Are you Problem-Solving or Innovating?

About the MA Program

(C) Stefanie Koehler 2016

“It would really help if you would just tell us what we are aiming for!”

“Can you give us more examples and case studies?”

“How will I know if I’m right?”

“We need more time to understand the problem!”

These are the comments and questions I often hear when teaching people how to use creative innovation to tackle the really big social and environmental sustainability challenges of our time. That is because most of us are training to be good problem solvers and not not creative innovators.  What’s the difference, and why should we care?

Problems and problem solving live in the world of the known or knowable. They can be analyzed, modeled, predicted, tested. You can — and often have to — clearly articulate the problem and then credibly defend your solution.  There has to be certainty and proof.  As hard as problems and problem-solving may seem, it is a comfortable space to work in, and feels safe.

But the really big challenges of our time live in the world of the unknown and often unknowable.  These challenges are dynamic and unpredictable. They are complex and embedded in innumerable intertwined interdependent systems.  There are not enough data and there is too much uncertainty to be able to prove anything. The future is not certain.  As fun as creativity and innovation may seem, it can be a very uncomfortable space to work in, and feels risky — often too risky.

Problem-focused and problem-solving assumptions and approaches — what we learn to use in school and are expected to use in the workplace —  don’t work when it comes to addressing the really big challenges of our time. Yet we keep banging our heads against that brick wall.

So how can we tackle the really big challenges of our time?  We have a few choices.

We can complain about them, and most of us do.  Complaining is how we voice our concern or anger or frustration the problem, how we let others know what we care about, what we worry about.  We hope it helps us keep the problem from being ignored. But it doesn’t do anything to make the problem go away. Since no one wants to listen to a chronic complainer, it can actually keep people from listening and caring.

We can also seek blame for the problem.  Humans seem to have an innate need to identify the cause of the problem, especially as simple single cause, and better yet a person (or organization) to blame.  We feel much better about a problem once we can blame someone for it. It eases our burden, allow us to stop worrying about it. Sometimes there is a simple cause for a problem and a single person or organization can be blamed. And once you place blame, sometimes amends can be made, sometimes the problem can be resolved or corrected or remediated.  But not often. The big challenges of our day are far more complex than that.

We can choose to dive in and try to solve the problem.  We can put resources into collecting data, doing analyses, testing alternatives, building our case.  This is where scientists and engineers shine. We need problem solving, of course; however, problem solving tends to focus on the problem — on what’s wrong (and why and where and when).  It’s focused on making the problem go away, going from negative to neutral. And it tends to focus on one problem at a time. The big challenges of our time are not only complex, they are part of bigger and dynamic systems.  We won’t make much headway addressing one problem at a time.

The big social and environmental sustainability issues of our time require us to think beyond complaining and blaming, and even beyond problem solving.  We need to learn how to envision what really good looks like and then how to creatively innovate pathways to get there.

Creative innovation requires looking outside of what we already know — and sometime just looking outside, at nature.  It requires imagination and co-creation. It requires relentlessly driving ahead without a clear path. It requires agility, working through a spiraling processes rather than a linear ones.  It requires systems thinking, global thinking, design thinking. It requires leadership and collaboration.

Most of us will continue to do a lot of blaming and complaining (and even shaming), spending our energy pointing out what’s wrong, whose fault it is, how bad it is.  Focusing on problems and problem solving certainly has its place, and most of us are trained to be good at this. But if we want to figure out and create pathways to a sustainable future — “what really good looks like” — we need to learn and apply creative innovation.

Curious to learn how?  Explore the fully online Master of Art in Sustainable Design program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.


Images from Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, courtesy of Stefanie Koehler, alumni of the MA in Sustainable Design program.

Denise DeLuca / Director

Denise DeLuca is director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program and co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler.  She also teaches with the Amani Institute. Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, a consultant for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute.  Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and ground water interactions. Denise is based in Montana.