insights & research

Where Are The Generators?

Problem generating does not come easily to many people. People tend to wait for others to find problems for them to solve rather than take the initiative to seek out, or anticipate problems, changes, trends and opportunities for improvement or innovation. Perhaps in a large part, this is due to the fact that managers find their desks loaded with problems every day, making it easy for them to be reactive rather than proactive. Research into this has argued that the tendency to avoid proactive problem finding represented an organizational form of Gresham's Law, in which people prefer to solve the problems that find them before working on problems they find for themselves. The attitude is so prevalent that some researchers have deemed the activity of problem finding to be an extra-role behavior – one that requires individuals to go beyond the boundaries of their jobs to bring about positive change ( taking charge ) or an operant behavior, which has been suggested is developed through actual practice. In fact, people often avoid important problems that cut across organizational functions and department lines: “That's not our problem.” They also tend to avoid addressing complex or “wicked” problems, that is, messy ones that do not lend themselves to analytical problem solving techniques, have no optimal solution, and in which finding a solution is intertwined with understanding the problem. Even on less daunting but not obviously solvable problems, people often assume prematurely that “it can't be done” simply because of their unwillingness to challenge conventions or step beyond the boundaries of their current work. Preparing students for the uncertainty they will face in their future working lives seems paramount, yet we continue to focus our efforts along the status quo. Rarely does anyone in business, industry and government precisely define a person's assignment, provoking frustration, particularly in younger people unfamiliar with the anxiety of navigating uncharted territory without specific and certain directions and in the face of continual, accelerating change.

Generators prefer to start new things, discover new problems to be solved and new opportunities to be exploited, or deliberately seek out improvements to be made when every thing seems to going along just fine.. They seem to be continuously dissatisfied and have difficulty in explaining themselves because sometimes their ideas are still fuzzy. They become bored with work which requires applying routine procedures to increase efficiency or to execute already defined assignments. They may be perceived to be somewhat unfocussed or even disruptive, as their behavior reflects more of an orientation to introducing ( generating) a new problem and less of an orientation to defining, understanding , constructing, or formulating ( conceptualizin g) an existing problem, or developing (optimizing) or implementing solutions to an existing defined problem . They prefer non-routine work and especially enjoy participating in the first stage of our four stage model of the process of creative problem solving, which we call generation. Thus, they find it more difficult to fit comfortably into organizational life because organizations typically recognize and reward people who prefer working in the latter three problem solving stages which we call conceptualization, optimization , and implementation.

Often, people who are considered “creative” are viewed as oddballs and even outcasts in many organizations, which may not perceive a positive relationship between creativity and wisdom, and many believe individuals cannot possess both attributes. We have found that these so-called “creative” people are the ones who prefer generation work. In field research, we identified the negative stereotyping of individuals perceived as creative as an important organizational attitude related to why so many organizations struggle in creativity and innovation performance. They undervalue the contribution of people who prefer generation work, Such organizations do not yet understand how to manage diversity in the process of creative problem solving , especially how to incorporate problem generation effectively. It is important to note that in this paper, we distinguish between the construct of problem generation (initiation and discovery) as distinctly different from the construct of problem conceptualization (which we equate with what has been identified as problem identification or construction).

Can problem generation performance be increased through training and organizational structuring of work? It appears that many companies are focused on rewarding generator styles. Min reported as far back as 1992 that many top companies in Japan place newly hired R&D engineers and scientists into the sales department to begin their careers so they gain awareness that innovation begins with discovering customers' problems. Later solutions to those problems become new products. Such companies also teach new employees in first day orientation training sessions that problems are “golden eggs,” and provide encouragement and simple structures for employees to identify problems as opportunities for improving processes and products. In North America, the 3M Corporation sets goals for its managers that provoke problem finding. For example, one goal calls for 30% of the company's products to be new every five years. As well, 3M employees are required to spend 15% of their working time exploring new opportunities of personal interest to them.

