Hurson’s Productive Thinking Model

The Productive Thinking Model was advanced by creativity theorist, Tim Hurson. It was published in his 2007 book, “Think Better.” His model offers a systematic framework for creative problem solving. It can be used by an individual or as a Problem Solving (PS) Group.

Hurson's Productive Thinking Model

Hurson suggests that creativity is an essential component of problem solving. If problem solvers are not creative, a business will struggle to appreciate the broader issues around a problem, and they will fail to recognize the soundest solutions. Even worse, they may fail to solve the problem.

His Productive Thinking Model actively encourages creativity and critical thinking during each stage of the problem-solving process, through the use of questioning. This aims to develop a better understanding of the problems under consideration, and results in solid, creative, workable ideas and solutions. The framework has 6 steps:

  • Ask “What is going on?”
  • Ask “What is success?”
  • Ask “What is the question?”
  • Generate answers.
  • Forge the solution.
  • Align resources.

The Steps of the Productive Thinking Model

Step 1: Ask “What is Going On?”

Initially, the PS group or individual needs to get a good grasp of the problem under consideration. To do this, in step one the Problem Solver uses the following four overarching questions. What is the problem? What is the impact? What is the information? What is the vision or target future?

What is Going On?

What is the Problem?

This is a brainstorming question – in relation to the issue to be resolved:

  1. What is bothering the PS group or problem solver?
  2. What issues is the business or individual customers reporting?
  3. What is out of balance?
  4. What could work more efficiently?
  5. What could be improved?
  6. What are the results of the issues?
  7. Why should action be taken?

The PS Group record as many issues as possible, even if the PS group, or problem solver feel they know what the main problem is. The intent to is to look at all possibilities and to remove bias and incorrect assumptions. The issues do not have to be well-defined or even justified: it is just a list of ideas – there is no right or wrong.

Idea Generation in the Productive Thinking Model

An Affinity Diagram can help to organize the ideas that the PS group or problem solver finds into general themes, and spot the most key problem or group of problems to work on. Pareto Analysis or Paired Comparison Analysis can help with this.

What is the Impact?

Using blue sky thinking the PS group, or problem solver can look at how the issues effect the organization, and how it shapes relations with other stakeholders – customers, suppliers, and competitors etc.

The PS group/problem solver, or stakeholders can make a list, and look at the impact that the issues have on each stakeholder.

  • Direct and indirect effects
  • Why is it important?
  • What concerns do people have?
  • What are the benefits of solving the problem?

It is important to remember to collect external views and perspectives that are concerned with the problem.

What is the Information?

To answer this question, gathering information is required. The PS group or problem solver need to know about the issues and what is unknown at the present? They need to be aware of any attempts have been made to solve the problem in the past. This includes what can be learnt from these interventions, as well as, further evidence that is available about the issues – statistics, reports, feedback etc.

Root Cause Analysis

The most common tools used at this stage are:

What is the Vision or Target Future?

In this stage, the PS group describes where they are going and what they want – their vision. Hurson calls this the “Target Future.” The PS group write down all the imagined target futures, and then thin these down to something that is realizable and desired.

However, its focus remains on being creative, and uses phrases to help query the target future.

  • I wish that we could…,
  • Imagine what it would be like…,
  • Is it possible to…

Step 2: Ask “What is Success?”

In this step, PS group or problem solver or going to extend the target future. They need to describe what success looks like.

  • What is our Target Future?
  • What does it look like?
  • Is it achievable?

A PS group or problem solver can use the “DRIVE” acronym – do –restrictions – investment – values – essential outcomes – to help them write this description.

Problem Solving with DRIVE

By the end of the process, the group should know what is possible and what is not if they implement their target future. This helps manage expectations, and ensure that calculated risks can be taken. But success should still be creative and imaginative – challenging the status quo.

Step 3: Question the Target Future

The goal of this stage is to produce an inventory of questions but not answers. Answers are found in step four.

The group analyse all the information gathered in the previous two steps – the problem definition, and the vision of success. Then the group compile a list of questions that need answering in relation to achieving the target future. They should be creative questions that may seem unlikely or improbable.

  • How can we…?
  • How will we…?
  • How might we?

This should create a long list of questions that can then be refined down to the most relevant.

Step 4: Generate Answers

Here the PS group create solutions to the defined problem by finding the answers to the questions identified in step three.

Generate Answers

Creative thinking is used to generate as many potential solutions as possible. All ideas are considered feasible – none should be dismissed by others as they will be thinned down in the next step.

Step 5: Forge the Solution

The group evaluate the most feasible ideas by relating them with the target future identified in step two. Then pick the best candidate for implementation. This solution is then developed in more detail. As with the other steps this involves questions.

  • What else could make this idea better?
  • How could the PS group or problem solver refine the solution to fit the success criteria?
  • Can we integrate any of our other ideas to strengthen the idea?
  • What challenges do we face and how can they be overcome?

Step 6: Align Resources

This step identifies the people and other resources that are required in order to implement the preferred solution. Again questions are used.

  • Who do we need?
  • What do we need?
  • Is anyone else going to be affected?
  • How long will it take, and can we speed it up?

Action Plans are valuable for here, or for more complex projects a formal project management approach. After these steps are created, the solution can be implemented. This is not a formal step in the approach.

Align Resources

Many problem-solving techniques involve creativity and critical thinking. However, this is one of the few tools that focuses on directly developing creativity and the use of the imagination – through questioning, conversations and brainstorming.

That is not to say creative thinking is not encouraged, it is just less important than using creative thinking. This means that PS group or individual problem solver are stimulated into taking a unique view of the problem discovering the interesting, imaginative solutions, which are innovative and inventive.

Key Points

  • Hurson’s Productive Thinking Model offers a systematic framework for creative problem solving that can be used by an individual or by a Problem Solving Group.
  • It actively encourages creativity and critical thinking during each stage of the problem-solving process, through the use of questioning that aims to develop a better understanding of the problems under consideration, and results in solid, creative, workable ideas and solutions.
  • The framework has 6 steps: Ask What is going on? Ask What is success? Ask What is the question? Generate answers, Forge the solution, and Align resources.
  • Hurson’s Productive Thinking Model is one of the few tools that focuses on directly developing creativity and the use of the imagination – through questioning, conversations and brainstorming.

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