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  • Writer's pictureMatt Arnold

Creative Problem Solving: Learning as a Critical Capability

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Picture of a lightbulb. Photo by Lukas from Pexels

In an earlier post, I highlighted the four capabilities needed to help teams and organizations embrace creative problem solving in addressing complex problems. Those four capabilities are innovating, learning, communicating, and collaborating. This post will explore further learning in an organizational setting.

Avoiding Risks and Ruts

Learning is a core creative-problem solving capability is required for organizations and teams facing complex challenges. Our ability to embrace and cultivate learning strongly reduces risks and ruts. Through learning, organizations can better assess and understand opportunities and challenges, as well as ways to maximize positive outcomes for their organization.

Recently, I read The Half Life of Facts: How Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. Even hardcore scientific facts decay or become irrelevant. The Earth was known to be flat. The Earth was known to be the center of our universe, etc. These are no longer true or serve as good explanations. So, as facts decay, what we knew in the past may not be helpful as we face new or complex challenges. It is imperative to engage in on-going learning if our businesses want to successfully navigate complex problems.

Simplicity vs Complexity

In the design field, we often talk about simplicity. I believe we use and abuse the term "simple." Focusing on the quest for simple has made our thinking, well, frankly too simple. We need to make things as simple as we can in context -- or in other words we need to optimize for positive outcomes in a context. But, it’s not as simple as being simple. As Don Norman noted in “Living with Complexity,” it less about simplicity and more about how complexity reveals itself.

Applied Learning

Companies that cultivate and support a positive learning culture are more prepared to adapt, evolve and succeed. Some of the applied forms that organizational learning may take in the workplace are:

  • Sensemaking

  • Insights

  • Knowledge management

  • Research

  • Experimentation

  • Continuous discovery (as a compliment to Agile technology's continuous deployment)

Let's explore just a few of these forms and why learning is an essential capability when navigating complexity.


Sensemaking is a critical capability to help leaders deal with uncertainty and/or complexity. Sensemaking can happen at a team and organizational level. At its heart, there are three parts to sensemaking:

  • Understanding - participating in and making sense of a situation or phenomenon

  • Research - experimenting to understand the situation

  • Explanation - communicating and describe the situation and provide wayfinding

Two-thirds of effective sensemaking is based on, and requires, on-going learning. A side note, I will be presenting on sensemaking and wayfinding for teams at IAC 20.


Insights represent new information that changes behavior. For the organization those insights may be about our customers or market trends. As organizations are facing more complex problems, the need for insights increases. Last year, Forrester reported a stagnation in CX. The primary reason for this stagnation was that gap between what customers want and what companies think their customers want. Deep customer insights is listed as the most important ideation capability among all revenue growth type companies in a recent PWC survey of Global 1000 organizations regarding innovation. If we ignore external research and insights, we are shutting off critical feedback loops for our organization.

Insights are critical for organizations to survive and getting to insights requires strong learning skills to design the research efforts and analyze the corresponding results. Insights represent critical feedback loops that reduce system oscillation or breakdown. More on ways to effectively gatherer insights.

Knowledge Management


Knowledge is harder to operationalize than data or information. Knowledge informs or shapes what we do with data and information - this can vary in many different ways based on our individuality. While both data and information can be fairly easy to structure or codify, knowledge is unwieldy to structure (Davenport and Prusak 1997).

Types of Knowledge

There are three major buckets that we can start to throw knowledge:

  • explicit knowledge

  • tacit knowledge

  • cultural knowledge

Explicit knowledge is formal knowledge that is easy to transmit or disseminate throughout an organization. Examples can be seen in rules, specifications, mathematical formulas or IT service and support benchmarks. This is also known as declarative knowledge. Explicit or declarative knowledge can also be seen in what you are taught in training sessions.

Tacit knowledge is more implicit and much harder to articulate. Tacit knowledge can be best thought of as having two dimensions, a technical dimension and a cognitive dimension. The technical dimension is know-how represented in "the master craftsperson" who "develops a wealth of expertise 'at their fingertips' after years of experience. But the master craftsperson is often unable to articulate the scientific or technical principles behind what they know" (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995). The cognitive dimension of tacit knowledge consists of schemata, mental models and perceptions.

Cultural knowledge is a filter that helps us place a value on certain parts of knowledge and also keeps out knowledge that is deemed unimportant by the dominant group in a culture or organization. Choo (1998) describes cultural knowledge as knowledge that: "…Includes the assumptions and beliefs that are used to describe and explain reality, as well as the conventions and expectations that are used to assign value and significance to new information. These shared beliefs, norms and values form the framework in which organizational members construct reality, recognize the saliency of new information and evaluate alternative interpretations and actions.”

Knowledge Creation

Knowledge creation is the process that accounts for the interdependent and synergistic relationship between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995; Choo, 1998). This process is also referred to as organizational knowledge conversion.

Knowledge creation takes place at three levels:

  • individual

  • group

  • organization.

