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Gravel Gulch
4 steps to problem solving

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

The oldest and most widely practiced creative problem-solving (CPS) method was developed by Alex Osborn and Sidney J. Parnes. Neither its originators nor its main vehicle, the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, NY, are responsible for the following, however, because to make it easily and instantly learnable, we have greatly simplified it,

The Osborn/Parnes method was systematized and made into a science in the 1950s and '60s. Alex Osborn surveyed the working conditions of successful and unsuccessful productive creative teams and found key practices which contribute to creativity.

Osborn invented "brainstorming," among other things."Brainstorming" is a way to force yourself to see more and more and more possibilities until you bring into view a better answer than you would normally be able to come up with. Developed further by Sidney J. Parnes, "brainstorming" is only the first in a series of systematic steps to move from problem "mess" to the implementation of a detailed action-plan to solve that problem.

The basic procedure is to break the problem-solving process into a series of discrete, specific steps, then move systematically through each step in turn. Each of these steps, in turn, involves a "brainstorm" to look at as many possibilities and aspects as possible; then reduce and narrow all that down, selecting from among these many the basis for the next step.

In this simplified version you will find four steps. If you identify or select your own question or problem to work, following these four steps and the "gravel gulch" examples as guidelines in pursuing your own chosen issue, you should not only come up with an ingeniously clever solution to your own problem but have some fun doing so!


Here, then, is a brief summary of those four steps, followed by the more detailed instructions for each step. A couple of "Gravel Gulch" examples set them in context.
  1. The "mess" — also known as the "blow-off," a cathartic elaboration of all that can be said about the problem situation. Out of that mess, select or create the one statement which best defines the problem or question. This statement might be quite different from your initial statement of what the problem is.

  2. Idea-finding —brainstorming dozens or even hundreds of possible remedies to that problem statement, from which you then select the 1 or 2 most interesting possibilities....

  3. Solution-finding — brainstorming dozens or scores of ways to turn that interesting idea into an actual solution to the problem, from which you select the 1 or 2 ways which most nearly appear to actually lead toward the desired results....

  4. Action-planning — which, depending upon context, may involve any or several discrete steps in planning, in finding acceptance, in implementation.
One requirement in the Osborn-Parnes procedure is that someone be present in that process who "owns" the problem—meaning that it's a problem he is experiencing, whether or not others are also involved, and that he is one whose actions are likely to impinge directly upon that problem situation.

So, please select a problem to address during this learning or practice session with our condensed version of the Osborn-Parnes method of creative problem-solving. Once you've selected it, write it down.


Step One.  The "Mess"
Make as many roughly one-sentence statements as you can about the problem "mess" or situation.
o These can be factual statements, as implied by the "fact-finding" name.

o These can also be feelings you have about the issue, and everything else that's wrong or bothersome in that context.

o In fact, quite literally, anything you can think to say about this mess or problem situation, say it! If it occurs to you in the context, write it down whether you think it fits or not. Write all the things you think, feel, perceive and know about this situation.

o Write as rapidly as possible, faster than judgment can possibly hope to keep up with, perhaps 50-100 entries in 10 to 15 minutes You need to outrun your internal editor so that all kinds of remarkable new insights and perspectives can open up.
"Gravel Gulch" example, Step One

For example, if the run-down condition of your neighbor's vacant house (that "Gravel Gulch"), depressing your property values, was your chosen difficulty, it may be that it was just the uncut weeds. That house was still a year or so away from needing repainting and trim-work, so now the problem is the much smaller one of getting those weeds cut and the trash picked up.

Or is it that house's effect on your property values, especially since the tax assessor is due to make his rounds soon? Or is it the social reflection on you with your friends and clients of having Gravel Gulch two doors down the block? Again, a much more specific and limited problem, whose best address might be very different from the overall mess (quite literally!) posed by Gravel Gulch in the first place! "In what ways might I gain prestige and respect from my friends in the context of having Gravel Gulch down the block?" Or even, "In what ways might I gain prestige and respect with my friends by my having Gravel Gulch down the block?"

Maybe the real problem for you is not appearances but the prospect of roaches and mice encroaching on your household from Gravel Gulch two lots down. In fact, with the tax assessor coming, you could stand to have appearances even a little worse for just a short while; it's the bugs you don't want...

Go through your list and encapsulate the 2 to 3 most interesting entries, and several others that seem to capture the situation for you, and perhaps 1 or 2 others that pick out the most bothersome or key aspect of the problem situation for you. Looking over this shortened list, select one item or one very short combination of related items.

Re-write this one selection into what the Osborn-Parnes people would call "a problem statement." This begins with "In what ways may I ..." (or "may we") do something to remedy that situation? For example, if the onset of bugs and concern about next week's party at your house are the most bothersome aspects, one problem statement might read, "In what ways may I avoid infestation and have things around here at their best appearance for next week's party?"

Another problem statement might read, "In what ways may I win both admiration and help at next week's party at my restrained heroics in coping with the relentlessly advancing juggernaut effects of Gravel Gulch?"

Yet another possible problem statement:  "In what ways can I use my party next week to recruit help in acquiring/changing/controlling what is now Gravel Gulch?"

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