(Why Both Convergent and Divergent Thinking Are Essential to Creativity and Innovation - Provided That We All Get Along)
Change or die...so the saying goes. According to Darwin's Origin of the Species, "It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself."
A government-funded local authority leisure department responsible for swimming pools, council health facilities and youth and community projects in the South West of England needed to respond quickly to funding cuts and a restructure in order to become a financially viable enterprise in a matter of months. Mindsets had to shift to think in an innovative and enterprising way. Yet, the large team of managers was despondent and disheartened - and had different opinions about how to approach the required changes.
With Physical Intelligence, we helped them explore how they would need to behave in order to achieve the task, giving each behaviour a movement and a thought process. By embodying each behaviour, their energy for the challenge ahead come flooding back – an important first step. We also helped them represent and find solutions to some of the real dilemmas they faced using human tableaus. This helped to draw out key themes from emotional scenarios and they were able to decide how to approach the future. The head of HR told us, ‘A week after the programme, twenty business improvements were logged and there was an unprecedented level of enthusiasm and focus. Three months on, with vivid pictorial memories to remind them, every manager present has created a plan for improvements in their area of responsibility and submitted it to the CEO. We are really tackling the need for a changed culture and structure now. The positive attitude is contagious.’ The CEO wrote to us saying that our methods were ‘some of the most stimulating and innovative approaches to embedding leadership skills that I have ever seen’.
We were delighted to be able to help.
This isn't an isolated example. Given the unceasing pace of change surrounding us today, we are all immersed in a culture that demands relentless innovation. Across most major corporations today, in order to remain competitive, there is a focus on – if not a stated need for – innovation – in virtually every role. At some organizations, it is central to their brand and culture, (e.g., Apple, Tesla and others). Beyond corporate innovation, today’s ‘gig culture’ is driving and motivating many people to create innovative revenue streams from multiple sources. We’re also seeing an increase in entrepreneurship. Many people are choosing to develop and launch their own innovative products and companies, and the world is facing many critical humanitarian, health and ecological issues where innovation is necessary for our survival and development. Regardless of the focus, to innovate well, we need to learn to disagree effectively.
Why? Because creativity and innovation depend on divergent thinking – a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, analysing broadly and deeply, experimenting and making new connections. According to a recent HBR article, research tells us that cognitive diversity makes a group smarter. Two heads are, indeed, better than one, and many heads are even better, especially when everyone is willing to share their expertise and opinions. Yet, there is a theory that society rewards us most for convergent divergent thinking – the ability to give the "correct" answer to standard questions that do not require significant creativity. This is exacerbated by a habit many groups and individuals have of making decisions before creatively exploring all options – which inhibits creativity and innovation. Innovation requires a longer process in which creativity plays a part and both divergent thinking and convergent thinking are used in balance at the correct moments.
The first stage of a typical innovation cycle is immersion and the second is inspiration. Both of those rely on divergent thinking. The deep thought and connections made in the immersion period combined with the power of dialogue leads to successful collaboration. Thinking deeply and divergently before implementing change will generally create better outcomes. The third and fourth stages are implementation and influence, which require switching between convergent and divergent thinking. If you have an innovative idea, allow plenty of time for the divergent thinking at the beginning, and work hard on achieving enough influence or backing to ensure success in the final stages.
So, how can we think more divergently? Trust, novelty, vitality and positive mood all increase our chances of having creative ideas. Just before a creative connection is made, the visual cortex of the brain relaxes and we enter a momentary calm alpha wave brain state. To increase the chances of having an insight, it helps to close the eyes, relax and clear the mind. In addition, Dr Peter Lovatt, also known as ‘Dr Dance’, at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, published research in 2013 that shows how structured, repetitive movement improves convergent thinking, and that flexible, spontaneous movement improves divergent thinking. The types of sport we choose or the type of dance or fitness class we attend, the type of yoga we practice or the type of holidays we take all have an impact on our thinking. The more freestyle choices help us to think creatively and the more repetitive choices help us think in a more structured way.
