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Celebrating 50 years of Reflective Practice: Versions of Creative Problem Solving
By: Scott G. Isaksen, The Creative Problem Solving Group, Inc. and Donald J. Treffinger, The Center for Creative Learning, Inc.

Over the course of the past fifty years, many researchers and developers have presented a variety of different models of, or approaches to, creative problem solving. Work on these presentations has taken place in many different settings, including colleges and universities, public elementary and secondary schools, small and large businesses, and numerous consulting organizations. Many of the writers and developers of these presentations have known each other, communicated with each other, and collaborated in a variety of informal or formal ways; others have proceeded more independently. In the literature of psychology, sociology, education, or training and organizational development, the common phrase, creative problem solving, has been used to describe many models, which may or may not have any common origins or structure.
This article surveys the gradual, systematic development of one “family” of approaches that emerged from a common foundation, and (at least through several decades), a group of writers, developers, researchers, and trainers with institutional and geographical linkages. We refer to that body of work as Creative Problem Solving (CPS; upper case). We did not attempt to be comprehensive by reviewing all the modifications, adaptations, or publications within the broad area of CPS. Many other developers, writers, and consultants have studied the same foundational literature and developed their own approaches, not professionally linked with our group in any formal roles (e.g., Basadur, Graen, & Green, 1982; VanGundy, 1988).  Our goals are to clarify and summarize the course we have charted for ourselves within this foundation, to help others understand the history, and to help chart the future course for research, development, and application.
We begin with a brief history of the research, development, and field experience that led us to our current version of the CPS framework (CPS version 6.1™), its description, and its graphic representation. The current version is a componential or systemic approach to process, in which we sought to make CPS natural, descriptive, and flexible (Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 2000; Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 2000). By providing an historical perspective, we hope to help readers interested in practice, research, and/or theory to understand better the long-term development of CPS. Knowing the current framework’s origins and course of development may be helpful in charting the course for future efforts, and may also contribute to effective application of the model in its present form. We hope this article will also help readers to distinguish a framework based on substantial research and theory, such as CPS, from an ever-expanding array of supposedly “new” methods and models that spring up as if by magic or divine inspiration and multiply prolifically in the popular literature (and especially in education, training, consulting, organizational development, and related fields). We are always surprised at the number of new (but not-really-so-new) process “models” we encounter each year, and at the extent to which their developers seem unconcerned with issues of long-term, sustained, research and development.
We reviewed the development of new and improved CPS models in several previous publications (Isaksen & Dorval; 1993; Isaksen, Dorval, Noller & Firestien, 1993; Isaksen, Treffinger, & Dorval, 1997; Treffinger, 2000).  Those reviews focused on presenting the various graphic representations of the model over time, with only a brief description of the rationale and research for their development. By contrast, this article focuses on identifying the research and scholarly issues that provided the impetus for the new developments, as well as a summary of the modifications we made over an extended period of time.
Within our own tradition, it has helped us to think about many of the versions of CPS in a way that is quite familiar to users of computer software packages: we will use a decimal numeral to indicate the version number. The digit to the left of the decimal indicates the major stage or era of development, and digits to the right of the decimal represent refinements or developments within a stage, rather than a new stage or level of development. Thus, for example, versions 1.0, 1.1, and 1.2 would represent three sequential, generally incremental refinements or enhancements, all within a single stage (version 1), while versions 2.0, 2.1, and following, would represent new refinements that also involve a second stage or level of program development. As expected, we will begin the notation with version 1.0, and proceed forward. The analogy appealed to us because, much like any particular software package, CPS has undergone both fundamental, structural changes and continuous updating or refinement within each of its historical forms. In a sense, CPS can be considered “software for the mind.” We will present each of the CPS versions in chronological sequence, based on the focus of research and development that resulted in its modification or change at a particular time. Table 1 provides an overview of the major versions of CPS that we will review in this article.
Insert Table 1 About Here
The Foundations of CPS:

Making the Creative Process Explicit and Deliberate

Early interest in the creative process examined the natural approaches taken by highly creative people in applying their personal creativity when solving problems (e.g., Crawford, 1937; Dewey, 1910; Ghiselin, 1950; Poincaré, 1924; Spearman, 1931; Wallas, 1926). The effort to make these creative processes more visible, explicit, and deliberate has been one of the most formidable challenges for researchers for many years.

Initial Efforts to Respond to the Challenge

Alex Osborn, a founding partner of the Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn advertising agency and founder of the Creative Education Foundation, developed the original description of CPS, which we will describe as Version 1.0. In his book, Wake up your mind, Osborn (1952) presented a comprehensive description of a seven-stage CPS process, which is illustrated in Figure 1. This process description was based on his work in the advertising field, within which he had to deal productively with the natural tension between those concerned with the more creative side of the business (graphic artists, copy writers, etc.) and those more concerned with the business aspects (client managers, business managers, etc.) in order to develop successful campaigns and meet customers’ needs. Osborn’s subsequent book, Applied Imagination (1953, 1957), popularized his description of CPS and the term brainstorming— now arguably the most widely known, used (and all too frequently, misused) term associated with the concept of creativity. 