We believe that we have only scratched the surface of this topic . We continue to research and ask important probing questions as to why generators are in such short supply in organizations. One question could be asked to what extent an individual's creative problem solving style is a disposition or a changeable state. We believe this probably varies with the individual and definitely merits exploration. How do people's styles change over time? For example, what happens when a school teacher with a large generator style changes careers and becomes an insurance agent for a large corporation? Would we see a shift is style? Could we look into people's CPSP styles earlier in their lives to better gauge what careers choices they might make? What are optimal mixes of styles for teams at different organizational levels, or by different types of problems, or by type of industry or internal department, or by environmental factors such as volatility of markets or technologies?

Earlier in this paper reference was made to Min's research which found that top Japanese manufacturing corporations make a concerted and highly successful effort to encourage their employees to engage in problem generation (stage 1) work and use their creativity as part of their jobs. This suggests another valuable question to research: To what extent can problem generation performance be increased through training or organizational structuring of work? And does this vary by organizational environments and by cultures? When these Japanese corporations were asked to specify the pri mary objective of this deliberate encouragement of employees to generate problems and use their creativity, none of the corporations cited new products or new methods or lower costs or higher profits. All of them cited motivated people . This Japanese model sharply contrasts with the approach taken by Western organizations, which is still largely based on a management approach of offering money in the hopes of sufficiently motivating some employees to drop ideas into a suggestion box. So, maybe question would be, to what extent could Western organizations increase employee engagement and motivation by making the effort to adopt the Japanese approach to employee suggestion systems which features deliberate training and structuring to encourage the generator style?

Obviously, many new avenues of research exist based upon expanding the understanding and practical applications of (1) creativity as a four stage cognitive process and the relatively unexplored potential of the generation stage and (2) the concept of appreciating and synergizing different cognitive preferences among individuals for the different stages of the process. No doubt there are many additional avenues for enterprising researchers to generate.


Table 1. CPSP Mix of CPSP Styles by Occupation

    Percentage of
Occupation n Generators Conceptualizers Optimizers Implementers
School Teacher 27 55.6 22.2 11.1 11.1
Academic 58 37.9 39.7 10.3 12.1
Artistic 32 34.4 46.9 12.5 6.3
Non-Profit/University Admin . 89 32.6 28.1 13.5 25.8
Training 240 32.5 32.5 17.9 17.1
Marketing 172 30.2 33.7 19.8 16.3
Design 73 30.1 47.9 12.3 9.6
Health Mgmt. Exec. 37 29.7 21.6 21.6 27.0
Advertising Mgr. 68 26.5 30.9 17.6 25.0
Tech. Customer Support 46 23.9 10.9 28.3 37.0
Sales 379 23.7 14.0 15.6 46.7
Logistics 94 22.3 12.8 22.3 42.6
Product Dev. 45 22.2 44.4 8.9 24.4
Personnel/HR 144 21.5 28.5 20.1 29.9
Business Consultant 63 20.6 28.6 20.6 30.2
Mfg Prodn. 386 20.2 18.4 17.1 44.3
Fund Raising/PR 37 18.9 32.4 18.9 29.7
R&D 95 17.9 47.4 18.9 15.8
Organization Dev. 81 17.3 60.5 12.3 9.9
Qual. Assurance 87 17.2 21.8 24.1 36.8
Mfg. Maintenance 54 16.7 24.1 22.2 37.0
Project Mgr. 78 16.7 12.8 21.8 48.7
Operations 45 15.6 20.0 22.2 42.2
Gen. Mgmt-Small Co./Div. 84 15.5 21.4 21.4 41.7
IT Prog/Analyst 194 15.5 17.5 31.4 35.6
Secretarial/Admin 159 14.5 13.2 22.0 50.3
Accounting 105 13.3 22.9 30.5 33.3
Market Research 23 13.0 52.2 17.4 17.4
Purchasing 69 13.0 15.9 24.6 46.4
Customer Relations 65 12.3 15.4 21.5 50.8
Social/Health Services 131 12.2 24.4 28.2 35.1
IT Operations 117 12.0 6.8 17.1 64.1
IT Sr. Consultant 85 10.6 40.0 27.1 22.4
Finance 110 10.0 26.4 36.4 27.3
IT Systems Developer 199 9.5 31.2 36.2 23.1
Mfg Engineering 32 9.4 34.4 37.5 18.8
Strategic Planning 46 8.7 56.5 28.3 6.5
Engineering 93 7.5 21.5 43.0 28.0

