Supporting divergent thinking in the workplace

Divergent thinking is the ability to generate many different original ideas in response to a given problem.

In a video that’s gone viral recently (at least among educators), Sir Ken Robinson points  out that divergent thinking skills are diminished as we proceed through the educational system.

There are probably a number of reasons why divergent thinking is difficult to encourage in the classroom:

  • It takes a great deal of time to incorporate activities that support divergent thinking
  • Divergent thinking’s difficult to grade
  • It’s difficult to allow for the possibility of failure as an acceptable outcome; consequently, risk-taking in projects is generally not rewarded
  • Succeeding on standardized tests, where you have to identify the single best answer, requires convergent thinking

(While it’s challenging to encourage divergent thinking in the classroom, there are many passionate, innovative teachers who do support divergent thinking practices as best they can within the constraints of their own environments. Just follow some of the #edchat conversations on Twitter to be inspired.)

How divergent thinking transfers to the workplace

Once out of school, we can all let our creative flags unfurl right? Well, workplace environments generally don’t encourage divergent thinking either. In most high-pressured work environments, the natural response is to leap to the simplest, least resource-depleting solution as quickly as possible.  “How about trying….?” is often greeted with “That’s just not how we do it.” This is natural, but it’s probably not the most competitive position to take.

This isn’t to say that convergent thinking doesn’t have its place. Both convergent and divergent thinking processes are required for creative problem solving and to move from the idea stage to the execution stage. In innovation workshops I’ve been in, success (as measured by the number of quality invention disclosures, for example) is highly dependent on being able to have both types of thinking, but there is a critical timing or flow.

The tension between autonomy and group behaviors

Like anything that takes practice and requires supportive feedback, divergent thinking needs to be nurtured in the workplace.  Despite the current emphasis on social learning, high performers do not a priori flourish in groups and paradigm-preserving behavior is actually more likely  than paradigm-disrupting behavior in most groups. Further, autonomy is an important part of a creative environment. Autonomy motivates and allows workers to take ownership of their work. Supporting autonomy and positive group behaviors at the same time can be challenging. Group dynamics have to be rethought to foster divergent thinking.

So how do we shake up group paradigms to support divergent thinking?  Reiderer, Baier, & Graefe, (2005) citing Schilicksupp (2004) suggest 3 ways:

  • Through information flow – open communication that allows access without too much hoop jumping
  • Through integration – minimizing rivalry and internal competition
  • Through cooperation – supporting problem-solving and synergies (e.g., fostering communities of practice and connecting different communities for cross-pollination of ideas)

Strategies for divergent thinking (a sneak preview)

Brainstorming is one appropriate way to foster divergent thinking, but it’s not the only way. Further, there are processes that can be implemented to support and enhance brainstorming. And, we need to look at group behaviors at bit more. So to end with a cliffhanger, stay tuned for the next post.

References

Riederer, J.P., Baier, M., & Graef, G. (2005). Innovation management—An overview and some best practices, C-Lab Report, Cooperative Computing and Communication Laboratory, 4(3), 1-58. Retrieved from http://www.c-lab.de/fileadmin/redactors/data/Services_Downloads/C-LAB_Reports/C-LAB-TR-2005-3_Innovation__Management.pdf

Schlicksupp, H. (2004). Ideenfindung, Kreativität und Ideenfindung, Frankfurt: Societäts-Verlag.

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8 responses to “Supporting divergent thinking in the workplace

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