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 Creative Problem-Solving: Part 3

Amazing Rubber Bands Stretch The Imagination 


I just stood there shaking my head. I should have seen it coming.


The day before we were at a flea market. While engrossed in some guy’s barbed-wire collection, my kids ran up yammering something about 500 rubber bands for a $1.


“Can we buy them?” they asked excitedly.


“Yeah, sure,” I said absent-mindedly. That’ll teach me. I was now witness to the world’s largest rubber band maze … stretching around the office, down the driveway to the road and back, through every door handle on the car —  ending at the basketball hoop.


What came out of my mouth will go down in the creative annals as one of the top ten stupid things a creative guy ever said, “Damn it you guys. That’s not what rubber bands are used for!”


“But, Dad,” they said in unison. “You always say …”


“Yeah, yeah,” I interjected, “I know what I say. Just take care of it before the UPS guy slingshots himself back out in the road!”


I retreated to my office with my own words screaming in my head, “Inanimate objects don’t know or care what they are supposed to be used for. It’s our perceptions that limit us.”


This is a powerful insight that can have dramatic positive effect on your promotional marketing and general business activities. In previous articles (below) I covered “questioning” and “reversing your thinking” as creative problem-solving approaches. In the final installment of this series, we explore using something for a purpose other than originally intended. I call it, Use Re-Invention Thinking.

 Turn a Frisbee® upside down … it’s a paper plate holder. A mug can be used as a vase to deliver flowers or as a pencil/pen holder.  Yeah, I know a mug is “supposed” to hold liquids. But the mug doesn’t know that. As adults we become so engrossed with what things are supposed to be … we forget about what things can be. But once we relieve ourselves of preconceived notions, a new dawn of creative possibility emerges.


Consider that one product can be used multiple times throughout a campaign. This can reduce costs related to artwork, set-ups and shipping in addition to reducing the stress of managing multiple orders. Consider the megaphone.


To me, a megaphone looks like a small traffic cone. Use it to mark start and finish lines of a race and as pylons for a bicycle safety clinic. Fitted over an appropriately sized vase, they make dandy centerpieces for a banquet. Imagine using the same megaphone in summer parades, to host a field day, a handout at sporting events, to hold a bicycle safety clinic and at an awards banquet. You achieve consistent branding though out the year, streamline the buying process and reduce stress.


Bandanas are another item that can serve multiple uses by getting creative with what you imprint on them such as menus, maps, schedules, coupons and even simple brochures. They’re tear resistant and can be wadded up and stuffed in a pocket, purse or glove box. That makes them convenient for use as a coupon at the local burger barn before the game, as a rally towel at the game and as the schedule between games. 


Use Re-Invention thinking is common within the medallion and coin areas of promotional marketing, incentives and gifts.  Once a ¾” or 1” medallion is created in bulk, the medallion can be fitted to any number of products ranging from desk caddys to note holders or made into multiple products such as lapel pins, key chains and awards. Again, you achieve consistent branding throughout a year, cut costs and reduce stress.


This same thinking can be used in business. And while people can be reluctant to assume another task, job-sharing and cross-training are great examples of Use Re-Invention thinking. For instance, why can’t a bank teller be trained to quickly qualify a customer’s interest in a particular financial product and provide a smooth hand-off to the V.P. of Customer Services? By simply asking, “How can we use our people differently?” you’ll find that staff can be cross-trained to increase productivity and to reduce disruptions due to vacations and unexpected absences.


If you want better ideas and better results you must strip away the adult status quo. You must focus less on what things are supposed to be used for and more on what things can be used for. And if you’re having trouble, then you need to get some help. My best advice? Seriously … go find some kids to play with. They can be downright amazing.

- 30 - August 9, 2011

Question? Comment? 

Contact Michael Crooks at 517-589-0008 or

 Creative Problem-Solving: Part #2

Questioning The Status Quo


When you were a kid, you may not have had all the answers, but you certainly had all the questions. “What’s this?”, “What’s it do?”, “How’s it work?”, “Are we there yet?” As you grew older, “Why?” became a staple of your vocabulary until a deadly combination of your parent’s influence and the educational system taught you to stop questioning authority.   


Since conformity is the path of least resistance, you began to rely more on your ability to “roll with the flow” than your ability to question the world around you. But if you want to develop new ideas and concepts to solve promotional marketing and other business problems, rolling with the status quo won’t cut it.


In Part 1 “The Death of Creativity”,  I discussed the death of creativity and what impedes the creative problem-solving process. This article looks at two methods by which you can expand your creative problem-solving prowess: Questioning and Reversing Your Thinking.

Questioning: The Lost Art of Childhood

I recall a client for whom we produced a membership directory. For years we saddle-stitched the booklet (putting 2 staples in the middle of the booklet) to bind it. My client now wanted the booklet to open and lay flat. While spiral binding would solve the problem, it was outside my client’s budget. Then I asked one question that changed everything, “Does the booklet need to be this size.”  She said, “No”.

