One of the sweetest aspects of the digital age is having access to so much information.

For self-learners, it's like being a kid in a candy shop. Nuggets of wisdom and boxes of assorted knowledge are stacked high, just waiting for us to make a selection.

With so many choices, how could you ever choose?

Whether you're a kid picking out candy or an aspiring entrepreneur making big decisions, your way of thinking influences your choices.

Mental models are essential for thinking wisely and making good decisions — not just for candy selection but also for solving problems and finding opportunities. This is because each of us uses mental models to organize our thinking. While some of these mental models operate subconsciously, others can be consciously employed to improve thinking skills.

This article will introduce you to a popular methodology called The Productive Thinking Model. This mental framework offers a structured approach to solving problems or generating creative ideas. Let's take a look.

About the productive thinking model

In his book "Think Better: An Innovator's Guide to Productive Thinking," Tim Hurson presents an easy-to-learn and straightforward methodology to help readers think more creatively and plan more effectively. His model integrates decades of research and techniques from various people and organizations into a framework he calls the Productive Thinking Model.

Critical vs. creative thinking

To understand how to use the Productive Thinking Model effectively, we need to understand Hurson's theory about thinking. According to Hurson, productive thinking comprises two distinct processes — creative thinking and critical thinking.

Critical thinking is:

  1. Analytical
  2. Judgmental
  3. Selective

In contrast, creative thinking is:

  1. Generative
  2. Non-judgemental
  3. Expansive

Productive thinking should be an ongoing alternation between creative thinking and critical thinking. We tend to combine these two types of thinking simultaneously, but that can hinder the process. Hurson emphasizes that they should be kept separate to get the most out of each way of thinking.

Thinking techniques

The Productive Thinking Model aims to walk through each step methodically, asking critical questions and using creative thinking techniques. Hurson introduces various approaches we can use to generate more productive ideas. A few of these are:

  • Stay with the question: We tend to stop questioning when we think we know the answer, but this only limits our thinking. Be a problem solver — keep asking beyond the obvious answer. Staying with the question requires getting comfortable with uncertainty and opening the mind to new ideas.
  • Strive for the "third third:" According to Hurston, ideas generated during the first third of a brainstorming session are usually mediocre. Push past the easy ideas, and in the second third, ask "else" questions (what else, who else) to stimulate your creative thinking. We usually come up with the best ideas in the third third.
  • Go for quantity over quality: You want to brainstorm, not brain drizzle. The easiest way to improve your thinking skills is to generate more ideas. Exercises like the wind tunnel (quickly coming up with as many ideas as you can in a timed period) put you in a position to reach beyond the obvious and develop your own creative ideas.

By combining these techniques with a systematic action plan, the productive thinking model has the potential to produce endless creative solutions. As you move through each step of the process, keep your ideas organized to help you stay focused and make progress.

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The 6-step action plan

Productive Thinking Model: Colorful concept of two people thinking

The Productive Thinking Model is a multi-stage problem-solving process that combines creative thinking with a structured approach. The methodology emphasizes using various techniques and defining questions at each step, resulting in a practical, straightforward thinking process that leads to innovative solutions.

Here's how it works.

Step 1: Ask, "What is going on?"

The first step of Hurson's productive thinking model begins with uncovering the problem. Fully understanding the problem is the first step to finding the best solution.

To explore the issue, consider these questions:

What's the itch?

Describe the problem. Make a list of all possible issues that need to be resolved or improved, and then choose the one that best describes the case.

What's the impact?

Consider all the ways this problem affects you. Think about what it means to you and what bothers you, then identify your top priorities.

What's the information?

Consider the information you have about the problem. Look at its causes, impacts, assumptions, and limitations. Then, sort your list and decide which ones are most important to you.

Who's involved?

Who are the parties involved, and how do they impact each other? First, look at the stakeholders and what they stand to gain or lose. Then, pick out the most important factors based on the overall significance.

What's the vision?

As the last step, shift your focus to your ultimate goal, or "Target Future." How does the future look if you solve your problem? First, list all possible Target Futures and pick the one that best suits your needs. Then, write a Target Future statement to help you visualize your desired outcome.

Having five questions just for the first step might seem excessive, but don't rush it. You're laying the foundation for creative problem solving and potential solutions.

Step 2: Ask "What is success?"

Your next step is to determine what success criteria you will use to evaluate your solutions. Use your Target Future statement to create a compelling vision that makes you feel inspired and motivated.

The DRIVE Exercise can help you develop your list of success criteria. Consider the answers to the following questions:

  • D – Do: What should a possible solution accomplish?
  • R – Restrictions: What do you need to avoid?
  • I – Investment: How much time and money can you allocate?
  • V – Values: Are there any values you need to adhere to?
  • E – Essential outcomes: What are your targets?

Step 3: Ask, "What is the question?"

Productive Thinking: Question mark

During this step, you’ll formulate the questions to help you reach your Target Future. Turn the problem statements you listed earlier into questions to facilitate your thinking.

Hurson suggests thinking of questions from the perspective of "How might I or how might we." For example, if your problem statement was "I don't have enough time to finish this project," your question might be, "How can I get more time?" or "How can we change the specs to require less time?"

Use your thinking skills to generate a list of questions, then choose two that are key to solving the problem. Pay attention to those that seem the most uncomfortable. They usually have the most significant potential for change.

Step 4: Generate answers

The idea generation phase of the productive thinking model takes place here. Let your creative side loose and think of as many solutions as possible to the strategic questions you selected in step three. Generate as many ideas as you can using the creative thinking skills mentioned earlier.

Remember — go for a brainstorm, not a brain drizzle. Ask "else" questions, be outlandish, and dig deeper. Don't skimp on this step. This is where you can push past boring or failed ideas to find the good stuff.

Once you've generated a lot of ideas, choose the most promising ones to pursue further. Keep in mind that these aren't fully developed ideas but rather the most intriguing ones you wish to explore in-depth.

Try the C5 Exercise to help:

  • Cull: Remove the silly, crazy ideas.
  • Cluster: Arrange similar items in groups of five or fewer.
  • Combine: Join very similar things.
  • Clarify: Assign each set or group its own label describing its focus.
  • Choose your best ideas from the clusters. Make sure they align with your success criteria and trust your instincts.

Step 5: Forge the solution

Maze with yellow arrow

Taking a closer look at the top ideas is the next step toward finding the best solution. This involves two steps.

First, determine which ideas best meet your success criteria. If you need to reduce your criteria for this step, focus on the most critical aspects. Then, choose the concept that is most promising for a potential solution.

Using that concept, develop a solid solution. Identify a strategy or set of solutions that meet your success criteria and provide a clear answer to the problem.

Step 6: Align resources

The last step is to create a plan for implementing your solution. Identify your tasks and the steps necessary to complete them, then prioritize them and set a deadline. Making a plan helps you visualize your future success and begin taking steps toward it.

Go forth and be productive

With Hurson's Productive Thinking Model, anyone can strengthen their thinking skills by applying a simple step-by-step methodology. And if you’re dedicated to self-learning, it’ll be an excellent addition to your toolbox. It doesn't matter if you’re solving a client issue or simply picking your favorite candy at the candy store. Asking questions and pursuing creative thinking can spur new ideas, help you find innovative solutions, and ultimately help you achieve greater success.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. Feel free to share, recommend and connect 🙏

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Erin E. Rupp
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Erin E. Rupp

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