Creativity Explorer

An analytical approach towards creativity

The Cognitive Analytical Model (CAM) is described by Robert W. Weisberg in his 2006 book: Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention and the Arts. Read a book review here.  CAM is, as a the name of the model gives away, an analytical approach towards the creative process. According to Weisberg (2006) problem solving a.k.a. creativity, happens in four steps. For an easier understanding I divided them into six steps, as you can read below.

Weisberg’s description of the creative process is refreshing against all the ‘creative thinking is something special’-processess. Many scientists and professionals have described the creative process. In most descriptions there is always room for that unexplainable that magic that special ‘something’ that defines creativity. For example: the phenomenom of ‘incubation time’ –  which is not scientifically proven. Of course that does not mean it does not exists… – 0r creative thinking is described as a different type of thinking than ‘normal thinking’, which is nonense according to Weisberg (2006). 

The Cognitive Analytical model in six steps

Step 1: Interpreting a situation as a problem and trying to find a method you know to help you solve the problem.

‘A problem is only a problem when you see it as a problem’. Everyone will interprete a situation differently and therewith everyone will have a different take on the problem. If we think about business workshops in which participants try to solve a problem, we can only imagine how much problem interpretations there are. If we all think we are talking about the same problem but have very different ideas about that problem, miscommunication is evident. Which is why it is important to always check if the participants in a workshop have the same understanding about the problem.

Step 2: three options

  1. You have no idea how to solve the problem. That means you have to find another way to solve the problem. Appearantly our own knowledge is not sufficient. See step three.
  2. You did not find the answer but you did think of something that gives you knew information. Interesting, go to step four.
  3. You found the answer, hooray no more steps! Actually, if you found the answer, you won’t feel the ‘hooray’. We are often creative without really noticing it. What am I cooking tonight? Road diversion, how will I drive to work? We are creating new solution everyday, nothing special. And we won’t have that feeling that Eureka-feeling in this scenario.

Step 3. Use bottom-up approach

If we cannot solve the problem with the knowledge we have, our top-down approach failed. In a top-down approach we use ‘strong’ methods. These are methods in which our knowledge on the problem plays a big part. Analogy transfer is an example of a strong methods. If our expertise does not help us enough to solve the problem. Then what? We then turn to a bottom-up approach.

In a bottom-up we use ‘weak’ methods. These are methods in which we need no specific knowledge about the problem.  For example: you can always try something and see if the result takes you closer to the desired situation (hill climbing). We hope to make the problem space smaller by using weak methods like means-to-end analysis, working backwards and hill climbing. 

Step 4: You change the problem space

Thinking about how to solve the problem, made you think up something that gave you knew information. This new information will change your problem space. The problem space is the imaginary area in which you think the problem exists. For example, if I don’t know what to cook tonight, my problem space will exist of dishes and ingredients that I know. And eventhough there are flowers we can eat, flowers probably won’t be part of my problem space. But if I start to think about it, flowers can become part of my problem space, which will give me a whole new direction in which I can find a solution.

This talk about ‘problem space’ is a difficult way of saying: ‘This is my interpretation of the problem and this is more or less the direction I think the solution will lie’. As you can imagine, changing the problem space will have great consequences for the solution you will find. In professional language it is called: restructuring the problem. In normal language we sometimes say: looking/thinking differently at/about the same thing.

Step 5 and 6: Are the same as step two

Whether you have used a bottom-up approach (step 3) or your own knowledge about the problem gave you new information (step 4), you will end up in the same situation as in step 2:

  1. You still have know idea how to solve the problem. And if you can not solve the problem using your own knowledge and if any bottom-up methods don’t work for you, I’m sorry you failed to solve the problem. You reach an impasse.
  2. You have not solved the problem but you do have new information that will change your problem space. This will lead you to step four again.
  3. Hooray, you solved the problem! Because you are already a few steps further in your thinking process, this can actually have that Euraka-feeling. Sorry, no guarantee.


How to use this model in our creative processes?

  • Be more aware wether you are using bottom-up or top-down methods to solve your problem. You often don’t know how much you know, and how you use your knowledge to solve problems. But expertise is often crucial in problem solving. Most techniques we use to stimulate creativity are either about restructuring information or are bottom-up techniques. There is no focus on deliberate use of expertise, which is a missed opportunity in my opinion.
  • Bottom-up techniques are techniques we use that does not require any knowledge about the problem. Brainstorming is a great example of a bottom-up technique: anyone can participate!
  • Restructuring might be quite important in creativity (although also proven not a guarantee for creativity). Everytime we cut up complex processes into little pieces, everytime we write down 1 idea per post-it, we help ourselves restructuring. Restructuring is the reason behind using post-it’s in the first place! Especially for complex situations it is important to visualize information and to be able ‘move information around’. It supports our thinking and helps us restructuring. System Inventive Thinking and SCAMPER are great examples of techniques that are based on restructuring.

Overall I think we can learn a lot from this approach on the creative process, because it is so analytical. I did feel a bit deprived from my romantic idea about creativity. But I found it back in the act of being creative. We could use more of these models to describe creativity, that critizes the ‘diverging-converging’-process we all know so well.

November 23, 2017Article by: Willemijn Brouwer




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