Insert Figure 1 Osborn’s Seven Stages Model (CPS Version 1.0)

Osborn continued to read extensively about creativity and apply his process strategies and techniques in both his advertising work and his teaching. In the revised edition of Applied Imagination, Osborn (1963) modified his conception of CPS by condensing the seven-stage process into three more comprehensive stages, which he called fact-finding, idea-finding, and solution-finding. We will refer to this refinement as Version 1.1 of CPS. He considered this three-stage view to be more productive than Version 1.0, given the natural linkages among the stages within each of the three clusters. Version 1.1 was subsequently retained in the 1967 reprinting of the book.
In making the creative process more deliberate and explicit, Osborn integrated what was known at the time about the stages and tools used by highly creative individuals, based on his experience in the practical world.  A noted academic and writer, Pros Vanosmael (1989), while speaking at a recent European Conference on Creativity and Innovation proclaimed that Osborn broke a 2,000 year-old paradigm that assumed you were either born with creative talent, or had no chance to develop it.  Osborn’s interest emphasized the deliberate development of creative talent, particularly within the field of education.  He held the vision of bringing a more creative trend to American education; that vision was the impetus for the founding of the Creative Education Foundation and, subsequently, the development of an academic program in Buffalo.

Preparing CPS for Use in an Instructional Program

       In his writing about promoting a more creative trend in American education, Osborn (1965) focused on applications of CPS in the educational arena. He began to work with his new colleague, Sidney Parnes toward the goal of enhancing students’ ability to understand and apply their personal creativity in all aspects of their lives. After Osborn’s death in 1966, Parnes continued to work with the CPS process. He and his colleagues developed a modification of Osborn’s approach (Parnes, 1967a, b), which we will term Version 2.0.  This five-stage revision of Osborn’s original framework was tested experimentally in programmed instructional format with secondary school students, through a grant project on “Programming Creative Behavior” (Parnes, 1966a). That project resulted in the publication of two resources to assist participants and leaders at the annual Creative Problem Solving Institutes (Parnes, 1966b; Parnes, 1966c) and provided the basis for a pilot course at Buffalo State College conducted in 1969.
Version 2.0 of CPS was also tested in an extensive, two-year experimental program called the Creative Studies Project at Buffalo State College, including a four semester series of creative studies courses. The two-year experimental project, following 150 students in the courses (as an experimental treatment) and 150 students as a control group, provided empirical support for the courses’ effectiveness (Noller & Parnes, 1972; Parnes & Noller, 1972 a, b; Parnes & Noller, 1973a, 1973b, 1974; Parnes, 1987; Reese, Treffinger, Parnes & Kaltsounis, 1976). The university approved the courses for regular, credit-bearing elective status in 1972.
The instructional program used in the Creative Studies Project came to be known as the Osborn-Parnes approach to creative problem solving. The materials used for the Creative Studies Project included Parnes’ (1967a, b) books, Creative Behavior Guidebook and Creative Behavior Workbook which were drawn from earlier development efforts. The framework was also eclectic in its evolution and development, drawing tools and methods from several other creativity and problem-solving models and methods.
Most of the initial descriptions of CPS (1.0 through 2.0) consisted primarily or entirely of prose or text descriptions of processes and techniques. One of the first visual or graphic depictions of CPS appeared in Parnes’ (1967b) workbook as a printed insert. This graphic refinement (Version 2.1) was presented as a spiral, starting with a “mess,” and then winding through the five stages to end with the need to face new challenges. The image became the first in a series of graphic illustrations of CPS and provided an initial departure from the more common prose descriptions.
Ruth Noller worked with Parnes and others in subsequent extensions, revisions, and applications of the early five-step model (e.g., Noller, 1979; Noller, Heintz, & Blaeuer, 1978; Noller, Parnes, & Biondi, 1976; Noller, Treffinger, & Houseman, 1979; Parnes, Noller, & Biondi, 1977). These efforts resulted in the alternative graphic illustration of the five-step CPS model presented in Figure 2, which we will refer to as Version 2.2.
Insert Figure 2: Osborn-Parnes five stage CPS model (Version 2.2)
This new graphic depiction of CPS illustrated for the first time the alternation of divergent and convergent thinking inherent in the process.  During this time period, specific definitions of CPS also began to be developed. Parnes, Noller & Biondi (1977) equated CPS to creative decision making and described it by suggesting:
…we first speculate on what “might be”.... we sense and anticipate all conceivable consequences or repercussions... and we choose and develop our best alternative in full awareness. (p. 14)
Noller (1979) defined Creative Problem Solving by focusing on each of the three main words: creative, problem, and solving.
By creative we mean: having an element of newness and being relevant at least to you, the one who creates the solution. By problem we mean: any situation which presents a challenge, offers an opportunity, or is a concern to you. By solving we mean: devising ways to answer or to meet or satisfy the problem, adapting your-self to the situation or adapting the situation to yourself. Creative Problem Solving or CPS is a process, a method, a system for approaching a problem in an imaginative way resulting in effective action (pp. 4-5).
Some of the earliest studies conducted by Parnes and his associates evaluated the effects of creative problem solving programs and methods (Meadow & Parnes, 1959; Meadow, Parnes & Reese, 1959; Parnes, 1961, 1963, 1964; Parnes & Meadow, 1959 & 1960). The Osborn-Parnes CPS approach provided a rich foundation for research and the approach continued to be widely disseminated in the 1970’s and 1980’s in the academic programs at Buffalo State College and through a variety of workshops, institutes, and seminars sponsored by the Creative Education Foundation and other organizations.
From 1978 through 1983, as Donald Treffinger, Scott Isaksen, and Roger Firestien joined the faculty of the academic program in Buffalo, they began to identify ways to insure that the CPS framework provided a better balance between divergent and convergent thinking tools (e.g., Treffinger, Isaksen, & Firestien, 1982). At the time, most of the tools in the CPS framework (as well as the instructional emphasis) involved divergent thinking. As a result, we undertook a number of efforts to provide deliberate tools for converging, and to translate the goal of “dynamic balance” between creative thinking and critical thinking, or “imagination and judgment,” as often described in the programs of the time, into more concrete reality in practice. From their experiences with business and educational groups, Firestien and Treffinger (1983) also began to explore the importance of a clear understanding of the identity of the client or “problem owner” when using CPS. At this time, we described CPS with a graphic depiction, in which we shifted from a horizontal to a vertical layout and including a verbal description of the stages and both the divergent and convergent phases within each stage. These changes resulted in CPS Version 2.3 (Treffinger, Isaksen & Firestien, 1982).
Parnes (1981) also continued to popularize this approach to CPS as well as integrate its use with concepts such as imagery and visualization (e.g., Parnes, 1988). This resulted in Version 2.4. He also continued to provide resource materials for those interested in facilitating CPS, and a fifty-year summary of the literature surrounding the deliberate development of creativity (Parnes, 1992; see also, Parnes, 2000).

