Successful innovation at any level in any field depends upon skillful performance in two critical mental abilities – divergent thinking and convergent thinking. The optimum ratio of the two thinking processes differs greatly across different occupations and organizational functions.
Let’s first define these abilities.
Divergent thinking means expanding your thoughts and developing options in many different directions: searching for new trends, problems, possibilities & opportunities for change, defining problems from different angles, looking for different facts and points of view and even seeking out options and alternatives when it seems that none exist. Divergence skill requires letting ideas come to light in the absence of criticism and instant over-analysis. Deferring judgment enables you to pursue directions you didn’t think possible.
Convergent thinking means narrowing the focus, carefully selecting the best options to take forward, and importantly always with an open mind.
When a group is charged with evaluating a wide array of options and possibilities, the ability to hold off premature judgment, to listen carefully, to clarify and respect what others are saying and to apply unbiased criteria, is of paramount importance. Removing misunderstandings, assumptions, hidden motives, or ego enables the group to zero in on the options that everyone believes are important and be committed to them. We call these “best bets”.
But what is the right ratio of divergent and convergent thinking in innovation?
What’s the right amount of time to devote to each? We have found that higher ratios are typical in work classified as more problem finding in nature, such as researchers and academics or professors. More of their time is devoted to long range work with accomplishments occurring longer time frames, perhaps in years, developing new theories and questions for exploration.
Lower ratios are found in work classified as more solution implementation in nature, such as manufacturing production, sales, and logistics. More of their time is devoted to short term achievements: They know by the end of the day or week how successful they were in meeting a goal or installing a new procedure.
Moderate ratios are found in work classified as more problem solving in nature, such as marketing, advertising agency and nonprofit organization administration. Perhaps more of their time is devoted to launching and testing new programs and initiatives whose success may be measured in say, months or semesters.
In summation, successful innovation is dependent on quality divergent thinking balanced with quality convergent thinking at every step of the innovation process with judgment managed consistently throughout.
The exact nature of the balance depends on the field of work
For more specific details, field research identifying optimum divergent
/convergent ratios for different jobs in different industries can be found in the Creativity Research Journal, Vol 8, (1), pp 63 – 75):DOWNLOAD HERE Optimal ideation-evaluation ratios.
We live in a world where “solutions” are easy to come by. Advocates, experts and lobbyists offer ready-made answers to complex problems. Politicians take sides and become entrenched in their positions, while people argue back and forth endlessly rather than collaborating.
Many solutions are framed as total opposites — like gas and oil versus solar power — and are viewed through the lens of cancelling each other out rather than fitting together in a long-term energy strategy.
This ineffective form of problem solving typically ends up in a quagmire, accomplishing little beyond frustration. Nothing works because we haven’t taken the time to understand what problem our solution will solve.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and need only five to solve it.” Einstein was right. The ability to define a problem skillfully is the key to innovation. And collaboration is the key to skillful problem definition.
We’re reminded of a time when we worked with a consumer products company looking to lower the packaging costs of its potato chip products. While the chips had typically been shipped for delivery standing upright in large boxes, the manufacturing team discovered that it would save the company time and money if the individual bags were laid flat instead. But the new idea encountered resistance from the sales department because it slowed down the receiving process for customers, who typically counted the bags before signing the receiving documents.
Analyzing the situation made it clear that the real problem was, “How might we lay the bags flat but still allow the customer to quickly know how many bags are inside the box?” Several solutions immediately became evident, including providing each customer with a weigh scale so that opening the box and counting was unnecessary.
By defining the problem in a comprehensive way, the team developed innovative options that escaped the “if my solution wins, then your solution loses” approach that often results in stalemate.
Innovation demands disciplined thinking and collaboration. Just as we can see scientists all over the world racing together to create a vaccine to defeat the COVID19 virus, we need to encourage political collaboration on crucial issues.
How might we redefine the problem facing us today so we can move beyond the opposing solutions of either ‘saving lives’ or ‘opening our economies’? Expanding our perspective may inspire innovative solutions that satisfy many priorities.