Divergent thinking is the real measure of genius. In Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk, he presents research showing how powerful divergent thinking truly is. If I ask someone to come up with the uses for a paperclip, most people will tap out on options around 10-15. But genius divergent thinkers can think of upwards of 200 uses. They ask questions like, “Can the paperclip be 50 feet tall and made of rubber?” They’re not confined by logic or even reason. As a result, they can find solutions that absolutely stump conventional thinkers.
Oddly enough, 98% of children under 5 years of age qualify as divergent thinking geniuses. But this number dwindles dramatically as they age. By the time these geniuses are teenagers, the percentage of geniuses drops to 2%. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one I will address in this article is how to effectively practice divergent thinking. It’s a skill like anything else, and requires continual development and stretching to master. Once you do, however, everything will change and your life will be better because of it.
Let’s get started.
Observe the four pillars of divergent thinking.
The skill of divergent thinking requires that you observe and honor four basic principles:
- Seek novelty
- Make connections
- Strive for quantity
- Defer judgment
Novel solutions are wacky, unordinary, and unpredictable. When you’re looking for solutions, you can’t worry about their viability as you’re coming up with them. I’ll repeat this later, but when you are coming up with divergent ideas, you have to keep diverging – going ever forward to explore as many options as possible. These solutions don’t even need to be physically possible, they just need to address your underlying issue.
You are trying to find ideas that are both original and valuable. There are lot of ways to shift your focus to finding novelty. Ask yourself the following questions:
- “What angle haven’t I considered yet?”
- “What would be an unexpected solution?”
You can also try things like reversed challenge statements, where you state an objective as a negative. For example, “How can I create MORE mistrust in my clients?” or “How can I make my website more confusing?” or even “What’s the most disastrous solution I could go with? What’s a worst-case scenario look like?” Often, creating negative challenge statements will prompt ideas for positive solutions.
When you feel stuck, it can be hard to break free. For that, I have a few immediate suggestions, in no particular order:
- Physically change your location.
- Go on a walk.
- Take a bath.
- Take a nap.
- Do yoga or light physical activity.
- Freewrite or journal.
- Sit for 20 timed minutes and do nothing.
- Make a video about your problem and talk through it on camera (phone cameras are fine).
- Teach your problem to a volunteer “student” and have them ask you questions.
Thinking broadly and freely like this helps you with the next bullet point:
A major component of creativity is one’s ability to connect ideas that don’t go together in obvious ways. Think of artwork: Duchamp reimaging a drinking fountain as a toilet or Stan Brakhage combining painting and gluing fragments of dead moths to celluloid to create a whole new form of experimental cinema. In business, some ingenious combinations include the “Blue Ocean” mindset – where you find customer opportunities to provide high quality with low cost, rather than making quality and cost dependent on one another.
There are a few ways to simulate your brain to make connections.
Define an umbrella category.
Do you ideas have a common thread? Could they be categorized under a single umbrella? How can you connect seemingly disparate ideas to fit under that one banner?
Smash two categories together.
How can you combine two different fields so that they become something new? For example, behavioral economics combine psychology and its principles to statically explain how human beings make decisions around money.
Free associate within your surroundings.
Look around the room and pick an object. Ask yourself how that object, or features of it, relate to your problem. Stretch your brain to come up with something. For example, if I’m working on overhauling my website, I may spot a plant. What does the plant have to do with my website? Well, it has roots and leaves, and I suppose I could design the user experience of my website to emulate that. By looking at my submenu as “leaf petals,” I can ultimate have the same end result for what I want users to do. So the root is basically my call-to-action, and every leaf or branch should funnel visitors to the root CTA.
Does this example seem like a stretch? It is. And that’s what you need to do.
Strive for quantity.
Ernest Hemingway came up with 140 titles before finally selecting A Farewell to Arms. Part of the reason he had so many is because he knew the secrets of good creative problem-solving: probability. You want to list as many things as possible in order to come up with the most viable solution. The problem many people have when attacking a creative issue is that they tend to select an answer too soon. They pick one of the first few ideas they come up with, rather than striving for many options they can cull down afterwards.
Research from FourSight (a thinktank devoted to creative innovation) has shown that if you were to take a length of potential ideas and break them up into thirds, the first third would be the obvious stuff that ultimately fails. It’s the stuff that’s been floating around in your head. The last third is where the breakthroughs are, but it takes work to get there. When you aim for a high number of solutions, a number that will make you strain, it’s easier to come up with a list. You just have to focus on quantity.
This seems to be the hardest for self-proclaimed “noncreative” people. As soon as we hear or suggest an idea, there’s a habitually response to knock it down or punch holes in it. Deferring judgment ties in well with the previous bullet because you’re supposed to come up with quantity. The solutions don’t have to be good. “Well, I don’t want to waste time coming up with ideas that are obvious failures or ridiculous,” is something I regularly hear. But here’s the thing: you won’t ever get to those brilliant solutions without wading through the crap.
The analogy I use is driving a car: the gas pedal represents your novelty-seeking idea generation, and the brake represents your critical evaluation. If you have both pressed to the floor, you’ll go nowhere. So alternate accordingly, giving each task its due attention.
Reach out with any questions.
How does this information land with you? Are there specific areas in which you get stuck? Feel free to reach out to us with any questions, or if you’d like more resources on the subject. I mentioned FourSight earlier in the article, and Sage Media is actually certified in their approach, so we’re happy to help.