That’s a good idea, but…
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’ve been invited to a meeting to find a solution to a problem. The boss asks for ideas. You gamely offer one, but it’s been done before, or it’s too expensive, or it won’t work, or we don’t do that here, or it interferes with another initiative, or we don’t know enough to set anything in stone, or…
The first step to coming up with a good idea is to come up with lots of ideas. The goal is not only quantity but diversity – the more different the ideas the better. This is divergent thinking, the opposite of convergent thinking.
Convergent thinking is narrowing down options to the correct or best answer. Convergent thinking asks what is two plus two – a question with only one answer. Divergent thinking asks what two numbers add up to four – a question with an infinite number of solutions.
Both forms of thinking are necessary to ideation – first you go wide then you focus. The problem is that at most ideation efforts the participants try to do both at the same time.
You can’t breathe in and out at the same time
We can’t diverge and converge at the same time. If you pull every new idea up like a weed then you you stifle the creative impulses of the participants and have no chance for synergy – the serendipity that comes from ideas building on each other.
Breaking the pattern
Unless you are at the ground floor a new venture, chances are your job and the job those around you requires some form of mastery – knowing what to do under what circumstances. In other words, a big part of your job is convergent thinking.
As a result, when fresh ideas are required, the flaws of ideas are found quicker than the ideas themselves. We’re all racing to find the right answer so anything that may be “wrong” gets discarded prematurely.
If you are running a meeting intended to generate ideas, let the idea generation phase have the time it needs. If the participants feel free to come up with ideas that may seem outlandish on first inspection, then they will produce the quantity and variety of ideas you need.
Then and only then can the assessment, the convergent thinking be applied to choose the best idea to pursue.
Grist for the mill
If the typical demands on our minds require convergent thinking, then how do we activate divergent thinking?
Sometimes it can be as easy as taking a deep breath and giving yourself license to produce a variety ideas knowing that while some may be nonsense at least one might be the starting point for a great innovation.
If that mind-over-matter approach fails, there are some very effective techniques to not only trigger your imagination but also ensure that your ideas cover lots of different angles.
Genrich Altshuller (1926-1998) was a Soviet inventor and science-fiction author. Altshuller’s research into patents found that problems and solutions are repeated across industries and sciences.
Altshuller also concluded that the original ideas found in the thousands of patents he studied could be explained by 40 Inventive Principles of Problem Solving.
Learning and applying this many principles can be daunting, but what I love about this approach is how comprehensive it is. In the decades since Altshuller began his work, the 40 principles have survived as a way to explain almost any innovation.
SCAMPER is a creativity technique that prompts the person or team generating ideas to consider seven possible paths to improving a product or service.
The technique was originally proposed by Alex Osborne in 1953. Osborn wrote several books on creative thinking, including the 1942 book in which he outlined the technique of “brainstorming”.
SCAMPER was further developed by Bob Eberle in his 1971 book titled “SCAMPER: Games for Imagination Development.” He developed the mnemonic for the seven techniques:
Substitute | Combine | Adapt | Modify | Put to another use | Eliminate | Reverse
As Bob Ross would say…
Divergent thinking is time to simply explore and put ideas on the table. With enough ideas on the table, alone or in combination, there’s bound to be one which is so crazy it just might work.