Thursday, December 31, 2015

The ebb and flow between divergent and convergent thinking

I thought I would take the opportunity to return to an article I wrote a few days ago. My blog post outlined a few of the key issues for developing creative teams. The article that inspired it from HBR[1] gave a broad definition of innovation and creativity which resonated strongly with my own experience in schools.

According to the author, Roger Schwarz[2], researchers commonly make a distinction between the definition of creativity and innovation.

Innovation involves two stages—the generation of new ideas and the implementation of the ideas. Creativity is considered to be the first stage of innovation.

I would call implementing ideas Prototyping and this typically comes after a range of ideas have been sorted, filtered and judged in different ways during Ideation. I always see a change in the energy levels during Ideation as people begin to flex their creative muscles more intensely.

Later in the article Schwarz outlines a conflict in factors that affect innovation, explaining that a different type of thinking is needed.

Creativity and the second stage of innovation require different individual skills and team structures and processes. The idea generation stage is often referred to as divergent thinking or exploration. The implementation stage is often referred to as convergent thinking or exploitation. Unless you plan to have your team hand off its creative ideas, you will need to create a team that can operate in both modes, switching among them as appropriate.

This whole area is invariably complex and more research is needed. However even from my own experience the requirements on an individual are much more intricate. I agree that we need to be in a divergent thinking state when we generate ideas, but this changes when we have to decide on which ideas are worth investing further in. It changes to a convergent thinking state. In order to identify our choices we have to narrow our field, we have to purge the ideas that don’t make the cut. For us to successfully judge a set of ideas we have to be able to converge and begin to make choices. Thinking big (divergently) and generating ideas at this stage would certainly be counterintuitive.

The ebb and flow between divergent and convergent thinking at the ideation stage is quite important and much more frequent than is suggested in the article. Idea generation is but one part of Ideation. Of course we may identify Emergent thinking as well at this stage which is exploratory and helps when we want to develop our ideas further. I see Ideation being made up of the sequence below:

  1. Generate Ideas (Divergent or Open Thinking)
  2. Explore and develop ideas (Emergent or Exploratory Thinking)
  3. Judge and shortlist (Convergent or Closed Thinking)

It is extremely useful to have a language for the thinking state or mindset needed. I would highly recommend sharing the definitions and helping others understand them. Talking explicitly about the thinking that is needed to be most successful helps signpost people to such expectations, and has helped countless teams of adults and students I have worked with. Don’t let this be a wishy washy stage, identify a process, like the sequence above and stick to it. Trust in the process.[3]

Once ideas have been explored and narrowed down then a team would move on to implementation. Taking a concept into a working or minimal viable prototype phase. Again the type of thinking here is not simply convergent as Schwarz outlines, in my opinion it is equally fluid and perhaps also made up of the combination of divergent, emergent and convergent thinking states.

  1. Harvard Business Review  ↩
  2. Roger Schwarz is an organisational psychologist, find him on Twitter @LeadSmarter  ↩
  3. And the force.  ↩

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