All three components or levels of knowledge creation must be taken into consideration when thinking about KM programs or initiatives.

Reasoning & Logic

Reasoning and logic are crucial elements of learning applied to our pursuit of insights. Sifting through data, primary or secondary, and recognizing important patterns depends on our ability We may to that deductively, inductively, or abductively. Abductive reasoning is a way to infer the “possibility of what might be” based on the evidence. Abductive thinking is a critical skill for synthesis and innovation. Perhaps the best description of synthesis and abductive thinking for design was written by Jon Kolko. You can read his essay here, which I highly recommend.

Encourage Ongoing Learning

As, "Half-Life of Facts" shows us, all facts decay or become irrelevant, and as we know from innovation research on systems thinking, customers represent some of the best balancing feedback loops an organization can possess. Therefore, it is critical to embrace ongoing learning. My ask of you is to encourage and support ongoing learning in your organization.

From my research and experience, I believe a learning organization requires:

A culture that supports:

  • learning and curiosity

  • strategic alignment

  • team member engagement


Without a supportive culture that tacitly and explicitly supports a positive learning environment, learning and knowledge management initiatives will be severely hampered. Organizations get the behavior they incent. Organizational cultures that can support learning provide the time to learn, incentives and rewards for learning, and a safe place to explore ideas and challenge assumptions. Our knowledge systems must possess diverse perspectives and ongoing exploration to provide a form of hybrid vigor. With all systems, those that are to homogeneous can fall rapidly.

“We encourage leaders to foster an environment where they role-model a growth mindset, encourage their teams to speak the uncomfortable truth, co-create with their teams or clients, and seek feedback regularly.”Ginni Rometty, CEO, IBM

Many cultural cues comes from the behavior modeled by its leaders. I encourage leaders to display a growth mindset and vulnerability. It is ok to say I don’t know and commit to following up.

“We focus on four distinct growth behaviors: empowerment, curiosity, inclusivity, and an iterative approach. These behaviors help promote strategic thinking and help us avoid a fear of failure.”James Quincey, CEO, Coca-Cola

Strategic Alignment

Closely related to culture is strategic alignment. Organizational learning objectives must be tied to the strategy of the organization. Individual learning objectives need to align the growth goals of the organization with the growth goals of the individual. If the individual does not see the knew knowledge or skills as helping them, they are highly unlikely to learn or apply new knowledge.

CFO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and they leave?” CEO: “What happens if we don't, and they stay?” -Peter Baeklund.

Managing & Leading is The Work

Recent organizations studies seem to indicate that employee disengagement is on the rise. Which is not surprising as the challenges of the modern workplace grow more complex, yet management seems rooted in 20th Century practices, primarily based on solving "tame" or "technical" problems. Supporting the skill development of a team member is one way to positively engage employees. Too often we promote managers and leaders because they were great individual contributors. However, few seem to make the leap to understand that managing and leading is now the work. It is not about the technical or functional skills, as much as it is about their ability to enable, engage, and support their teams.

“Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to.” Richard Branson

When building research and design teams I look for individuals who are smart, play well together, and can get shit done. I look for folks that display a growth mindset and are OK with vulnerability - it's ok and healthy to say "I don't know." I agree with Bob Sutton, Pat Fallon, and Fred Senn -- avoid the assholes. Assholes never produce enough value as an individual to make up for the toxicity they spread and the value they rob from your organization and customers.


In my opinion, curiosity is a critical trait. Continue to work with your teams to ask interesting questions. A few years ago, I was able to attend a conference with Nick de la Mere, Design Lead at Fjord. In the context of design, and I think this applies to all fields that require complex problem solving, Nick said the best advice he received in his career was “if you want to be a great designer, spend as much time learning about other things as you do doing design.”

quote from Nick de la Mare - "If you want to be a great designer, spend as much time learning about other things as you do doing design."

You can see Nick’s talk here. I believe learning about other things can be in hobbies not related to your field. It is another way to celebrate individuals and help align their passions to positive organizational outcomes. The more you learn about other systems, and their levers, the more you expand your toolkit for creative problem solving.


Some examples from my professional experience that I’ve used to cultivate a culture of curiosity and learning include:

  • Salons - our version included a focused topic to be discussed in a happy hour setting. The goals of the discussions were to "please and educate."

  • Book Clubs - spending time with essential books or articles from our field and discussing and critiquing the implications of the book. At times we even invited the author to discuss their work with us.

  • Communities of Practice - helping establish social and technical communities of practice to encourage learning and relationship building across departments.

  • Conferences / Training - onsite and offsite training and conferences to expand relationships and perspectives.

  • Field Trips - extending a lunch or afternoon to explore a concept and its application in an environment outside of our offices.

Many of our events would take place out of the office or off campus. I believe the change in perspective is helpful, as is the notion that it doesn’t have to be a “butts in seats” transactional relationship.

Need Help Improving Organizational Learning?

Spark can help your organization navigate complexity and deal with adaptive challenges. Think big, move fast, and continuously improve with Spark.


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