Linking Task, Person, and Situation with Process

            Research evidence from the Creative Studies Project established the Osborn-Parnes approach to creative problem solving as a viable method for developing creative behavior deliberately.  The experimental research also raised new questions, one of which dealt with our observation that the educational program seemed better suited for some individuals than for others.  There were meaningful differences, for example, between students who completed the entire four-semester sequence of courses and those who chose to drop out of the program after one, two, or three semesters. We also began to consider the implications of research on learning styles and individualizing instruction (e.g., Dunn & Dunn, 1978) for instruction in CPS. As a result, Isaksen and Treffinger launched the Cognitive Styles Project (see Isaksen, 2004, for an overview) to investigate the effects of individual differences, particularly in cognitive style, when learning and applying CPS.  In addition, new research initiatives in collaboration with Ekvall (1983, 1987) addressed the topic of the climate for creativity and innovation.
To take new evidence into account regarding individual differences, style preferences and climate for creativity, Isaksen & Treffinger (1985) began to modify the Osborn-Parnes approach to CPS, developing Version 3.0.  We began by adding a deliberate Mess-Finding stage on the “front end” of CPS. This stage included explicit attention to personal orientation of the problem solver, the setting in which the work takes place (or situational outlook), and several important aspects of task on which people will be working. In the Mess-Finding stage, we also highlighted the importance of recognizing important outcomes and obstacles that will influence the use and impact of CPS in any group or setting. We introduced specific language and phrases to assist the generation of outcomes and obstacles. Mess-Finding also clarified explicitly the nature and importance of ownership in applying CPS. Ownership for a challenge meant that the problem solver has some degree of influence, authority, and decision-making responsibility for implementing the solutions. Ownership also reminded us of the need for motivation and the willingness to submit a task or challenge to systematic problem-solving efforts and to follow through on the results of those efforts. Ownership in a challenge involved affirming that there is openness and commitment to a deliberate and explicit search for something new. In short, for ownership to exist, there must be influence, interest, and imagination.
Next, we renamed the Fact-Finding stage as Data-Finding. Many people spent years in school learning to distinguish facts from opinions. Sometimes, along the way, people came to believe that facts are more important and trustworthy than opinions. Effective problem solving requires people to consider more than facts when they are defining and solving problems. We recognized, for example, that feelings, impressions, observations, and questions were also important; often, the creative opportunity or challenge in a task pertains as much or more to what might be unknown, uncertain, or unclear than to the agreeable facts of the situation. We realized that effective problem solving is often initiated as a result of strong emotional issues, concerns, and needs, and that this should be an explicit dimension of this CPS stage.
Another concern grew from our experience that CPS was widely perceived as primarily concerned with divergence, and in the worst cases, was equated entirely with the specific idea-generating tool called brainstorming (e.g., “CPS? Yes; that’s when you use brainstorming to solve a problem”).  In contrast, Isaksen and Treffinger’s (1985) approach also emphasized an on-going and dynamic balance between creative and critical thinking. We viewed creative thinking as making and expressing meaningful new connections. During this kind of thinking you may perceive gaps, challenges or concerns; think of many varied or unusual possibilities; or elaborate and extend alternatives. We described critical thinking as analyzing, evaluating or developing options. During critical thinking you screen, select and support possibilities; compare and contrast options; make inferences and deductions; and improve or refine alternatives in order to make effective judgments and decisions. Generating many wild alternatives will usually not be enough to help you solve a problem. Similarly, you may find that you have a shortage of promising possibilities if all you do is analyze and evaluate a few options over and over.
Along with expanding our efforts to highlight the dynamic balance of creative and critical thinking, we realized that the traditional ground rules (often referred to as the “ground rules for brainstorming”) focused only on the divergent phases of each CPS stage. Consequently, we also developed parallel guidelines to apply in the converging phases.
Using CPS in flexible ways was another important concern that influenced our continuing work on the CPS model. Despite informal admonitions to the contrary, CPS was commonly treated as a process to be “run through,” in which every session required a complete, linear, sequential application of all stages. There was often more emphasis on using every step than on the intended outcomes or results and the process tools needed to attain them. To emphasize the flexible application of CPS, Isaksen & Treffinger (1985) also introduced an analogy of the six CPS stages as “buckets.” Each stage might be viewed as a container, or bucket, filled with ideas, methods, and tools that could be used to assist people with their problem-solving efforts. If a particular tool or method did not work, the problem solver could reach back into the bucket and try a different one. The analogy also suggested that the six stages or buckets could be rearranged, excluded or included as necessary based upon the problem solver’s needs; our early work on this challenge grew in its significance as research continued.
As a result of these changes in thinking about process, we also found it helpful to modify the graphic illustration used to represent CPS. The 1985 illustration, associated with Version 3.0 of CPS, is represented in Figure 3. We added the Mess-Finding stage, rotated the model to a vertical position, identified the diverging and converging phases of each stage more explicitly, and added text to help explain the key functions of each stage.
Insert Figure 3: CPS Version 3.0 (Isaksen & Treffinger, 1985)
Although we emphasized the flexible nature of CPS in this description, the graphic illustration we used to represent the framework continued to present us with challenges. By far the most significant challenge facing the tradition was the need to improve our understanding of what methods, techniques, or approaches worked for whom, and under what circumstances (Isaksen, 1987; Stein, 1974; Treffinger, 1993).
The graphic presentation of the framework, which became for some people an icon for the process, was not consistent with the flexibility of behavior that we knew was important for effective application of CPS. The time was at hand for another change to occur in our familiar approach.

