Adapted from the book, Tribal Alchemy: Mining Your Team’s Collective Ingenuity. c. 2016. Dave Fleming.
Explore and evaluate combinations of ideas through divergent and convergent thinking
In order to be successful, your team needs to consistently create real-time solutions and results. The solutions you need come, in part, from insights you generate through your conversations. Here’s the deal: Insights fuel and precede solutions.
[Tweet “Insights fuel and precede solutions”]
Insights provide you with both a “winning idea” and a dose of energy to act on that idea. Making space to discover insights is step one. However, creating space to explore ideas is not enough. Once the conversation begins, you’ll have to find a way to hold, experiment with, and evaluate different “idea-combinations.” When you do this, your ideas end up more useful, leading to the ingenious solutions you need.
Holding, experimenting with, and evaluating ideas is kind of like taking ideas on a date. You want to see if there’s any chemistry between ideas. It’s the combining of ideas that often leads to the insights we seek. An isolated idea doesn’t usually create the “aha moment” needed for real solutions. Ideas gain power as they bond to other ideas during the conversation. Combining ideas– so they lead to insights– will require your tribe to engage in both divergent and convergent thinking.
Much of what I described, earlier in this chapter, has been related to divergent thinking. Divergent thinking occurs when your group explores multiple perspectives, plays with potential combinations of ideas, challenges assumptions, and asks numerous and penetrating questions. During divergent thinking, you have to resist the idea that there is one right idea. Instead, you have to stay open to numerous possibilities.
As essential as divergent thinking is, it alone won’t get you the winning idea you need to produce solutions. To get that, you’ll have to add convergent thinking.
What is Convergent Thinking?
Arthur Cropley, a retired professor from the University of Hamburg, spent his life studying creativity. In his 2006 article “In Praise of Convergent Thinking,” which appeared in the Creativity Research Journal, he described convergent thinking this way:
Convergent thinking is oriented toward deriving the single best (or correct) answer to a clearly defined question. It emphasizes speed, accuracy, logic, and the like and focuses on recognizing the familiar, reapplying set techniques, and accumulating information. (p. 391)
In the same article, Cropley described the need for both convergent and divergent thinking:
I do not intend to deny the importance of divergent thinking in production of effective novelty. However, although necessary, it is not sufficient on its own except perhaps for occasional flukes when blind luck leads to effective novelty. Convergent thinking is necessary, too, because it makes it possible to explore, evaluate, or criticize variability and I identify its effective aspects. In the enthusiasm for divergent thinking, it is thus important not to forget the contribution of convergent thinking, although it is also important not to overemphasize it as I believe is usually done in schools and universities. (p. 398)
It Takes Both Kind Of Thinking To Get Ingenious Ideas
Cropley’s thoughts reveal that “insights” occur when tribes explore (diverge) as well as evaluate and narrow (converge) ideas. When used together, these two conversational techniques create the most ingenious ideas. If you don’t have both tools, your idea is going to lack either novelty (not enough divergent thinking) or practicality (not enough convergent thinking). Your group should aim for a kind of back-and-forth motion between these types of thinking.
Using Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Once you have a number of ideas on the table, you need to rigorously analyze, criticize, and test them. Unless a “great idea” is actionable, it is nothing more than a momentary blip on your conversational radar. In order to advance needed solutions, creative ideas need scrutiny and refinement. Don’t associate scrutiny and limits with an unnecessary “stifling” of the conversation. At some point, you have to refine creative ideas and insights into implementable solutions. If you don’t, you may produce an exciting idea– that is fun to talk about– but distracts you from an action that advances your mission.
For instance, during “brainstorming sessions,” some have suggested you should adopt a, “no bad idea rule.” This is both ridiculous and dangerous. Some ideas are just…dumb (including many of mine). Pursuing numerous bad ideas in hopes that they will generate good ones is like holding onto a rotten banana while you look for a ripe one. Put the rotten banana down.
When ideas are still being developed or decisions still being considered, criticism and constructive conflict are vital to testing the value of the ideas and helping increase that value.
Of course, the opposite outcome is also possible. Some creative ideas are dismissed as “out there” without any consideration or analysis. When this happens, reactivity rather than evaluation caused the rejection, and an ingenious idea may be lost for good.
The trick is to learn to switch, at the right time, from divergent to convergent and from convergent to divergent thinking. If you switch too fast or too often, you may not give a current thought process its due. However, if you switch too slow, you may not arrive at a winning idea–which is both creative and practical.
For example, if you switch too slow out of divergent thinking, you are susceptible to an idea fest that never leads to actionable solutions. But, if you switch too slow out of convergent thinking, you are susceptible to idea-stagnation that limits options. This ability to switch at the right time, and in the right way, is a skill of great importance and value. Tribes would do well to discuss which type of thinking they favor and how to switch between them with greater skill. This is also where a wise and experienced facilitator can help a group pace and manage the switching process.
Spend some time discussing both types of thinking with your tribe and how you can use them together to advance creative solution making. Which type of thinking does your tribe favor? How could you include the other type of thinking in your conversations?