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February 05, 2019 Tuesday 11:06:10 AM IST

Boundaries Beget Solutions

Creative Living

A problem that seeks a creative intervention and solution requires clear boundary definition. Boundaries of a problem could be looked at as a conceptual container, which encloses the aspects and elements relevant to the problem and at the same time separating it from irrelevant details that lie beyond the scope of the problem. Described both by Tudor Rickards (1974), Professor of Creativity and Organizational Change, Manchester Business School in the U.K., and by Arthur B. VanGundy Jr. (1981), Professor of University of Oklahoma in the U.S.A., the Boundary Examination Technique is a powerful tool to meet the purpose. In the year 1982, de Bono also developed a simple version of Boundary Examination Technique.


Tudor Rickards was a leading European creativity thinker, who wanted to develop a European alternative to the American creativity theories. Rickards pioneered and propagated the ‘Manchester Method’, a system of creative and applied learning championed by Manchester Business School. He also authored a good number of books on creativity including Problem Solving Through Creativity (Wiley, 1974) and Creativity and Problem Solving at Work (Gower Publishing, Ltd., 1997).


Arthur Boice VanGundy Jr. is the author of numerous books on creativity techniques. His book, Techniques of structured problem solving (New York 1988), is considered by many as "the Bible of problem solving techniques”. Focus of his research was the creative person and the creative climate. VanGundy’s other works on creativity include: 108 Ways to get a bright idea (New Jersey, 1983), 101 Activities for teaching creativity and problem solving (San Francisco, 2005), and 101 More Great Games and Activities (New York, 2005).


The need of Boundary Examination


Every problem is born out of a unique context, which may color the description of the problem. This is especially true, if the problem is defined by somebody else and given to you for identifying creative solutions. It is highly likely that the personal biases, concerns and prejudices of the one who has initially defined the problem may influence the definition. That is the primary reason why the examination of the boundaries of the problem assumes importance, before we venture to solve the same.


The main effort in the boundary examination is to reduce the fuzziness of the definition of the problem, so that the heart of the problem is identified and attended to. More often, an exact definition of the problem itself will lead to corresponding solutions.


Boundary examination also leads the problem to another level of abstraction, liberating it from its immediate contexts and generalizing it to focus on the core issue. Creative problem solving is not just an exercise to somehow solve the immediate problem. It is a tool for generating creative options for solutions. Boundary examination will give opportunities to seek and find novel options to uniquely solve the problem at hand.


Boundary examination may also recommend boundary relaxation to avoid straight-jacket solutions that is appropriate to the given problem only, rather a more general solution, which could solve many issues at the same time.


Procedure of Boundary Examination


We discuss here a simple procedure of Boundary Examination detailed by de Bono, a five-step process, which explains the assumptions behind the formulation of the problem. Focus is given to liberation of the keywords of the problem definitions from the plausible prejudices of the one who formulate it, leading to suitable understanding of the core of the problem and its redefinition.


1.         Write down the original (given/initial) statement of the problem.

2.       Underline key words of the problem statements.

3.       Examine each key word for hidden assumptions. That could be done, for example, by replacing the key words with their synonyms.

4.       Explore how the exchanged keywords redefine the problem.

5.        Restate the original problem with the new keywords.


Let us consider a typical problem of a publishing house, which wants to improve subscription to one of its magazines.


Initial statement of the problem: “I wish to increase the number of subscription to the magazine”

Identification of Keywords: I, wish, increase, number, subscription, magazine

Examination of Keywords:

I                  : The Team, Readers, Stakeholders, Organization, Community, Nation

Wish                   : Ensure, Decide, Aim, Target, Strategize, Plan, Optimize

Increase  : Multiply, Triple, Boost, Quality, Focus, Target audience, Popularize, Attractiveness

Number   : Size, Amount, Percentage, Cost, Periods, Proportions

Subscription   : Contribution, Participation, Sponsorship, Cost, Profit

Magazine         : Printed, Online, Social Media, E-magazine, Auto-generated     


Exploration of the emerging keywords: It is interesting to observe that each alternative key word opens up a new strategy, new horizon and new orientation to the definition of the problem anew, at the same time hinting at the plausible solutions. That is the power of the Boundary Examination Method of creative thinking.

Restatement of the problem: After a thorough boundary analysis, a revised statement of the problem that specifies the actual problem and that at the same time proposes solutions, is drafted.


We may, for example, restate the given problem as: “The stakeholders target to popularize the percentage of participation in the online magazines to improve their achievements”.


It could be easily identified that the boundary examination could facilitate creative problem solving, adding clarity to the definition of the problem and at the same time, steering towards creative solution of the problem at hand.

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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