A Powerful Integrated Problem-Solving Process

Simplex is an industrial-strength creativity tool. Developed by Min Basadur, it takes the approach of DO IT to the next level of sophistication.

Rather than seeing creativity as a single straight-line process, Simplex sees it as the continuous cycle it should be. Completion and implementation of one cycle of creativity leads straight into the next cycle of creative improvement.

How to Use the Tool:
Simplex uses the eight stages shown in figure 1, below:

These are explained below:

1. Problem Finding
Often finding the right problem to solve is the most difficult part of the creative process. When using Simplex, actively seek problems out. Wherever they exist you have opportunities for change and improvement.

Problems may be obvious, or can be flushed out using trigger questions like the ones below:

What would your customers want you to improve?
What could they be doing better if we could help them?
Who else could we help using our core competences?
What small problems do we have which could grow into bigger ones?
What slows our work or makes it more difficult? What do we often fail to achieve?
How can we improve quality?
What are our competitors doing that we could do?
What is frustrating and irritating?
These questions deal with problems that exist now. It is also useful to try to look into the future. Think about how you expect markets and customers to change over the next few years; the problems you may experience as your organization expands; and social, political and legal changes that may affect it.

At this stage you may not have enough information to formulate your problem precisely. Do not worry about this until step 3!

2. Fact Finding
The next stage is to find out as much information relating to the problem as possible.

This gives you the depth of knowledge you need to:

Use the best ideas your competitors have had
Understand customers needs in more detail
Know what has already been tried
Fully understand any processes, components, services or technologies that you may need to use
Ensure that the benefits of solving the problem will be worth the effort you will put into it
This stage also involves assessing the quality of the information that you have. Here it is worth listing your assumptions and checking that they are correct.

3. Problem Definition
By the time you reach this stage, you should know roughly what the problem is and should have a good understanding of the facts relating to it. From here the thing to do is to crystallize the exact problem or problems you want to solve.

It is important to solve a problem at the right level. If you ask questions that are too broad, then you will never have enough resources to answer them effectively. If you ask questions that are too narrow, you may end up fixing symptoms of a problem, rather than the problem itself.

Min Basadur (who created the Simplex Process) suggests using the question 'Why?' to broaden a question, and 'What's stopping you?' to narrow it.

For example, if your problem is one of trees dying, ask 'Why do I want to keep trees healthy?'. This might broaden the question to 'How can I maintain the quality of our environment?'.

A 'What's stopping you?' here could be 'I do not know how to control a disease killing the tree'.

Big problems are normally made up of many smaller ones. This is the stage at which you can use a technique like Drill-Down to break the problem down to its component parts.

4. Idea Finding
The next stage is to generate as many ideas as possible. Ways of doing this range from asking other people for their opinions, through programmed creativity tools and lateral thinking techniques to brainstorming.

Do not evaluate ideas during this stage. Instead, concentrate on generating many ideas as possible. Bad ideas often trigger good ones.

5. Selection and Evaluation
Once you have a number of possible solutions to your problem, it is time to select the best one.

The best solution may be obvious. If it is not, then it is important to think through the criteria you will use to select the best idea. The Decision Making Techniques section of Mind Tools lays out a number of good methods for this. Particularly useful techniques may be Decision Trees, Paired Comparison Analysis and Grid Analysis.

Once you have selected an idea, develop it as far as possible. It is then essential to evaluate it to see if it is good enough to be considered worth using. It is important not to let your ego get in the way of your common sense. If your idea does not give big enough benefit, then either see if you can generate more ideas, or restart the whole process. You can waste years of your life developing creative ideas that no-one wants.

There are two excellent techniques for doing this. One is Edward de Bono's 6 Thinking Hats, which is an excellent tool for qualitative analysis. The other is Cost/Benefit Analysis, which gives you a good basis for financially based decisions.

6. Planning
Once you have selected an idea, and are confident that your idea is worthwhile, then it is time to plan its implementation.

The best way of doing this is to set this out as an Action Plan, which lays out the who, what, when, where, why and how of making it work. For large projects it may be worth using more formal planning techniques.

7. Sell Idea
Up to this stage you may have done all this work on your own or with a small committee. Now you will have to sell the idea to the people who must support it. This might be your boss, a bank manager or other people involved with the project.

In selling the project you will have to address not only the practicality of the project, but also things such internal politics, hidden fear of change, etc.

8. Action
Finally, after all the creativity and preparation, comes action! This is where all the careful work and planning pays off.

Once the action is firmly under way, return to stage 1, Problem Finding, to continue improving your idea.

Min Basadur's book, The Power of Innovation, explores this process in much more detail.

Key points:
The Simplex Process is a powerful, sophisticated approach to innovation. It is suitable for projects and organizations of almost any scale.

The Process is an eight-stage cycle. Upon completion of the eight stages you start it again to find and solve another problem. This helps to ensure continuous improvement.

Stages in the process are:
Problem finding
Fact finding
Problem Definition
Idea Finding
Selection and Evaluation
Selling of the Idea
By moving through these stages you ensure that you solve the most significant problems with the best solutions available to you. This process can help you to be intensely creative.