Using the 4D Method for Creative Problem Solving

We know that the ability to be creative, to develop creative strategy or to think creatively is a key skill set for the 21st century. In fact, it might be the key skill students need to thrive in their future careers – industries from engineering to healthcare to agriculture have identified that the number one skill they look for when building their teams is “creative thinking”. Creative thinking is a process, a skill set, an outcome or contribution and a lens through which we can see old problems anew. But most importantly, creative thinking is key to the production of new and useful ideas (Amabile et al., 1996). But what does that mean, and how we best support students as they work to build that skill set?

The processes that individuals and teams use to produce these new or novel ideas are called “creativity-relevant processes” (Amabile & Pratt, 2016). These creativity-relevant processes, or creative capacities, may include personal characteristics that enable individuals to become more risk or failure tolerant, the work styles that we can each use every day to support iteration and persistence, and the mental models, methodologies and perceptual styles that are useful when “…taking new perspectives on problems, pivoting among different ideas, thinking broadly, and making unusual associations” (Amabile & Pratt, 2016, p. 160).

The evidence suggests that supporting and enhancing creativity-relevant process skills will help individuals become more innovative, more engaged and better critical thinkers in the face of complex learning challenges. We know from the evidence that giving students the chance to develop and strengthen their creative thinking and creative strategy skills is key to their success in the future. Enhanced creative capacities enable students to use abstract thinking to connect diverse experiences to the challenge at hand, resulting in more innovation-oriented growth and development (Bason & Austin, 2019), to improve their ability to envision radically new ideas, to collaborate with others to execute them in an entrepreneurial manner (Morrison & Johnston, 2003), and then to ensure that they take hold and evolve in the world. One key way to support and enhance creativity-relevant process skills in team-based learning environments is the 4D Method for Creative Practice

The 4 D Method for Creative Practice is a framework designed to help teams of students in marketing classrooms generate creative solutions to wicked problems (Buchanan, 1992).  The framework guides creative-problem solvers through four phases of creative work: discovery, defining, developing and delivering. Each phase of creative work within the 4D model is built of a series of active, experiential and inquiry based pedagogical approaches that rely on established creativity-relevant practices (Amabile & Pratt, 2016).

Phase 1: Discover

In the first phase of the 4D Method, creative problem solvers work to surface the insights that they’ll need to create a solution to a wicked problem. In this phase of work students collaborate with community members (from a community, a client organization or a network of partners) to define a problem, to identify the systemic features of the challenge and to uncover the impact that this challenge makes at the community level.  

Useful approaches and tools: interviews, shadowing, ride-alongs, data safaris, informance, collaborative storytelling, ethnographic field work, surveys and guided immersions.

Phase 2: Define

In the second phase of the 4D Method, creative problem solvers work to define the parameters within which they are able to generate a creative solution, in partnership with their community collaborators. This phase includes sourcing information from outside of the system to inform possible solutions, and member-checking findings from the Discover phase of work with community collaborators.

Useful approaches and tools: Secondary market, segment or CRESTD research, system mapping, interviews, story-boarding, dot-ocracy or heat mapping, and storytelling (remembering the future exercise or interview with the double exercise).

Phase 3: Develop

In the third phase of the 4D Method, creative problem solvers work in a highly iterative fashion to generate conceptual prototypes and to evaluate these prototypes with community collaborators as they move closer to their final solution. This phase relies on repeated iterative cycles of making and testing, and often requires extra time for student teams to accommodate positive failure in their prototype development.

Useful approaches and tools: prototyping (physical, performance or modeled prototype development), performance, storytelling, space design, user experience testing, situated testing, community conversations, world café interviews, focus groups, think-aloud interviews and ethnographic field work.

Phase 4: Deliver

In this final phase of the 4D method, creative-problem solvers explore different ways to tell the story of their design solution. Of critical importance is the role of the community collaborator – the individual members of the community that the students are serving through this creative-problem solving exercise are vital to this final phase of work and should be positioned as partners rather than as a jury or judge.

Useful approaches and tools: storytelling, performance, video-ethnography, digital storytelling, system mapping and reflective practices.

By completing the 4D Method, student teams are able to immerse themselves in a creative problem, to identify the systemic and community level impacts, to prototype, test and design an evidence based solution and to mobilize a community toward solution adoption.

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