Table 2. Occupations Ranked by Occurrence of CPSP Style

  Generators Conceptualizers Optimizers Implementers
1 School Teacher Organization Dev. Engineering/Eng. Design IT Operations
2 Academic Strategic Planning Mfg Engineering Customer Relations
3 Artistic Market Research Finance Secretarial/Admin
4 Non-Profit/University Admin. Design IT Systems Developer Project Mgr.
5 Training R&D IT Prog/Analyst Sales
6 Marketing Artistic Accounting Purchasing
7 Design Product Dev. Strategic Planning Mfg Prodn.
8 Health Mgmt. Exec. IT Sr. Consultant Tech. Customer Support Logistics
9 Advertising Mgr. Academic Social/Health Services Operations
10 Tech. Customer Support Mfg Engineering IT Sr. Consultant Gen. Mgmt-Small Co./Div.
11 Sales Marketing Purchasing Tech. Customer Support
12 Logistics Training Qual. Assurance Mfg. Maintenance
13 Product Dev. Fund Raising/PR Logistics Qual. Assurance
14 Personnel/HR IT Systems Developer Mfg. Maintenance IT Prog/Analyst
15 Business Consultant Advertising Mgr. Operations Social/Health Services
16 Mfg Prodn. Business Consultant Secretarial/Admin Accounting
17 Fund Raising/PR Personnel/HR Project Mgr. Business Consultant
18 R&D Non-Profit/University Admin. Health Mgmt. Exec. Personnel/HR
19 Organization Dev. Finance Customer Relations Fund Raising/PR
20 Qual. Assurance Social/Health Services Gen. Mgmt-Small Co./Div. Engineering/Eng. Design
21 Mfg. Maintenance Mfg. Maintenance Business Consultant Finance
22 Project Mgr. Accounting Personnel/HR Health Mgmt. Exec.
23 Operations School Teacher Marketing Non-Profit/University Admin.
24 Gen. Mgmt-Small Co./Div. Qual. Assurance R&D Advertising Mgr.
25 IT Prog/Analyst Health Mgmt. Exec. Fund Raising/PR Product Dev.
26 Secretarial/Admin Engineering/Eng. Design Training IT Systems Developer
27 Accounting Gen. Mgmt-Small Co./Div. Advertising Mgr. IT Sr. Consultant
28 Market Research Operations Market Research Mfg Engineering
29 Purchasing Mfg Prodn. Mfg Prodn. Market Research
30 Customer Relations IT Prog/Analyst IT Operations Training
31 Social/Health Services Purchasing Sales Marketing
32 IT Operations Customer Relations Non-Profit/University Admin. R&D
33 IT Sr. Consultant Sales Artistic Academic
34 Finance Secretarial/Admin Organization Dev. School Teacher
35 IT Systems Developer Logistics Design Organization Dev.
36 Mfg Engineering Project Mgr. School Teacher Design
37 Strategic Planning Tech. Customer Support Academic Strategic Planning
38 Engineering IT Operations Product Dev. Artistic

Note: Occupations ranked 1 contain the highest percentages of the relevant style.

Table 3. CPSP Mix of Styles by Organizational Level

    Percentage of
Organizational Level n Generators Conceptualizers Optimizers Implementers
Non-manager 449 19.4 16.9 22.3 41.4
Supervisor/Team Leader 1073 19.9 17.3 21.8 40.9
Middle Manager 843 19.5 24.4 22.3 33.8
Upper Manager 357 17.9 35.9 17.4 28.9
Technical/Professional 1061 22.8 30.2 23.3 23.8


Figure 3: Not Enough Generators

Figure 3: Not Enough Generators
A typical group of managers from a large aerospace company serving the aircraft, airline, and aerospace industries and having trouble expanding into new products and new markets.


Each represents an individual's pair of coordinates derived from their score on the vertical apprehension axis (XT) coupled with their corresponding score on the horizontal utilization axis (IE).

Some Occupations by Dominant Style Mix

Some Occupations by Dominant Style Mix


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