Faculty voice:

Prabu David: Creative problem solving

Jan. 10, 2018 (originally run by the College of Communication Arts and Sciences on Dec. 13, 2017)

Prabu David is the dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. His research emphasis is communication technology and health. His current research focuses on mobile media, which involves designing mobile apps for health outcomes and the study of multitasking.

If innovation is the engine of the knowledge economy, creative problem solving is the fuel.

While excellence in writing, design, communication and critical thinking are still in demand, when employers are asked what they would like to see in our students, creative problem solving rises to the top.

Can we teach creative problem solving? Is it a skill that can be learned? Is it nature or nurture? How do we train a new generation of leaders and problem solvers?

This depends on how we define creative problem solving. A popular notion of creative problem solving is the discovery or invention of a breakthrough solution that lurks beyond our reach that can be unlocked through sheer stroke of genius or serendipity. Such breakthroughs or Eureka moments are celebrated in science or engineering when a researcher arrives at a solution that leaves the rest of community wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Those who study Eureka moments attest that while luck plays a small part, success depends in large part on discipline and hard work. A combination of environment, persistence and talent creates the right chemistry that can be catalyzed by a sudden bolt of creative insight.

But scientists in lab coats are not the only ones to experience Eureka moments. Most of us can relate to the joy and satisfaction of everyday problem solving. It may be a simple hack streamlining workflow at the office, or fixing a lawnmower with help from a YouTube clip or troubleshooting a pesky setting on a mobile phone.

Such joys are earned when we venture out and take some risks. May the new year bring us many such moments of curiosity, learning and creative problem solving.

Solving problems with gadgets, machines or software, however, is a different kettle of fish compared to solving problems involving humans. With their motivations, attributions, egos and behaviors, humans are complex.

When searching for solutions for human problems, we are taught to search for win-win solutions that offer a psychological victory for all parties. The search for such win-win solutions to human conflicts and problems can be satisfying, particularly if an optimal solution exists. May the holiday season and the new year bring us win-win solutions in our personal and professional lives.

Often in real life, win-win solutions are elusive and creative problem solving requires the use of soft skills that are indeed quite hard. Empathetic listening is one of those fundamental skills that is highlighted in the design thinking framework.

Last year, in my year-end blog, I promised to give the gift of empathetic listening to my friends, family and colleagues. Every week, I took someone to coffee or lunch and made a concerted effort to speak less and listen more.

After a yearlong effort at active listening, despite ups and downs, I realized that active listening fosters empathy. A natural extension of empathy is compassionate communication. We live in a world where communication in its various forms is used as a weapon to hurt, offend and destroy. I hope this year may be one in which we give the gift of compassionate communication to nurture, encourage and build up others.

Compassionate communication requires a different type of creativity. It is an introspective creativity that may not mesh with traditional norms of success and would require creative understanding of values such as humility, compromise and sacrifice.

When we practice compassionate communication, it is not just the person on the other side who enjoys the benefits. Research have demonstrated the benefits for the one who gives compassion. If you are an employer, employee, friend, partner, spouse or parent, compassionate communication is a gift you could consider this holiday season. I am going to give it a try.