Hurson's Productive Thinking Model

Solving Problems Creatively

Hurson's Productive Thinking Model - Solving Problems Creatively

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A creative framework for problem solving.

Creativity is incredibly important in problem solving. If you're not creative, you'll struggle to understand the issues surrounding a problem, and you'll find it hard to identify the best solutions. Worse still, you might fail to solve the problem altogether!

So, what's a good way to be more creative in your problem solving, and come up with the best ideas to move forward with? Hurson's Productive Thinking Model could be just the thing to help you. This framework encourages you to use creativity and critical thinking at each stage of the problem-solving process. This means that you get a better understanding of the problems you face, and you come up with better ideas and solutions as a result.

About the Model

The Productive Thinking Model was developed by author and creativity theorist, Tim Hurson, and was published in his 2007 book, "Think Better."

The model presents a structured framework for solving problems creatively. You can use it on your own or in a group.

The model consists of six steps, as follows:

  1. Ask "What is going on?"
  2. Ask "What is success?"
  3. Ask "What is the question?"
  4. Generate answers.
  5. Forge the solution.
  6. Align resources.

From "Think Better: An Innovator's Guide to Productive Thinking" by Tim Hurson. © 2008. Reproduced with permission from The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

The advantage of this model over other problem-solving approaches (like Simplex or Plan-Do-Check-Act) is that it encourages you to use creative and critical thinking skills at each stage of the problem-solving process. This means that you can take a well-rounded look at a problem, and come up with better potential solutions.

Let's look at each step in further detail, and explore how you can apply the model.

Step 1: Ask "What Is Going On?"

First, you need to get a good understanding of the problem that you want to deal with. This is often the most involved part of the process.

To do this, explore the following four questions:

What Is the Problem?

First, brainstorm all of the problems and issues that you have – a tool such as CATWOE will help here. As you do this, think about the following questions:

  • What's bugging you? And what annoys your customers?
  • What's out of balance?
  • What could work better? What could you improve?
  • What are your customers or users complaining about?
  • What challenges do you have?
  • What's making you take action?

List as many issues as possible, even if you already have a good idea of what your main problem is. These don't have to be well defined or even justified. All that you're doing is generating a good list of possibilities, so don't worry about being right or wrong.

Then, use an Affinity Diagram to organize the issues that you've identified into common themes, and identify the most important problem or group of problems to deal with. If this isn't obvious, use techniques like Pareto Analysis or Paired Comparison Analysis to decide.

What Is the Impact?

Next, brainstorm how the problem impacts you and your organization, and how it affects other stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and competitors.

Make a list of all of your stakeholders, and identify the positive and negative impact that the problem has on each of them.

To help with this, ask questions such as:

  • Who does this problem affect, directly and indirectly?
  • Why is this problem important to them? What concerns do you have about it?
  • Who'll benefit if you don't deal with the problem? And who'll benefit when you solve it?

Rolestorming is also useful here, as it helps you to look at problems from other people's perspectives.

What Is the Information?

Now, gather information about the problem. What do you know about it? What don't you know? Has someone else tried to fix this or a similar problem before? If so, what happened, and what can you learn? Make sure that you have evidence that the problem really does exist.

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This is where it helps to use tools such as Cause and Effect Analysis, Root Cause Analysis, and Interrelationship Diagrams to identify the actual causes of your problem. You'll need to deal with these root causes to solve the problem fully.

What Is the Vision?

Finally in this step, identify your vision for the future once you've solved the problem – what Hurson calls the "target future."

Begin by writing down as many target futures as possible, and then narrow these down to something that's achievable and important to you.

If you're finding this difficult, use starter phrases such as "I wish...," "If only we could...," or "It would be great if...." For example, you might say, "I wish that the majority of our customers were happy with how we process returns," or, "It would be great if we could cut waste by 20 percent."

Step 2: Ask "What Is Success?"

In this step, you're going to develop your target future by defining what success is once you've implemented a solution to your problem.

A good way to do this is to use the "DRIVE" acronym. This stands for:

  • Do – What do you want the solution to do?
  • Restrictions – What must the solution not do?
  • Investment – What resources are available? What are you able to invest in a solution? How much time do you have?
  • Values – What values must this solution respect?
  • Essential outcomes – What defines success? How will you measure this?

Step 3: Ask "What Is the Question?"

The aim in this step is to generate a list of questions that, if answered well, will solve your problem.

To do this, look at all of the information that you gathered in the first two steps. Then brainstorm the questions that you'll need to answer to achieve your target future. Use phrases such as "How can I…?" and "How will we…?" to begin.

For instance, imagine that your target future is to have a bigger departmental budget. One question might be, "How can I get a bigger budget?" Then you could brainstorm related questions, such as, "How can we spend less on routine work, so that we can do more with our existing budget?" or, "How would we operate if we had no budget?"

If you generate a long list of questions, narrow these down to the questions that are most relevant for solving your problem.

Step 4: Generate Answers

In this step, you generate solutions to your problem by coming up with answers to the questions that you developed in the previous step.

Again, brainstorm as many possible solutions as possible, and don't criticize – just concentrate on coming up with lots of ideas. If you're struggling to come up with solutions, techniques like Reverse Brainstorming, Random Input, and Provocation will help to jump-start your creativity.

Step 5: Forge the Solution

You're now going to develop your ideas into a fully formed solution.

First, evaluate the most promising ideas by comparing them with the success criteria that you identified in step 2. Pick the solution that best meets those criteria. (Decision Matrix Analysis is helpful here.)

Then develop your best idea further. What else could make this idea better? How could you refine the solution to fit your success criteria better?

If you're working on a complex problem or project, don't underestimate the effort needed to develop and refine your solution.

Step 6: Align Resources

In this last step, you identify the people and other resources that you need in order to implement your solution.

For small projects, Action Plans are useful for this. However, if you're implementing a large-scale project, you'll need to use a more formal project management approach.


At this point, you may still decide not to move ahead with your solution. See our article on Go/No-Go Decision-Making for more on this.

Key Points

Tim Hurson developed the Productive Thinking Model and published it in his 2007 book, "Think Better." The model provides a structured approach for solving problems creatively. You can use it on your own and in a group.

There are six steps in the model:

  1. Ask "What is going on?"
  2. Ask "What is success?"
  3. Ask "What is the question?"
  4. Generate answers.
  5. Forge the solution.
  6. Align resources.

The advantage of the model is that it encourages you to use creative and critical thinking skills at each step of the problem-solving process. This means that you can take a well-rounded look at a problem, and come up with better solutions.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi tsuhaimin,
    Thanks for the feedback. Hope you enjoy more of our article to help further improve your skills and knowledge.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago tsuhaimin wrote
    A Superb Article on Problem Solving!
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    This is a great new model for problem solving because it provides a framework and questions for each stage of the process. Not only do you tap into your creativity for generating ideas, you then put on your analytical hat to evaluate it.

    It also taps into different problem solving models that many of us already know so it feels more familiar!

    It will definitely be put into my tool kit for future reference!

    Has anyone used this model and what was their experience?