Clustering CPS into Three Process Components

Following the Creative Studies Project, and the formation of the graduate program in creative studies, a major emphasis for research was on studying the impact of CPS in a variety of settings and specific applications. Faculty and numerous graduate students produced more than 40 unpublished impact studies (see Table 2). In addition, they produced published reports of their findings (Firestien, 1990; Firestien & Lunken, 1993; Firestien & McCowan, 1992; Isaksen & Dorval, 1992; Parnes, 1984).
Insert Table 2: Unpublished Impact Research about here
These studies provided an extensive base of knowledge pertaining to CPS in many application settings and contexts. The results of these studies, taken together with the findings of several published reviews (e.g., Basadur, Graen & Green, 1982; Cramond, Martin & Shaw, 1990; Mansfield, Busse, & Krepelka, 1978; Rose & Lin, 1984; Torrance, 1972, 1986 & 1987; Schack, 1993), provided several key learnings about the effectiveness and impact of CPS. These included:
1. It is possible to make a difference with CPS for many kinds of complex creative opportunities and challenges across a wide variety of contexts and situations. Put simply, “CPS works.”
2. There were many unanswered questions about how people might improve their effectiveness in applying CPS in response to their own needs and the varying demands of groups, tasks, and contexts. Put simply, “CPS could work better and in different ways.”
3. Effective applications of the CPS process involved dynamic interactions among many factors, including people, outcomes, climate, and methods, rather than a static, invariant process. Put simply, “CPS is a suite of tools that can be used in many and varied ways.”
4. People who were exposed to CPS chose to use selected parts of the overall process based on their assessment of how the stages or tools might naturally help them deal with a certain task or challenge. Put simply, “People preferred to apply CPS in natural, comfortable ways.”
5. When we examined numerous case studies of CPS application we observed that people commonly used CPS to clarify their understanding of problems, to generate ideas, and/or to plan for taking action.  We concluded that the six stages of CPS could, in fact, be clustered and divided into three main sections or components. Put simply, “People often chose to apply parts of CPS that met their needs.”
As a result of these experiences, and with the positive reactions and support of many of our colleagues and co-trainers, we changed our description of the CPS framework to make it more workable and to reflect more accurately the ways CPS was actually being used by practitioners (Isaksen & Treffinger, 1987). The new description, Version 4.0 of CPS, organized the six CPS stages into three main components of problem-solving activity based on how people behaved naturally. The three components were: Understanding the Problem (Mess-Finding, Data-Finding, and Problem-Finding), Generating Ideas (Idea-Finding), and Planning for Action (Solution-Finding and Acceptance-Finding). We added the three explicit component labels to clarify the invitation to apply the process in more flexible ways, and we modified the CPS graphic accordingly, to aid in distinguishing the components from one another.
Insert Figure 4: CPS Version 4.0 About here
The three components provided convenient organizers for many kinds of application sessions. We reported and discussed these changes in several articles, chapters, and course or seminar manuals (e.g., Isaksen, 1989; Isaksen & Treffinger, 1991; Treffinger & Isaksen, 1992). Although the new depiction of CPS had a componential focus, the process graphic’s presentation continued to suggest a linear series of stages. This approach, and a resultant instructional manual (Isaksen, 1989), were used as the basis for both the academic and public programs offered by the Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, at seminars, workshops, training and consulting offered by the Center for Creative Learning, and the Creative Problem Solving Group. We focused on disseminating our then-current understanding of CPS and its application, although we also engaged in on-going refinement and continuous improvement (e.g., Isaksen & Treffinger, 1991; Treffinger & Isaksen, 1992).
The presentation of CPS as a three-component model marked a transition away from a linear, six-step approach toward a more flexible, dynamic approach to process. It is interesting to note, of course, that this direction was consistent with the view of CPS held by Osborn in 1967; in some ways, it is still true that, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Designing a More Descriptive Approach to CPS
Isaksen & Treffinger (1987) discovered very quickly that the new process modifications supported the importance of flexibility in using the process, and reinforced movement away from the fixed, prescriptive “run through” approach. Expanding efforts to make the front-end of CPS more explicit led to deliberate efforts to assess the nature of the task and the situation; this guided us in considering appropriate process and strategy choices. Clarifying and differentiating explicitly three social roles (facilitator, client and resource group) supported the importance of focusing on problem ownership and responsibility for decision-making (Isaksen, 1983). 
While we were engaged in further impact research and applying CPS in a variety of educational and business contexts, we became aware of an emerging development within educational research and learning theory referred to as the constructivist movement (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).  The main argument put forward by constructivist theorists was that each individual must construct his or her own process approach in a personally meaningful way. From constructivist theory, we took away a valuable concept: the importance of enabling people to “customize” or personalize their understanding and application of CPS. We recognized the importance of intentional, purposeful cognition and the importance of creating personal meaning in one’s approach. We were confident that those principles could be incorporated into CPS to enhance its power as a set of practical cognitive resources and tools that could be learned and applied in personalized ways.
The emerging discipline of cognitive science also provided a great deal of relevant research regarding human problem-solving processes (Bechtel, 1988; Boden, 1991; Covington, 1987; Duell, 1986; Flavell, 1976; Gardner, 1985; Greeno, 1980, 1989; Johnson-Laird, 1988; Newell, Shaw & Simon, 1962). We had established a productive collaborative link with the cognitive science unit within the University of Bergen and became aware of many of the insights from examining the conceptual links between problem solving and creativity (Isaksen, 1995; Kaufmann, 1988).
