Creating room for creativity

This article was inspired by a Udemy course I took on the subject of Analysis (which I plan to follow through; I have completed and obtained the certificate for the Level 1 course, and there are two more levels to go). It introduced the concept of convergent and divergent thinking to me. I thought it was a useful way to frame two common but different modes to problem solving. Yet, despite how commonly divergent thinking is practised in the workplace (often without us thinking about it), I personally find that not much room is given to cultivating a workplace environment in which it is effectively used. This is connected to the broader subject of nurturing creativity in the workplace.

But first…

What is Divergent Thinking?

Divergent (the film) and Divergent (the thinking approach): Similar in that they were both catastrophic

According to Anne Manning of Drumcircle:

Divergent thinking is that type of thinking that–where you’re looking for new ideas. You’re looking to open up your mind to new possibilities.

Convergent thinking is the type of thinking that involves analysis and making decisions. Both divergent and convergent thinking are critical to solving problems in new ways. 

In my own words, divergent thinking could be seen as a “brainstorming” mode. Nothing is off the table unless it’s completely irrelevant. Constraints and limitations are temporarily suspended. This helps to create new perspectives and ideas that would have otherwise not been entertained when hunkering down in problem-solving. Very often, there is a sense of taking a step back and considering other viewpoints.

Conversely, convergent thinking zeroes in on the “true” problem, and focuses on resolving it. There is an element of efficiency and decisiveness in this mode. It assumes that the root causes have been identified, or that a central issue is responsible, and often, a decision has already been made so that the organisation or problem-solving crew can get down to addressing the issue.

One important point Manning mentions is that both modes of thinking are often mixed up during meetings. I find that her observation rings true in the following quote:

The challenge in organizations is that in meetings, in our own heads, we mix up divergent and convergent thinking. You sit in a meeting and somebody has an idea. And somebody else says, “Well, that idea is too expensive.” A second person has an idea. And someone else rejoins, “That would take too long to do.” A third person has an idea. And someone else says, “We tried that last year, and it didn’t work.” And pretty soon, it’s guaranteed, no one is ever going to have another idea–ever.

I believe that one of the reasons this conflict occurs is that it’s sometimes unclear whether the meeting in question is a space for primarily divergent or convergent thinking. A broader question however, is whether the organisation has even created an effective space for divergent thinking in the first place.

Creating the Space for Divergent Thinking

There’s plenty of information out there about creating a conducive physical and social environment for creativity, which in turn helps foster divergent thinking. There’s an excellent paper by Steelcase which elaborates their foundational beliefs on some of these factors that facilitate and nurture creative thinking in an organisation. I’ve summarised some of their key pointers on the physical and social environment below:

  • Creativity flourishes in an environment rich with ideas, one that encourages social interactions and open exchanges of ideas.
  • It is in emotional and physical comfort that people tend to open up and express themselves authentically, build trust with one another and come together. Trust acts as a social lubricant that encourages more open and honest sharing of ideas.
  • A diverse set of tools can enable and empower all voices to be heard and to edit and author ideas. Tools also help ideas to be visible, which in turn helps make connections and explore emergent relationships.

All this is great, and if implemented well, can help boost an organisation’s creativity tremendously. However, I found far less articles that address making the time for fostering creativity, which is often a more pertinent issue when there’s just so much to do on a day-to-day basis. Even so, without dedicating the time for developing a culture of creativity, large investments in infrastructure and process redesign would be unsustainable, and the last mile of organisational potential would remain locked away. The paper by Steelcase mentions the need to understand what underpins the creative process, but doesn’t mention what’s really needed to get us there.

This article by New & Improved has some practical and revealing tips about how we could carve more time to develop creativity:

  • Make meetings more productive. The article cites some figures from a survey by HBR about how a significant number tend to find meetings unproductive. In my experience, I do agree that unstructured meetings can be unproductive. By sharpening the way meetings are conducted, you’d be able to free up much more time for creative work, and the article offers some handy tips to do so. Above and beyond that however, I think there also needs to be a shared understanding by the chair and members of the meeting to stay on task. I also think that meetings should apply the divergent/convergent principle more often, to at least be clear when it is a divergent mode, and to agree on the points to be convergent on. Ironically, this in itself can create more capacity to marry these two modes of problem-solving in the organisation.
  • Improve creativity skills. Of course, giving people time for creativity would be less effective without the right tools. The article mentions some ways to get people started, but I do think the frameworks and concepts explained by Steelcase do a much better job. It is about understanding the creative process, and investing to support the process.
  • Narrow your focus. I think this is the most crucial to creating a successful, creative organisation. This is relevant even to the earlier point on meetings. But I think it is especially pertinent in the day to day process. It is not just about identifying the big tracks of work one’s team needs to focus on, but also about addressing the smaller hygiene factors, the busywork, that eats into our employees’ time. For instance, is it really necessary for staff to follow a long list of Do’s and Don’ts before they submit something? Are we spending too much time deliberating small-time decisions that have little bearing on the bigger picture, such as whether one word or another was used in an internal report? Does this folder really need this bit of information before it can be filed away? By keeping staff focused on the bigger picture and giving them permission to de-prioritise the smaller issues, there will be more time to invest in other important areas.

Some Other Ways of Seeing

I find this article on ’11 ways to restate problems to get better solutions’ is excellent to get teams started on the divergent/convergent approach. Besides just leaving it at the broad ‘divergent’ approach, the article offers some tools to think through problem statements and approach them from different angles. It’s a bit more focused than “purist” divergent thinking where nothing is off the table, but also less precise than “purist” convergent thinking. These are tools with which to sharpen a problem before getting down to business.

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