As the pace and magnitude of change increases, especially during unstable times like the Covid pandemic, more and more organisations are trying to increase the level of creative and innovation capabilities within their businesses. One line of development has been an increased interest in creative problem solving.
Creative problem-solving is used to attack a problem from multiple angles and perspectives; a highly valuable skill for organisations and one that can spark more innovative ways of thinking.
Four stages of creative problem-solving
This process usually breaks down into four stages or processes:
- Generating – acquiring and producing new information and ideas.
- Conceptualising- understanding and defining the problem or opportunity.
- Implementing – carrying out the new idea and making it work.
- Optimising – acceptance of the new idea.
Western and East Asian cultures approach to creative problem-solving
Western and East Asian cultures, like that of China, tend to approach creative problem-solving differently.
Western cultures, for example, use logical, paradoxical thinking that allows employees to see both sides of a situation and resolve conflicting needs.
East Asian Cultures
In contrast, East Asian cultures use more intuitive, complex thinking that thrives on having a situational awareness of the unique aspects the problem in relation to its environment. This is reflected in styles of Confucian thought, such as the Chinese doctrine of the mean, which is also known as Zhong-yong thinking
Zhong-yong thinking is a values-based system that can also be used for conflict resolution as well as problem-solving. It can allow employees to address multiple aspects or angles of a problem, whilst recognising how they relate to one another in specific contexts to create balance and harmony.
Zhong-Yong thinking is an individual cognitive style based on Chinese cultural characteristics. It explains how many Chinese:
- process information
- approach tasks
- make decisions
…Zhong-Yong thinking is an individual cognitive style based on Chinese cultural characteristics
- strategic choice
The 4 forms of Zhong-yong thinking
The four forms of Zhong-yong thinking that focus on different aspects of a problem are:
- A and B – primarily based on aspect A, but the impact of aspect B is considered as well
- “the manager is warm (A) yet strict (B)”
- Both A and B – simultaneously prioritising aspects A and B
- “the manager is warm (A) and strict (B)”
- Neither A nor B – the opposite of both aspects A and B, which avoids prioritising either one
- “the manager is neither warm (A) nor strict (B)”
- A, yet not A – the problem includes some parts of aspect A, and to make sure A does not overwhelm the problem, B is removed
- “the manager is warm (A) without being friendly (A)”
Integrative and eclectic thinking
“A and B” along with “Both A and B” are examples of Zhong-yong integrative thinking, where people consider all of the problem’s aspects collectively and individually, whilst attempting to resolve any conflicts to find the best solution. This holistic approach may significantly increase creativity and creative problem solving, because it promotes mental flexibility and comprehensive analysis.
“Neither A nor B” and “A, yet not A” are examples of Zhong-yong eclectic thinking that prioritises protecting the mean or balance of different aspects in a problem. Focusing on maintaining the aspects in their original state may limit creative thinking.
New creative ideas and solutions frequently cause some level of instability when they are first applied. Additionally, one aspect of a problem may need to be addressed more than another aspect in order to move forward successfully.
Previous research looking at cultural differences between styles of thinking and the influence of Zhong-yong thinking on mental processes has found that:
- High Zhong-yong thinkers adopt more flexible and holistic information processing strategies.
- Zhong-yong thinking is positively associated with high levels of employee creativity.
- East Asians use more situational and contextual analysis than Westerners, because they pay close attention to background influences in the environment.
- People who use integrative Zhong-yong thinking tend to score higher on creativity tests like the remote association test that examines how we choose to connect words.
- When knowledge sharing is high in organisations Zhong-yong thinking tends to have a positive impact on employee creativity.
- When Zhong-yong thinking is low and employee creative self-efficacy is high, perceived uncertainty in the workplace caused by Covid-19 has been found to increase employee creativity.
A new study
A new study by researchers from Central China Normal University in China has looked at the effects of different forms of Zhong-yong thinking on creative problem-solving.
The study found that Zhong-yong integrative thinking can increase employee creativity:
- The study found that it increases creativity relative to solving market investment problems, for example.
- In contrast, Zhong-yong eclectic thinking was found to have no significant impact on creativity or the creative problem-solving capability of employees.
The main point of this study are that:
- Culture has a significant impact on our styles of thought and problem analysis.
- Zhong-yong integrative thinking may be a useful way for leaders in many different industries to train employees to engage in problem-solving and, in particular, in creative problem solving.
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