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How to think outside the box to solve complex public problems

27 June 2023

News and media


Image of ANZSOG Public Leadership Masterclass speaker Yumiko Shimabukuro

From persistent poverty, gender inequality, to climate change, many organisations today confront problems which are extremely difficult or impossible to solve because of their interconnected and increasingly complex nature. 

An upcoming masterclass in ANZSOG’s Public Leadership Masterclass program, How to Think Outside the Box led by Dr Yumiko Shimabukuro, will show how different techniques and approaches can spark creativity about their work and their lives. 

Dr Shimabukuro is the Director of the Urban & Social Policy Program for the Executive MPA at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Co-Founder of the Center on Japanese Economy and Business’ Japanese Management Leadership Program at the Columbia Business School.   

She says that public sector leaders are living in a ‘VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – where they are asked to solve complex problems in the face of constant unpredictability. 

“So, in this environment encouraging creativity in the workplace – broadly meaning generating new ideas and considering new possibilities for change, enhanced adaptability, and resolution is becoming more important. 

Public services are often hierarchical, risk-averse and process-bound organisations but Dr Shimabukuro said that they should be able to change their business-as-usual to encourage collaboration and creativity. 

“We need to make more efforts to break down the siloes in public sector organisations and create a more collaborative communication infrastructure that can facilitate both individual and collective ideation,” she said. 

“There are some simple steps in training and professional development around communication and avoiding management styles that could encourage not dampen creativity.” 

“We think that creativity is something that comes from an individual’s brilliance, their background, their mindset, or their affinity towards problem solving, and that it kind of starts and ends there. But collaboration is the aggregation of creativity, and creating a structure that leverages people’s different ways of thinking and being creative – that aggregation is where the magic lies because you multiply the benefits of creativity.” 

“This is what we saw in the response to COVID when a lot of teams and organisations and agencies were coming together to solve novel problems. We need to make those super-collaborative moments the norm not the exception.” 

“You won’t be able to scale up creativity and produce the best possible responses without collaboration.” 

Unlocking everyone’s creativity

She said that organisations needed to unlock the creative potential and ideas of all employees, even those who did not consider themselves creative. 

“When it comes to creativity and design, we tend to outsource these things or there’s a division of labour between creative and non-creative. So, it’s really important to facilitate the discussion in an inclusive way,” she said. 

“There are brainstorming techniques that can crowdsource ideas from people, but if we label it as trying to solve problems, rather something that is creative or design-focused, then we can bring people’s ideas out and go beyond the barriers of individual identities.” 

“It’s a holistic change that needs to happen across structures and cultures. Part of it involves creating spaces where people can give their ideas without a fear of failure. Instead of building a unit or creating a ‘director of innovation’’ position, it can be about application of micro-changes and behaviours that everyone makes.” 

“In addition, any initiatives that work to improve public sector diversity, equity and inclusion, also help organisational creativity by bringing in people of different backgrounds and experiences.” 

Creative techniques to apply to work and life

Dr Shimabukuro said the masterclass would look at specific techniques and examples of thinking outside the box from cities across the world. 

“We’ll be exploring various techniques to improve our creative problem-solving skills, visual thinking, design thinking inspired ideas and disruptive thinking.” 

She said that, to take one example, visualising problems was a useful technique to unlock creativity. 

“It’s a valuable technique because human beings are biologically more visual than auditory or other senses, but we have become very text based especially in academic situations,” she said. 

“We want to activate visual thinking to solve problems because we see patterns when we visualise things. Even with something basic like numbers, which are usually in spreadsheets or in text, if we present the same numbers in charts or data visualisation, new ideas and possibilities come out.” 

She said that there were three attributes that were important for creative thinking: curiosity, communication – both in terms of active listening and speaking up with ideas – and having a challenge-mindset that embraced problems and had the courage to try new things. 

“You need to always be asking questions about the ‘why’ because you want to really deepen the line of inquiry,” she said. 

“When we are trying to solve problems quickly, we tend to skip those things and try to jump to solutions. We don’t always have to solve it now; we often need to take time to think about the core questions.” 

“There’s a misconception that innovation has to be new, it could be 95% old and some new way of re-engineering it or applying it differently.” 

She said that the masterclass would start with the individual and explore the connection between personal lives and their role in their agencies. 

“I’d like to start with individuals and get them to start thinking about not just their own workplace roles but their lives and apply some of the creativity techniques to themselves first so that it becomes more internalised in terms of their thinking,” she said. 

“Once you practice thinking creatively and differently about certain situations that you yourself are in, then we can start thinking about how your organisation can think differently about the particular issues that have been giving you a headache for a long-time.” 

ANZSOG’s 2023 Public Leadership Masterclass series (PLM), will re-energise and educate hard-working and passionate emerging and current leaders and expose them to fresh ideas. The thirteen masterclasses cover a range of themes and provide an invaluable opportunity for self-reflection and professional growth for you and your team. PLM is a ‘choose-your-own adventure’ style series which puts you in control of your online learning experience. Choose from various packages which feature masterclasses led by leading domestic and international thinkers on leadership and public management from the public, non-profit and private sectors.