The booklet was tall and narrow with 2 columns of names per page. Widening the booklet allowed more names per page. This reduced the number of pages and all related production activities. The savings allowed us to spiral bind the directory without additional charges.

When using the questioning technique, it’s necessary to get back in touch with that little kid that used to ask a million questions. If you’re in management, the first question you must ask is, “Does my management style foster questioning?” The next question is, “Does my company foster an atmosphere that allows questioning? Answer those questions truthfully and you may have some issues to address right there. Beyond that:

 • Take a look at your company policies and ask why? Why are you doing what your doing? Why are you doing it the way you’re doing it? Sometimes, a function that has always been done is being duplicated by software and is no longer necessary. Other times, functions are being done because at one time they were required by a company policy or governmental law that no longer applies.

• Ask the people in your organization why they do what they do the way they do it.  Times change. Maybe there’s a better way and the person doing the job knows it, but has never thought to say anything or worse — is scared to say anything.

Sure, sometimes asking questions will open up a can of worms. But if you’re unwilling to go there … then that’s a clear indication that that’s EXACTLY what needs to be done.  

Reverse Your Thinking:

The next concept to aid in Creative Problem-Solving is to Reverse Your Thinking. In his book, “A Whack On The Side of The Head”, Roger von Oech tells of ABC Corp that hit hard times. All efforts to identify the problems failed until they reversed their thinking. Instead of focusing on how to fix problems they couldn’t identify, the staff was asked to pretend that they were spies for the competitor who had gotten a job with ABC Corp. They were then asked to write down everything they would do to sabotage the company. After the lists were complied, it became apparent that the employees were actually doing more than half of the items on the list.


Reversing your thinking is where “branch offices” came from. Instead of thinking, “How do we draw more consumers to our business”, the thinking became, “How do we take our business to the consumer?”. Sales protocol is often designed to make it easy to sell. Reverse that thinking and the focus becomes how to make it easier for the consumer to buy. For promotional marketing applications, consider the use of flash drives, CD-ROM’s and DVD’s sent via courier or direct mail. Or, use QR codes or text messaging to drive people to a YouTube link. You can send your prospects an audio or video presentation of your product line, services or a whole retail store. If you’re selling a high-end product for instance, sending prospects a DVD in the mail that also serves as a ticket to a private sales event could achieve greater ROI than a shotgun, mass-media approach.


I’m not knocking mass marketing tactics such as radio, tv and newspaper to reach large numbers of people in a hurry. But what is your target audience doing when they’re not watching tv or listening to the radio? Maybe they’re at the symphony or at their kid’s sporting event. Instead of broadcasting, reverse your thinking and consider narrowcasting … creating appropriate messages and delivery methods to impact your target in a more precise manner that’s in-line with their interests.

For example, sponsoring a wine and cheese tasting event prior to the symphony if that’s your target audience. Health-related businesses, insurance companies or sporting goods stores might consider a booth at the little league baseball game handing out baseball cards and their brochure on how to prevent sport’s related injuries. 

Outright Questioning or Reversing Your Thinking are two methods by which you can challenge the status quo. Marketing managers must, however, ensure that management styles and corporate culture foster and encourage respectful questioning of the status quo and consideration of viewpoints that are 180 degrees from “policy”.

In part 3 of this series we’ll discuss using things for something other than their original purpose. Keep in mind, inanimate objects don’t know or care what they are supposed to be used for. It’s our perceptions that limit us. And within that insight, lies creative problem-solving power.

- 30 - July 31, 2011

Question? Comment? 

Contact Michael Crooks at 517-589-0008 or

Read Part#1 below

 Creative Problem-Solving Part#1:

The Death of Creativity


   I get a lot of creative inspiration from children ... especially mine. I recall when my son was 10. He was rehearsing a presentation for his 5th grade class on corn bread.

   “Ok," I said. "Just close your eyes and imagine you’ve just walked to the front of the room and let’s hear it.”

   He stood before his mother and me, eyes closed … with a smile on his face. After what seemed like an eternity I said, “Hello! Anytime now.” To which he replied, “Just a second, I’m waiting for the applause to die down.”

   The ability to see and imagine that which isn’t there is vital to the creative process, a process that many people disconnect with as they grow older. The good news is, no matter where you are on the creativity continuum, you have the ability to be even more creative.

   This article, the first of a three-part series, will:

• Help you understand the forces working against creative thought,

• Help you realize that you really are creative,

• Explore a concept to reconnect with your creative problem-solving abilities at will.

   Do you consider yourself creative?  If yes, then you’ve overcome a major hurdle. If no … in a moment I believe I will change your perception. Let’s explore why people aren’t more creative. Here’s what happened.

   As a child, you were very creative. You could play for hours with stuff that wasn’t supposed to be used for what you were using it for. You know, like using mom’s pots and pans as a drum set or the wall as your personal canvas. You had imagination. Did you ever use two chairs and a blanket to make a fort?  When you were a kid, your mind was free to roam. You didn’t know the rules, you didn’t know “the way things are supposed to be” and you had few constraints on your thinking.