Informed by these emerging bodies of theory and evidence, we initiated research to focus on a variety of issues and challenges associated with the graphic depiction of CPS and the impact of the presentation of the process on peoples’ understanding of the nature and dynamics of effective applications of CPS.  Pershyn (1992) studied how people described their natural approach to solving problems. Participants and students from a variety of programs and classes were asked to recall a problem they solved successfully, and to draw or illustrate the process they used to solve it. He analyzed more than 150 illustrations to determine the similarities and differences among the subjects’ natural approaches to problem solving. One major aspect of the analysis, for example, focused on those process drawings that had the qualities of flow-charts. They were placed along a continuum ranging from linear, orderly, and targeted processes (“step-by-step” in nature) at one end, to random, spontaneous, and complex processes (“hop-skip-step and restep” in nature) at the other.
The observed differences among people’s graphic depictions of their natural creative problem solving were also related to individual differences in cognitive style (Isaksen & Pershyn, 1994). For example, subjects whose creativity style preference would be described as innovators (Kirton, 1987) more frequently described their process as non-linear, more complex, random, and contiguous than those of subjects whose style preference was adaptive. The innovators’ process illustrations contained more stages and multiple end points. In a few cases, innovative processes contained infinite iterations with no perceivable end points. Adaptors were more likely to draw processes that were linear, orderly, and targeted. They also tended to include fewer stages as well as fewer end points.
Pershyn’s findings suggested that effective, natural problem solving took a variety of forms and that the process graphic we used to describe CPS would be more powerful and effective if it considered these differences. As a result, the graphic depiction of CPS was altered very substantially by Isaksen & Dorval (1993). The charge, initially outlined in 1985 through the “buckets” analogy, was amplified and extended in 1989 with a three component view, and then, as represented in Figure 5, the framework was broken apart completely in 1992, with a total shift in graphic depiction— an explosion of the traditional linear view of the steps in CPS.
In Version 5.0 of CPS Isaksen and Dorval (1993) began to frame and document new directions for a descriptive, and less prescriptive, view and application of CPS. By descriptive, we mean an approach to process that provides a flexible framework in which problem solvers have many choices and make them on the basis of observation, experience, context, and deliberate analysis of the task (or metacognition). By contrast, by prescriptive, we mean an approach in which people learn and apply a predetermined or fixed set of steps or stages, for which there are specified approaches and outcomes that have been determined by custom, tradition, or reliance on expertise (Scriven, 1980). It might be useful to consider the analogy of a road map. If you spread the map out before you and consider possible routes, based on your own circumstances, needs, and goals, the road map is a descriptive resource. On the other hand, if you have a pre-defined, highlighted route (as might be provided by an auto club travel planning service, for example), and you believe that you should follow that route exactly— deviating only at your own peril!— it is functioning as a more prescriptive resource.
Research on the graphic depiction of natural approaches to problem solving validated the need to take a different approach to representing CPS. Given the dynamic nature of natural problem solving, it was important that the depiction of CPS be more representative of a wider array of problem-solving approaches. From experiences with the teaching and learning of CPS, researchers and developers found that identifying a common set of graphic depictions and language useful for sharing and discussing creative problem solving may be more appropriate than trying to identify THE creative process. Therefore, Version 5.0 of CPS, presented in Figure 5, provided separate symbols for each of the three main components: Understanding the Problem, Generating Ideas and Planning for Action. The graphics portrayed the dynamic relationship between and among the CPS components and stages.  Taking a descriptive approach implied that we needed to identify the necessary inputs into each of the three components, as well as identify and describe the actual cognitive processes involved within each component and stage, as well as the outputs from each component.
Insert Figure 5: Components of CPS Version 5.0 (Isaksen & Dorval, 1993)
Viewing CPS as a descriptive framework implied that the components, stages, and phases of CPS might be used in a variety of different orders or sequences. Sometimes, problem solvers might not need all the steps, and there might be tasks for which other methods might be just as effective as CPS, or perhaps even better choices! We do not view CPS as a panacea that should be applied to every task, nor as a magic formula or a religious dogma that must be accepted and applied in the same way, without departing from prescribed procedures, each time it is used. (We did not receive the CPS stages carved on stone tablets!)
These issues led us in new directions in studying, defining, and applying CPS. As a result of several years of continuing work, Isaksen, Dorval and Treffinger presented Version 5.1 of CPS, adding a new refinement: the metacomponents of Task Appraisal and Process Planning (Isaksen, 1996; Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 1994; Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 1994b). Meta-components involve continuing planning, monitoring, managing, and modifying behavior during CPS.
Task Appraisal involves determining whether or not CPS is appropriate for a given task, and whether modifications of one’s approach might be necessary. During Task Appraisal, problem solvers consider the key people, the desired outcome, the characteristics of the situation, and the possible methods for handling the task. Task Appraisal enables them to assess the extent to which CPS might be appropriate— their method of choice, as it were— for addressing a given task or for managing change in appropriate ways (Isaksen, 1995).
Once problem solvers determine that CPS offers relevant and helpful tools for working on a task, they turn to Process Planning to plan their entry point into the framework, their pathway through the framework, and an appropriate exit point from the framework. Since the approach was becoming less prescriptive, and more descriptive and flexible, Process Planning helped problem solvers to manage a number of important choices and decisions about their applications of CPS (Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 1994; Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 1994a).
Although Versions 5.0 and 5.1 built in many ways upon their historical predecessors— powerful elements of the Osborn-Parnes tradition of CPS— our evolving view of CPS began to move outside the boundaries of that framework. It represented a significant new pathway for research and practice, and although it stemmed from the rich heritage of prior versions, it represented a journey in very new directions.