For naturally divergent thinkers who may struggle to focus on implementation, archery, ballet, fencing, climbing, oil painting and tidying up their desk at the end of every day will help. Creating order, organising your body and environment, punctuates divergent thinking and enables you to capture the essence of what you have explored and begin again the next day with a clear head. Naturally convergent thinkers who want to increase their ability to be creative will benefit from activities like aikido, salsa dancing, cliff diving, joining the society of abstract expressionist painters and practicing walking away from a less than perfectly organised desk, ready to pick up again in the morning. Creating a little chaos and moving in ways that are flexible provokes connections between multiple brain areas – memory, emotion, experience – rather than only the pre-frontal cortex where decisions are finalised. As a general rule, sitting still for too long inhibits creative thinking. Consider having standing or walking meetings. Variety, such as using music, changing the layout of a room or setting for a meeting are aspects of flexibility that benefit us all.
Once we have sparked those creative ideas, we need to create environments that encourage effective sharing of those ideas. Here are a few tips to try the next time you need to tackle a task that requires creativity and innovation, especially among a group with differing points of view:
• Trust – Research from the University of Florida in 2003 showed that high levels of the threat chemicals cortisol and adrenalin reduce co-activation across brain networks, inhibiting creativity. People are less creative if they are over-aroused, feeling socially uneasy or threatened. When people are wary of each other, their eyes have a sharper focus, inhibiting visual cortex relaxation and reducing creativity. To create trust in groups, give opportunities to socialise and for each person to disclose their personal story.
• Novelty – Vary your environment and do things differently. Create novelty/fun, e.g. play a game, tell a story, bring in some playdough, watch an inspiring scene from a film, engage with an expert from a different discipline – bring them to talk to you.
• Senses – Do something with your hands. It stimulates the senses and occupies the pre- frontal cortex, so other parts of your brain can make creative connections.
• Vitality – Bring energy and confidence and use open and bold language.
• Divergent Thinking – Use free- form versus organized movements and environment to promote improvisation. Remove desks and upright chairs, have discussions while standing, walking, stretching, loosening the limbs, lounging on sofas or beanbags.
• Positive Mood – Remind people of their value and how they stand to benefit. When one person in a group is experiencing a low mood, it can be contagious and the serotonin of the entire group can drop. Research shows that if you smile at people as they enter a room to take a creativity test, their serotonin levels rise and their creativity scores improve.
• Risk- taking – Be disruptive – free constraints – don’t play it safe and do things the way you did last time. Purposely disrupt your/others’ thinking and feeling even if it is uncomfortable. Approach deadlines boldly – don’t converge or try to perfect too soon. Be brave about changes even at the last minute.
• Immersion – Read, experience, research, talk to others. Ask group members to bring material: books, pictures, articles that relate to your project to share. Map the territory, encourage diversity of approach – no idea is a stupid idea.
• Inspiration – Look at issues through different lenses to increase idea generation. For example, Open Space technology helps us see how ideas cluster. (Open Space is a way of engaging people in making collective decisions by creating time and space for people to engage deeply and creatively around issues of concern to them. The agenda is set by people with the power and desire to see it through rather than being pre- determined – giving full ownership to the group. Find out more at www.openspace.dk).
• Implementation – Create project plans, test prototypes, focus on step- by- step processes, exercise patience. Be ready to switch to divergent thinking when needed. Be open to surprises.
• Influence – Generate external support for what you are doing. Be inspirational, realistic and logical about your project. Invest time in creating materials and rehearsing how to tell your story so that others want to back it.
Implementing these tips will enable you to create an environment where people can effectively generate and share creative ideas, where others are open to listening to and productively discussing differing points of view, (see Relationshift from yesterday’s post) and where you have established trust, so that your innovative ideas can be fully realized.
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About Companies in Motion
There are over 80 easy to use techniques and tips to build our Physical Intelligence. You can read about all of them in our new book, Physical Intelligence: Harness Your Body’s Untapped Intelligence to Achieve More, Stress Less and Live More Happily available from Simon and Schuster. (Order here.) (Multiple translations will be available later in 2019.)