   Then a terrible thing happened. You started grade school or, as I call it … The Death of Creativity.

Forces Working Against Creative Thought

   The school system loves and rewards conformity. Individualism is frowned upon, in fact it’s punished. It’s a management thing. We simply can’t have 25 little kids running around, being all creative and individual. That impedes the ability to test them efficiently. So, the goal is to get everyone to fit a testable mold. The sky is blue, the grass is green. Color inside the lines.  We learned quickly to seek out and deliver the ONE right answer the teacher wanted. The faster we did it, the faster we’d get our gold star and get on to milk and cookies. There was no reason to search for other right answers or be creative … because the teacher didn’t appreciate it and it was seldom rewarded. Conformity, being the path of least resistance, became our modus operandi and we slowly… steadily stopped using our creative mind to its potential.

   I thought things would change in college. But they didn’t. I took a Literary Interpretation class. I didn’t interpret the literature the way my professor wanted me to. I saw something in the story that he didn’t. He got annoyed. I got an “E”.

   Do you realize that, for the most part, it's not until you get into a doctorate program that you’re required to come up with an original thought —  for your thesis. And the reason it’s so hard ...  is because you just spent the last 18 years of your life NOT having an original thought.

   The other thing that impedes creativity is the sum total of your life experiences. Based on such things as your moral upbringing, education and life experiences, you have beliefs and perceptions that either help or hinder the creative process. I call it Comfort Reluctance.

   As a child you were creative and it got taught out of you. As an adult you have a whole host of comfort reluctance issues that affect your creative ability.  The beautiful thing about creativity, however, is that it doesn’t ever really go away.  It lurks in the recesses of your mind and you often use it without ever thinking about it.

You Really Are Creative

   Earlier, I said if you don’t think you’re creative …  I believe I will change your perception. So let’s try it, please answer the following:

   Have you ever:

• cut three holes in a 33 gallon trash bag to use as a poncho?

• used a piece of paper or cardboard as a dustpan?

• rolled a piece of paper into a makeshift funnel?

• Used something other than a hammer … as a hammer?

   If you’ve done any of those things, you employed creative problem-solving. It’s the technique of using something for a purpose other than what it was intended. Congratulations! You just proved that you ARE creative.

Reconnecting With Creative Thoughts

   The key to employing creative problem-solving is to first recognize and accept that you do have creative ability. Next, you must recognize and recreate the mental conditions that were present when you performed any of the above examples. Over the next month, try and recall what you were feeling, what the situation was and what was going through your mind when you did any of the examples. Use those examples as a model to examine the process, which I believe can be duplicated.

   In my next installment,  we’ll explore the first two of three main concepts in creative problem solving and how they relate to promotional marketing and every day business.

   In the meantime, take a minute and close your eyes, and imagine the response of others to your next great idea. Try not to let the applause go on for too long.

 - 30 - July 12, 2011

The article below is unrelated to the article above. Read it anyway. :)

Role-Playing Solves Real Problems.


"Daddy", my daughter excitedly exclaimed. "All I have to do is sell seven wreaths and I earn enough to go on the school trip to the amusement park at the end of the year!"


As I reviewed the information with an advertising professional's eye, I casually asked, "What do the wreaths look like?"


My daughter pointed to a photocopied, black and white line drawing that was totally void of any warmth or cheer. I looked at the drawing and immediately became depressed. Then I became irritated.


The ability of a businesses to "think things through" is paramount to launching a successful promotion or for a non-profit to launch a successful fundraiser. Unfortunately, no one thought this wreath fundraising thingy through.


Without a photo, you've got 11 year olds trying to sell warm, Holiday cheer by showing people a crude drawing that evokes about as much warmth as sticking yourself in the eye with an icicle.


One of the best tactics you can employ to help you "think it through" is to role-play the steps of your promotion or fundraiser. Walk it through.  Use props. Have fun and actively look for problems or difficulties. If possible, role-play the activity with an outsider, someone who has had nothing to do with the planning of the activity, event or promotion. 


I saved a client an embarrassing moment just the other day, because I was able to "think it through" for her.  She asked me to print up some raffle tickets for a fundraiser for the church.  She wanted "Need Not Be Present To Win" printed on the ticket.  No problem. Then I asked her to explain to me how the raffle would work — verbal role-play.


"Well, we'll draw the first ticket," she explained.  "The person with that number comes forward and chooses the prize they want. Then we draw the next ticket on down the line."


"That's great", I replied. "But how does that work with the whole, "Need not be present to win" thing?


After a moment of silence and a blank stare from my client, we revised the drawing protocol to facilitate the attendance issue.


As for my daughter's wreath fundraiser? All I can say is, "Thank God" for grandparents, aunts and family friends who don't have the heart to say "No". In two hours of going door to door my daughter managed to sell one wreath. That's when we invoked the friends and family tactic.


Then my wife asked me how many we were buying. I noted she said, "how many" not "are we". I then quickly role-played in my head a scenario where I said, "none". 


 Boy that wreath sure looks nice on my front door.

By Ja






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