CPS Today: A Systemic Approach

            As our journey continued, our efforts began to focus on two important themes: integrating the Task Appraisal and Process Planning dimensions that we introduced in 1994 more effectively into the overall CPS framework, and making the language of CPS more natural, user-friendly, and descriptive (e.g. Langer, 1989). While in many ways our current work continues to grow from, and to be influenced by, the five-decade tradition reviewed in this article, the process today is also strikingly different from its predecessors in many significant ways. Distinguishing between process and management components has helped us to move forward with an approach that is dynamic and flexible, rather than sequential and prescriptive. The language of today's CPS framework is also substantially different than the language of all previous versions.
Incorporating Task Appraisal and Process Planning into the CPS process
            In Version 4, we began to work on the challenge of identifying clusters or components within the traditional CPS stages. Then, in Version 5, we separated the components (both graphically and operationally), and we introduced Task Appraisal and Process Planning. As we worked with those changes in many practical settings, and continued to explore our earlier concerns for providing for individual and situational differences in problem solving, we realized the importance of linking Task Appraisal and Process Planning, as process management tools, more effectively and seamlessly with the CPS process components and stages. We recognized that our efforts to personalize CPS, to make the process more natural, dynamic, and flexible, and to link people, context, and process required that metacognitive and diagnostic factors were integral parts of the entire process framework, not separate activities that resided outside the CPS process. Research on ecological perspectives on creativity (e.g., Harrington, 1990) and our work on profiling for CPS (e.g., Isaksen & Puccio, 1992; Isaksen, Puccio, & Treffinger, 1993; Treffinger & Cross, 1994) helped us to recognize that the active planning and metacognition were essential elements of the CPS framework.
Revising the Language of CPS
            In 2000, we also introduced extensive changes in the language of the CPS framework (Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 2000; Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 2000). The CPS framework employing the revised language is presented in Isaksen, Dorval, and Treffinger (2000) as well as in Treffinger, Isaksen, and Dorval (2000).
The Understanding the Challenge component includes a systematic effort to define, construct, or focus your problem-solving efforts. It includes the three stages of Constructing Opportunities, Exploring Data, and Framing Problems.  Constructing Opportunities involves generating broad, brief, and beneficial statements that help set the principal direction for problem-solving efforts. Exploring Data includes generating and answering questions that bring out key information, feelings, observations, impressions and questions about the task. These help problem solvers to develop an understanding of the current situation. Framing Problems involves seeking a specific or targeted question (problem statement) on which to focus subsequent efforts.
The Generating Ideas component and stage includes coming up with many, varied, or unusual options for responding to a problem. During the generating phase of this stage, problem solvers produce many options (fluent thinking), a variety of possible options (flexible thinking), novel or unusual options (original thinking), or a number of detailed or refined options (elaborative thinking). The focusing phase of Generating Ideas provides an opportunity to examine, review, cluster, and select promising ideas. Although this stage includes a focusing phase, its primary emphasis rests in generating or the commitment of extended effort to seek creative possibilities.
Problem solvers use the Preparing for Action component to make decisions about, develop, or strengthen promising alternatives, and to plan for their successful implementation. The two stages included in the component are called Developing Solutions and Building Acceptance.
During Developing Solutions, promising options may be analyzed, refined, or developed. If there are many options the emphasis may be on compressing or condensing them so that they are more manageable.  If there are only a few promising options, the challenge may be to refine, strengthen, or develop each one to make it as strong as possible. This stage can involve ranking or prioritizing a number of possible options, generating and selecting specific criteria for evaluating promising options or selecting the most promising options from a larger pool. The emphasis in this stage is primarily on focusing options and developing promising ideas into plausible solutions.
The Building Acceptance stage involves searching for potential sources of assistance and resistance and identifying possible factors that may influence successful implementation of solutions. The aim is to help prepare solutions for improved acceptance and greater value. This stage helps the problem solver identify ways to make the best possible use of assisters and avoid or overcome possible sources of resistance. By considering these factors, problem solvers can develop and evaluate a plan of action. Preparing for implementation also provides opportunities to consider alternative possibilities, contingency plans, or feedback loops.
            We expressed these changes in Version 6 of the process.  Version 6.0 introduced the new CPS language. We also introduced the Planning Your Approach component (including the Appraising Tasks and Designing Process stages). Planning Your Approach became an integrated component, at the center of the CPS framework (graphically and in practice). We also differentiated Planning Your Approach as a “management” component, guiding problem solvers in analyzing and selecting “process” components and stages deliberately. Another technology metaphor may be helpful in understanding the differentiation between process and management components.  Consider the process components as “applications in a suite of software” (such as the applications within Microsoft Office, for example), and the management component as the operating system of the computer (always “on,” but in the foreground of your attention only when needed).
In CPS Version 6.1™, we expanded our emphasis on CPS as a system— a broadly applicable framework for process that provides an organizing system for specific tools to help design and develop new and useful outcomes. The CPS system now incorporates productive thinking tools for generating and focusing options (e.g., Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 1998; Treffinger & Nassab, 1998, 2000), the CPS process components and stages, as well as the CPS management component.  These elements of the system relate to managing the interaction between method (The CPS Framework) and content (the task or desired outcome) by allowing for the design of an appropriate and customized pathway to integrate tools, language and process approach for a specific need.  
Further, we have developed a diagnostic tool to help identify stylistic characteristics that are relevant to problem solving behaviors (e.g., Selby, Treffinger, Isaksen, & Lauer, 2002, In Press) and a measure of the context that includes both quantitative and qualitative assessment approaches (Isaksen, et. al. 1995, 2001; Isaksen & Lauer, 1999, 2001, 2002; Isaksen, Lauer & Ekvall, 1999).  These new tools provide for the assessment and integration of salient personal characteristics and situational conditions with the design of the most appropriate process pathway.
The elements of CPS as a system enables individuals or groups to use information about tasks, important needs and goals, and several important inputs, to make and carry out effective process decisions that will lead to meaningful outcomes or results. A systemic approach to CPS enables individuals and groups to recognize and act on opportunities, respond to challenges, balance creative and critical thinking, build collaboration and teamwork, overcome concerns, and thereby to manage change.  Figure 6 presents the current graphic representation of this system, CPS Version 6.1™; a summary presentation and description of the current version, downloadable in PDF format, is also available at the Center for Creative Learning website (
Insert Figure 6: CPS Version 6.1 about here

