the evidence indicating that abilities influence process execution, it also seems reasonable to expect that abilities will also influence strategy application. In keeping with this observation, a recent study found that abilities, specifically divergent thinking and intelligence, moderated the acquisition, and application, of strategies involved in implementation planning. Similarly, other studies have provided evidence indicating that people lacking requisite abilities often apply suboptimal strategies when working on problems calling for creative thought.

As suggested by our foregoing observations, it appears that application of many of the strategies involved in creative problem solving is, in fact, demanding. The demands made by strategy application, in turn, imply that attributes of the person, for example need for cognition, openness, and the value placed on novelty, which leads people to invest cognitive resources in strategy execution, might contribute to creative problem solving. In a recent study along these lines, researchers examined the effectiveness of peoples' application of forecasting strategies. The researchers manipulated motivation by inducing feelings of high versus low self-efficacy and high versus low implementation intentions. They found that self-efficacy and implementation interventions contributed to the production of more effective forecasts. Thus motivation may influence strategy execution.

Problem Characteristics

Not only can the characteristics of people moderate strategies being applied, and the effectiveness of strategy execution, it also appears that the nature of the problem at hand may prove of some importance in this regard. One potentially important variable in this regard is the domain from which the creative problem is drawn. Problems drawn from different domains not only emphasize different processes, they may also call for the application of different strategies in process execution. A case in point may be found in contrasting the idea evaluation strategies employed by scientists and leaders. One study on this topic found that scientists in idea evaluation seek early confirmation of ideas. In other words, they look for support. In contrast, leaders, in idea evaluation, seek to appraise ideas based on critical feedback. Thus leaders seek early rejection of nonviable ideas. These examples illustrate our broader point. The domain in which a problem emerges will condition the relevance of various strategies applied in creative problem solving.

Within a domain, the problems presented to people calling for creative thought vary with respect to their complexity and difficulty. These differences in problem complexity and difficulty, in turn, lead to greater demands in the execution of certain processes. As the demands made by process execution increase or decrease, different strategies may be required. This point is illustrated in a series of studies on the strategies involved in execution of the conceptual combination process. In the initial study it was found that feature search and mapping strategies contributed to successful combination and reorganization efforts. However, these strategies were only effective on relatively simple conceptual combination tasks where the concepts involved (e.g., birds, balls) shared certain features. On more complex conceptual combination tasks where shared features were less evident (e.g., birds, furniture) application of these strategies was less effective. Rather, on more demanding conceptual combination problems a search for metaphors was required to execute the conceptual combination process.

A final aspect of the problem that appears to influence the strategies applied pertains to the person's relationship to the problem. People in problem solving interact with the problem. However, these exchanges with the problem may occur in a number of different ways. For example, the problem might be affectively engaging or affectively neutral, it might be challenging or routine, or it might be immediate as opposed to distant. A recent study examined the influence of immediacy and distance of problems by asking people in causal analysis to think about implications of events for friends and families (immediate) versus institutions (distant). The researchers found that causal analysis strategies had stronger effects on creative problem solving when a distant as opposed to an immediate framework was applied during strategy execution.

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