The concept fan approach developed by Edward de Bono is another graphical creativity enhancement technique. It helps us to both creatively find design solutions and to redefine the creativity challenge at higher levels. The concept fan approach starts with a problem definition and then branches out in two directions. To the right of the problem we develop detailed solutions. To the left, we move to a broader creativity challenge.

This is easier to understand with an example. Let’s consider groundwater nitrate removal. Nitrate groundwater contamination is a serious problem, particularly for newborn infants and those with compromised immune systems. Nitrate contamination can occur naturally or as the result of agricultural or industrial inputs. Most of the time, agriculture is the cause due to the use of fertilizers or byproducts of dairy farming.

There are three traditional approaches used to lower the nitrate level in groundwater: Membrane technology (also known as reverse osmosis), ion exchange technology (the preferred approach), and blending (i.e., mixing nitrate contaminated water with uncontaminated water such that the resultant nitrate concentration is below the maximum allowed level). The photo below shows a typical ion exchange plant.

The first step in developing a concept fan is to define the creativity challenge and show it in a circle. Here’s the start of a concept fan for our groundwater nitrate contamination challenge:

The next step is to show solutions to the right of the creativity challenge. We move to the right to present solutions as shown below. For the blending solution there are two approaches, and those are further developed to the right.

The next step is to now restate the creativity challenge at a higher level. When we do this, we move to the left in the concept fan. Suppose that instead of finding a way to remove nitrate from the groundwater, we restate the creativity challenge as one in which we reduce nitrate inputs to the groundwater. When we do this, the concept fan guides our thinking into several new areas:

With this new approach to the creativity challenge (instead of removing nitrate from the groundwater, we seek approaches for reducing nitrate inputs to the groundwater), we introduce a new set of creative challenges. We can: 

  • Reduce the amount of dairy farming through a couple of approaches outlined in the concept fan.
  • Modify the fertilizers such that they contain fewer nitrates (again, with approaches included in the concept fan).
  • Treat the groundwater (as outlined earlier).
  • Reduce other manmade sources of nitrate contamination (with solutions, at this point, to be determined at a later date if other contaminant sources are found). 

The concept fan approach continues in this manner, moving to the left to restate the creativity challenge at higher levels, and then moving to the right to identify potential solutions to each of these higher-level creativity challenge restatements. In this example, the next higher-level creativity challenge might be to make nitrate use more costly. This should motivate people to use less nitrate. There are several ways we can make nitrate use more costly. We can:

  • Create an environment in which nitrate use is socially unacceptable (an approach that has been successfully used to discourage tobacco use, texting while driving, and other undesirable practices).
  • Impose fines for nitrate use (an approach that works well for a variety of offenses related to harming the environment).
  • Impose prison terms for nitrate use (admittedly, a radical and unlikely solution, but developing a concept fan is a form of guided brainstorming, and the intent is to move our thinking into areas we might not have otherwise considered).

Here’s how the above creativity challenge restatement and its solutions appear when we add these items to the concept fan:

As you can see from the nitrate contamination example developed here, the concept fan goes beyond simply developing solutions to a creativity challenge. The concept fan approach helps us to redefine the problem at higher levels, expanding the range of solutions available to us. It forces us to think of creativity challenges in grander terms, and in so doing, many new solutions emerge. 

Read more Unleashing Engineering Creativity: Nine Screens

If you’d like to learn more about creativity stimulation techniques, you can take a free, live web-based course I will be leading at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time on April 25. It’s a real class, not a sales webinar. You’ll go away with a good, practical perspective on how to apply one of the creativity stimulation techniques, TRIZ, to the solution of a real engineering challenge. If you like, you can also take part in the engineering design contest, with prizes up to $1,000 in value, which will be described in the web class. For more information or (free) registration, please visit Just one hour long, the class will be both exciting and fun. I hope you can make it. 

Joe Berk, Principal Eogogics Faculty, teaches Process FMEA, Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA), engineering statistics, design of experiments, statistical process control, quality management, cost reduction, engineering creativity, technical management/leadership, and technical communications. Before starting his training/consulting practice, he held senior management positions in engineering, quality assurance, and manufacturing.  He’s the author of ten books on engineering, including Unleashing Engineering Creativity.  He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University and an MBA from Pepperdine University.