Conclusion: CPS Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Through its inception by Osborn, and the following fifty years of continuous research and development, CPS has been shown to be a powerful and effective method for igniting creative potential and making productive change.  Impact research has continued (e.g., Christie & Kaminski, 2002; Freeman, Wolfe, Littlejohn & Mayfield, 2001). Isaksen and DeSchryver (2000) addressed the question, “How do we know that training, teaching, learning, or applying CPS is worthwhile?” and summarized an extensive body of evidence demonstrating that CPS does lead to important and worthwhile results in many settings. 
Although theories, models, and prescriptions for creative problem solving abound in the literature of the social and behavioral sciences, we believe that few frameworks can demonstrate the sustained heritage of theory, research, development, and application that characterize CPS. The richness and power of any process arise from sustained scholarship and implementation by many people, across many contexts, and over sustained periods of time.
While the heritage provides strong “roots” for the process, the history of CPS is a tale of both continuous refinement and improvement and an ongoing commitment to breaking new ground and opening new directions and perspectives.
Continuous improvement in CPS, is reflected in a number of ways. Today’s CPS framework draws upon its heritage by:
•    Refining and clarifying the vocabulary or language for process;
•    Identifying and elaborating the relationships among all elements in the CPS system;
•    Providing and elaborating a broad array of tools to incorporate into the more extensive framework;
•    Articulating and refining a skillbase for effective practice;
•    Maintaining and expanding our predecessors’ long commitment to making CPS explicit, teachable, and repeatable;
•    Drawing upon and integrating effective tools and practices from many models and research domains.
In addition, however, today’s CPS framework differs from prior versions of the process in a number of important ways. These include:
•    Recognizing and incorporating the importance of metacognition and deliberate process planning and management in a descriptive framework;
•    Emphasizing ownership, and the importance of authentic responsibility for using CPS in meaningful ways;
•    Creating new flexibility in selecting and using tools, stages, and components of CPS to provide for a natural, descriptive approach;
•    Recognizing and incorporating the importance of personal characteristics, styles, and context in effective CPS;
•    Clarifying social roles in CPS sessions and their importance for effectiveness in applying CPS;
•    Examining desired outcomes explicitly to assess the relevance and applicability of CPS for the task;
•    Viewing CPS as one powerful set of tools, but not the only tools, in a productive thinker’s repertoire (thus overcoming the image of CPS as a panacea);
•    Making deliberate efforts to personalize CPS in ways that help problem solvers construct and use a personally meaningful, yet replicable framework.
We believe these advances are important in helping individuals or groups avoid wasting energy and efforts on “steps,” activities, or tools they do not really need, and in making CPS a flexible, user-friendly, and powerful process for individuals and groups of all ages.
This does not mean that we believe “the work is finished” on CPS, for us or for future generations of theorists, researchers, or practitioners. Many important challenges remain for creative, but disciplined, research and development. It is important, for example, to continue to seek a richer and more complete understanding of the dynamic ways in which the elements within the CPS system interact and influence each other.  New research initiatives can contribute to our efforts to refine our understanding of the interactions between the process (cognitive) components and management (metacognitive) components (e.g. Kahneman, 2003).  As researchers and practitioners, working collaboratively, continue to investigate the question of “what works for whom, and under what circumstances,” it is important to build and apply assessment tools that are scientifically sound. Research on problem-solving style preferences in relation to CPS applications, for example, can expand our understanding the linkages between person and process. Effective problem solvers need to be ready to apply any CPS components, stages, and tools, and to do so in personally authentic and valid ways.  As a result, research on style and process calls for studies that extend beyond linking style preferences with specific process stages. Multivariate research on the interactions among method, context, outcomes, and personal characteristics will also contribute to our understanding of how to expand the impact and power of CPS for individuals, teams, and organizations.
We are fully committed, therefore, to promoting continuing research, development, and evaluation of all CPS components, stages, tools, and metacognitive elements. Therefore, we should not suggest that this article reports “the end” of the story, but that it must truly close with the message, “to be continued.”



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Vanosmael, P. (1989). Theoretic survey of the function and structure of the human thinking system. In T. Rickards, P. Colemont, P. Grøholt, M. Parker & H. Smeekes (Eds.), Creativity and innovation: Learning from practice (pp. 269-271). Delft, The Netherlands: Innovation Consulting Group TNO.

