Beth Miller, Executive Director
Creative Education Foundation

I am reaching out to let you know that the recent Fast Company article, “The Most Popular Design Thinking Strategy is BS,” incorrectly identifies who created the phrase “How Might We.”  This phrase is an “invitational stem” that comes from creativity scholar and Creative Education Foundation co-founder, Sidney Parnes.  Sid introduced the Creative Problem Solving tools “How Might We?” “How Might I” and “In What Ways Might We?” in his book Creative Behavior Guidebook published in 1967.  

This phrase is not from Design Thinking (claimed by IDEO as starting in 1978), which came after Creative Problem Solving (originally the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process) which has its origins as early as 1939.  It is past time to set the record straight on these historic facts.  It is a burr in the side of the creativity community, and it keeps us all from honoring our forefathers and foremothers appropriately.  Further, it is a distraction keeping us from bringing original, breakthrough ideas and processes into a future that so desperately needs new, creative, and inclusive thinking.

Alex Osborn first started “brainstorming” (a term he coined) when he worked in the advertising industry — he is the “O” in BBDO (Batten Barton Durstine and Osborn).  He started his work at the company in 1928.  The earliest evidence we have of him using “brainstorming” is back in 1939, and it was first published in his book How to Think Up in 1942.  When he retired in 1954, he established the Creative Education Foundation (still operating as a nonprofit today), and in 1955 he held the first Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) — a creativity, innovation, and leadership conference that we run every year. 

Alex and Sid, and Ruth Noller created, taught, and refined  the original Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving process.  (Ruth Noller is a creativity pioneer who is often left out of these conversations, and she should not be. Noller coined the phrase “bug in the machine” after a bug literally got into her MIT computer in the 70s, and she is celebrated within the creativity community for her creativity formula C = ƒa(KIE), creativity is generated by the interaction between Knowledge (K), Imagination (I), and Evaluation (E).) 

Design Thinking is great.  We have lots of experts who teach it at CPSI, but articles like this that completely ignore CPS and falsely attribute Alex, Sid, and Ruth’s work to IDEO co-opts their legacy and misrepresents it.  This bad history, bad research, and bad faith can end here and now with Fast Company issuing a correction to Tricia Wong’s article and by publishing this article. Perhaps you could go even further and invite some of the many other, prolific, diverse, and inclusive creativity professionals and scholars to write about the tools and techniques of CPS and other deliberate creativity processes, and how many of us are working today to apply those processes and tools to equity and inclusion initiatives.  I have their numbers; I can connect you.  

The author, Tricia Wong, is correct, in terms of the tools of Creative Problem Solving only being as good as the facilitators or trainers who use them, and if their intent is to only confirm their own biased opinions or objectives, “How Might We,” brainstorming (often critiqued as ineffective by people who don’t know how to use it) and many other tools could be misused.  

If we go back to Sid’s book A Source Book for Creative Thinking, published in 1962, we see that he states that the truly creative person “…[M]ust certainly have a sincere desire to help mankind.” (129)  Today, at the Creative Education Foundation, we continue Alex, Sid, and Ruth’s creativity legacy by bringing Creative Problem Solving training (updated and refined in 2011), as well as other deliberate creativity practices (including Design Thinking, Agile, Lean, Appreciative Inquiry, Applied Improv and others) to people who attend our annual Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI), the longest running creativity, innovation, and leadership conference of its kind in the world.  In fact, our organization is women led, and we have a female majority Board, and we are actively applying our process to look at critical social justice and education issues.

In her article, Tricia Wong states, “We need to revisit our use of this ubiquitous tool. We need to ask ourselves if it’s truly improving design’s impact on making better products and services or if it’s just perpetuating bad habits or—even worse—exacerbating the problems that come with a lack of diversity and justice in the sector.”  

Any creativity process (or other generative process) and attendant tools and techniques should be scrutinized and reviewed as we refine experience and knowledge.  We strongly urge Fast Company readers who are interested in creativity processes to let us help them connect with qualified facilitators, trainers, and consultants who care deeply about diversity and inclusion and creativity, and who know that CPS and other deliberate creativity processes can be a powerful part of the solution to social justice challenges and are not, in the right hands, tools of deeper destruction or bias.

As Sid wrote in 1962, “The search for aids to problem-solving is a highly creative task.  …They are not the one right answer.  It is hoped, in fact, that you will never rely on one or two rigid patterns, but that you will experiment just as much with the processes by which you solve problems as you do with the problems themselves.”

You would be doing many lazy researchers, and the trailblazers Alex F. Osborn, Sidney J. Parnes, and Ruth B. Noller a great service if you could issue a correction to Tricia Wong’s article “The Most Popular Design Thinking Strategy is BS,” by properly crediting CPS and “How Might We” to Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes, respectively.