Creative Problem-Solving Skills: The Value of Curiosity and Play


How can curiosity help you surface the unexpected and get to breakthrough ideas and solutions?

In this episode of Breakthrough by Design, IDEO U Executive Director Coe Leta Stafford joins host Kim Christfort, Chief Innovation Leader and National Managing Director of The Deloitte Greenhouse® Experience, to discuss the concept of living with the problem. They explore the benefits of working through solutions layer by layer to understand individual, team, or customer behaviors, the importance of putting people at the center, and why you should have a curious mindset in your work.


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Explore Your Problem with Curiosity

Dive Deeper into the Problem with Systems Thinking

The Power of Play and Imagination in Problem Solving

Defining a Breakthrough: Balancing Business Realities and Future Possibilities


Explore Your Problem with Curiosity

In her podcast and book The Breakthrough Manifesto, Kim Christfort outlines ten principles to spark transformative innovation. One of the principles is “Live with the Problem” which speaks to the benefits of taking time to explore the problem before taking action. When we face a new problem, we often feel a natural discomfort and rush to find a solution. Instead of going straight to solutions, Coe recommends approaching problems with curiosity to help us work through that initial discomfort. Curiosity doesn’t have to be academic like you’re an analytical detective. It can be more like an openness to be surprised and discover what you don't know exists or is possible. Coe believes that when approaching complex problems, this explorative mindset can feel like the French word “flâner,” which means to wander aimlessly through a city.

When leaning into a mindset of curiosity, Coe recommends starting broad. Much of the work she does is focused on customer behaviors or working with companies for a specific problem. For example, she might be working with a bank on how to help people better save money. When conducting interviews to better understand this problem, she wouldn’t start by asking how they spend their money. Instead, she might begin in the kitchen to learn about the food they care about and their family interactions. You can learn a lot about people, including what they value and how they think, by understanding their full context rather than just the narrow issue itself. That allows the people you work with to guide you with what they feel is important versus steering the agenda yourself.


“There's a particular type of curiosity that’s less academic and more like a curiosity to be surprised—an openness to discovering what you don't know exists or is possible.”
Coe Leta Stafford—IDEO Partner & Executive Design Director, IDEO U


Dive Deeper into the Problem with Systems Thinking

Kim emphasizes the set of tools or frameworks that can help you embrace curiosity and understand the problem holistically. Examining issues from a systems level can help you uncover the root cause of problems and see things from different and diverse perspectives. Systems thinking is an approach that involves understanding the individual elements and linkages within a system to create solutions that take into account the needs of all stakeholders.

An effective systems thinking tool that Coe suggests using is the iceberg model, attributed to the American anthropologist Edward Hall. While it's commonly practiced in organization and systems design, IDEO U’s course Human-Centered Systems Thinking teaches a version of the iceberg model that is useful for a range of problems and focuses on people.

To understand the iceberg model, think of an iceberg. When you imagine an iceberg, you see the tip above the surface, yet you know there is more below what we can see. To see the problem holistically, we need to break it into three different layers—the behaviors, the structures, and the mindsets.

  • Behaviors: The actions and patterns of what we can see.
  • Structures: The things that influence the behaviors we see.
  • Mindsets: The values, beliefs, and mental models that shape the layers above.

This model encourages you to consider the whole picture, surface the root of the problem, and take appropriate action, leading you to more substantial solutions.


"Laughter is a precursor to learning. When you're engaged and laughing your senses are heightened, and this makes you lean in and want to learn more."
Coe Leta Stafford—IDEO Partner & Executive Design Director, IDEO U


The Power of Play and Imagination in Problem Solving

After you’ve used curiosity to understand the problem and brought in systems thinking to dive deeper into the surrounding context, how do you get to solving the problem? Coe says that play and imagination can be powerful tools for complex problem solving, one of the most important skills necessary for the future of work in our post-pandemic context according to research institute Burning Glass.

Coe believes that the complex problems we face today require different ways of thinking—unconventional thinking and creativity, which can be unlocked with play and imagination. When ambiguity is high, it's easy for us to default to our known and familiar ways of thinking and quick fixes. In times when we’re stressed and there's a real problem, Coe highlights how it feels counterintuitive to think about play or imagination. But incorporating it into your work can bring out new and innovative ideas.

Early in her career, Coe designed exhibits in science and tech museums. When Coe and her team were doing design research on how to engage people in these informal learning environments, they discovered that laughter is often a precursor to learning. When you're engaged and laughing, your senses are heightened and this makes you lean in and want to learn more. In the same way, play is a powerful way to get people into a space of laughter and joy. It helps us get expansive, look at things differently, explore multiple possibilities, and give us joy and momentum to keep going amid persistent challenges.

Check out our new course, Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving, to see how play helps us get to different places, get unstuck, and see new solutions.


Defining a Breakthrough: Balancing Business Realities and Future Possibilities

What does it take to get to a breakthrough?

In The Breakthrough Manifesto, Kim notes that achieving a breakthrough requires that leaders think differently, share openly, and act boldly. Stepping outside the comfort of the status quo to ask, “What if?,” often enables new opportunities to blink into existence and eventually take flight.

From years of working with design teams, Coe suggests that there are distinct feelings that accompany a breakthrough. When she thinks about a breakthrough, it’s less about what it is and more about how it feels. Having been on many design teams as a leader at IDEO and looking across many possibilities, futures, ideas, and choices, she has learned that leadership is a skill of knowing when and how to shift from macro to micro, and being divergent or convergent.

As a business leader in those moments of many possibilities, Coe focuses on the realities and constraints of now and the creative possibilities of the future that do not yet exist. In her experience, the breakthrough feeling is distinct—it's a combination of brilliant and uncomfortable. When she feels that combo, it makes her lean forward and pay attention.


“A breakthrough is a feeling that sits in the space of brilliant and uncomfortable. As a leader, I need to be mindful of both of those two things—the business realities and the possible futures.”
Coe Leta Stafford—IDEO Partner & Executive Design Director, IDEO U


About the Speakers

Kim Christfort
Chief Innovation Leader and National Managing Director, Deloitte Greenhouse® Experience

Kim Christfort is the Chief Innovation Leader and National Managing Director of The Deloitte Greenhouse® Experience. She has dedicated her career to understanding and fostering the conditions necessary to spark innovation, spur alignment, and create lasting impact, helping executives and their teams mitigate or dissolve those barriers to progress through thoughtfully crafted experiences. She has co-authored two books with her Deloitte colleague Dr. Suzanne Vickberg, including The Breakthrough Manifesto: 10 Principles to Spark Transformative Innovation, released in November 2023. Previously they released Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships.

Kim is also the architect and Global Leader of Business Chemistry®, Deloitte’s proprietary working style system used by more than 600,000 people around the world. She is a frequent speaker and coach for global businesses, providing insights, crafting methods that unlock opportunities, and facilitating immersive, interactive sessions that accelerate breakthroughs.

Coe Leta Stafford
IDEO Partner & Executive Design Director, IDEO U

Coe Leta teaches global audiences the skills of design thinking, human-centered research, rapid prototyping, and storytelling. Since joining IDEO in 2006, she's led numerous creative teams across diverse organizations including Microsoft, Target, Intel, Wells Fargo, Ford, eBay, Hasbro, Sesame Street, and Government and Healthcare groups. Known for expertise in digital design, play, and data, her work has won international awards, patents for clients, and been featured in the New York Times and Wired. Coe Leta has a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley and guest lectures at Stanford University's d.School. Coe Leta is an instructor in IDEO U’s Insights for Innovation course.

Learn more about tapping into our creative identities and find new approaches to problems with our new course Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving.

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