VanGundy (1988). Techniques of structured problem solving (Second edition). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Wallas, G. (1926). The art of thought. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Table 1: The Major Versions of CPS

Major Version

Issue or Need

Outcome or Result


1 (1942-1967)


The need for an explicit or defined creative process


The initial model of Creative Problem Solving and preliminary guidelines and tools for generating ideas


2 (1963-1988)


The need for an validated instructional program to deliberately develop creative talents


The Creative Studies Project and published CPS instructional materials


3 (1981-1986)


The need to address individual differences and situational issues when learning and applying CPS


The 5 O’s of Mess-Finding (Orientation, Outlook, Ownership, Outcomes and Obstacles) and improved balance between diverging and converging


4 (1987-1992)


The need to respond to key learnings from impact research


The development and clustering of three main CPS process components


5 (1990-1994)


The need to respond to developments in cognitive science and stylistic differences in viewing CPS


A style neutral and descriptive approach to CPS and the introduction of task appraisal


6 (1994-Present)


The need for a systemic way to take the results from appraising a task, and then designing an approach to process


The integration of people, context, and desired results into the CPS framework and the introduction of accessible language to describe the system


Table 2:
Unpublished masters projects, thesis, and impact studies.




Young, D. E.


Perceptions of the persistence of effects of training in creative problem solving.

Firestien, R. L.


Effects of brainstorming on short-term incubation on divergent production in problem solving.

Hinterberger, A. M.


Creative problem solving in industrial arts education.

Johnson, M.


Development of a CPSI youth program.

Thorn, R.


Problem solving for innovation in industry.

Duling, G. A.


Development of a primary age children's CPS action book.

Gilligan, M.


Applications of CPS for independent study and research with secondary students.

DeLuca, A. M.


Effects of a pull-out program on gifted student's socialization.

Finck, S. E.


CPS and vocational programming.

Harring, M.


Development of creative and critical thinking through two instructional programs

Giordano, N.


CPS workshop for nurses.

Lashua, D.


On CPS training for nurses.

Binis, R. A.


Management development: A supervisory training program.

Curran, J. M.


Effects of creative problem solving training on learning disabled students thinking and self-concept scores.

Kassiram, K.


Applications of CPS in language arts/writing curriculum in Trinidad.

Solowey, B.


CPS in volunteer agencies.

Gaulin, J. P.


Creativity: Unlocking the productive work environment.

McCollum, L.


Energizing students for creative learning 1990.

Elwell, P. A.


An analysis of the field-testing of CPS for teenagers using Torrance tests.

Halpern, N.


Ann Arbor area 2000 (A3-2000): A case study of the goal-setting process in preferred futuring.

Lewis, K. L.


Creative problem solving workshop for secondary gifted programming.

Sciog, P. A.


Development and field-testing of thinking skill instructional resources.

Colucci, L.


Integrating critical and creative thinking skills in a fourth grade science class.

Keller-Mathers, S.


Impact of creative problem solving training on participants' personal and professional lives: A replication and extension.

Lunken, H.


Assessment of long-term effects of the master of science degree in creative studies on its graduates.

Neilson, L.


Impact of CPS training: An in depth evaluation of a six day course in CPS.

Saner, Y. J.


The effects of training in collaborative skills on productivity and group interaction in creative problem solving groups.

Bruce, B.


Impact of creative problem solving training on management behavior in the retail food industry.

McDonald-Schwartz, L.


A preliminary experimental evaluation of creative problem solving curriculum resources.

De Schryver, L.


An impact study of Creative Problem Solving facilitation training in an organizational setting.

Linderman, C.


Incorporating creative and critical thinking skills into a holiday curriculum for elementary children.

Avarello, L.


An exploratory study to determine the impact of a creative studies course on at-risk students.

Vehar, J. R.


An impact study to improve a five-day course in facilitating Creative Problem solving.

Puccio, K. G.


An analysis of an observational study of creative problem solving for primary children.

Reid, G. D.


Facilitating creative problem solving: A study of impact and needs and a report of an internship experience.

Foucar-Szocki, D.


Predictors of successful CPS facilitation.

Sims, B. A.


The development and reliability of an observation schedule to assess the facilitation of creative thinking.

Baldwin, S.


In search of relevant task contingencies for effective CPS performance.

Mance, M.


An exploratory examination of methodology core contingencies within task appraisal.

Isaksen, S. G. & Puccio, G. J.


The impact of training creative thinking skills.  A quantitative and qualitative study of the impact of training on participants within the Procter & Gamble’s two-day training course on Creative Thinking Skills.

Isaksen, S. G. & Murdock, M. C.


Project discovery evaluation report.  A comprehensive quantitative and qualitative impact report on a program designed to introduce exploratory consumer research methodologies and develop new consumer concepts.

Isaksen, S. G., Murdock, M. C., & De Schryver, L.


How continuous improvement and creative problem solving are impacting Exxon’s marketing organization.  A qualitative interview analysis documenting the impact of change following creative problem solving training with continuous improvement facilitators.

Isaksen, S. G.


A report of the results from an assessment of the climate for creativity, style of problem solving, and leadership behaviors for International Masters Publishers organization.

Isaksen, S. G. & Lewandowski, B. R.


An impact investigation: The CPS initiative in Bull UK and Ireland.  A comprehensive report of a commissioned impact study.






Figure 1 Osborn’s Seven Stages Model (CPS Version 1.0)


Figure 2: Osborn-Parnes five stage CPS model (Version 2.2)

Figure 3: CPS Version 3.0 (Isaksen & Treffinger, 1985)


Figure 4: CPS Version 4.0

Figure 5: Components of CPS Version 5.0 (Isaksen & Dorval, 1993)

Figure 6: CPS Version 6.1