Divergent thinking. Is that when our thoughts start diverging onto something else? Almost like daydreaming? Not really, no…though that happens a lot for some of us! A few months ago, we addressed the topic of creativity, particularly about how to stretch your creative vein to open doors to more personal and professional experiences.
One of the concepts we can link to creativity is indeed divergent thinking – a thought process to generate creative and different ideas by exploring many possible solutions. What usually happens during this free-flow thinking are the unexpected connections within a central topic in a short period of time. This process allows us to come to one or more solutions through potential answers to one problem.
In case you are already telling yourself that this sounds complex and likely applicable to geniuses or gifted people, let me stop you right here. Divergent thinking is not a personality trait, but rather an ability you can build and further develop. In addition, it can be used in plenty of occasions! You can apply it at work, but also in your personal life. Whenever you feel the need to explore alternatives or ideas to clarify a situation or solve a problem.
Imagine you are considering changing jobs or careers (last week’s topic), though you are unsure about what to do next. An opportunity to use divergent thinking to come up with a handful – or more! – of ideas for your future professional challenge.
Let us explore 5 strategies to engage into divergent thinking toward more innovative solutions or breakthrough possibilities.
1. Brainstorm: It may sound daunting at first. Remember that feeling of sitting at your school desk for a test and your mind going blank looking at the first set of questions? Or having to write an essay and staring at a blank page for an hour or more. It is quite normal to feel a bit anxious when sitting down to brainstorm. The initial thoughts are usually about how bad or useless our ideas are. That probably happens during your first attempts at this exercise. But it also a great opportunity to learn to let go of self-judgement and let you mind run free. Also, you do not have to brainstorm alone. If it is a work-related challenge, you can do it with your team or a few close colleagues. In case it is a personal situation, go ahead and do it together with your partner or with your children depending on their age. There are no right or wrong ideas during the divergent thinking process. Take time to write your ideas down, no matter how unrealistic or silly they sound.
2. Keep a journal: There are different kinds of journaling. We addressed some of them before, such as a gratitude journal, a weekly/monthly review journal, thoughts & feelings journal. When it comes to generate new ideas, keeping a journal is encouraged – you can call it your creative journal or whatever name sounds inspiring. Some of our best ideas come during the most unexpected times, often when we are almost falling asleep, taking a shower, or listening to a boring presentation. You can carry your creative journal around or write down your ideas on your phone or on post-it to later compile it in your notebook. Another activity you can set aside time for is freewriting. Open your creative journal at the scheduled time and write down whatever comes to mind non-stop about a current topic. Again, no judgement and no revising. During freewriting you note down more than just ideas, you write full sentences or paragraphs to revisit later.
3. Chase your curiosity: Often we get stuck exactly when we need new ideas the most. We keep searching for inspiration, sometimes around the same topics or recurring to the same circle of people we know. In a world where we have more experts by the minute, people who narrow down their knowledge and develop specialized skills, we need to broaden our horizons. Be curious and look for answers or solutions elsewhere. Talk to people from different areas of expertise, read or attend a course in a completely new field. When you least expect, novel connections are made, new concepts are assimilated, and ideas are born. Curiosity is one of your secret weapons! It encourages you to learn new things, explore outside your own realm, think differently. Hence, creating opportunities for future endeavors.
4. Apply the 6 hats technique: You can also resort to specific techniques, especially when working with your team. The Six Thinking Hats is a method developed by Edward de Bono to get to a clearer picture of a challenge and find creative solutions by analyzing a situation from 6 different perspectives. This process is done by metaphorically using 6 colored hats, each representing a part of the equation. The blue hat helps you to get the ‘big picture’ and plan for action while the white hat is all about facts and the collection of data. Feelings and emotions are always part of the process and as such are represented by the red hat creating space for intuition and free thinking without the need for reasoning. Wearing the black hat means time for evaluation and concerns where risks and obstacles are considered. As much relevant as the negative aspects are also the positive ones, therefore time to use the yellow hat to identify the benefits. Talking about creativity and divergent thinking, the green hat is the elected one to explore ideas and possibilities without restrictions. You can wear all hats in one sitting (one at a time) or decide which one fits best to the situation at hand. Remember to be flexible and open along the process and choose the solution that applies the most.
5. Engage in mind mapping: Some of us are more visual than others. In addition, graphs and pictures are always encouraged when working in teams, especially nowadays working mostly in a virtual setting. If you never heard of mind mapping before, imagine a blank page where you write the central topic (aka, challenge) in the middle and start adding words and images associated with that main theme. This technique once again fosters divergent thinking by creating ideas while trying to solve a problem or face a challenge. Also, it facilitates interaction among people improving collaboration and open feedback. You can use this method within the professional realm to foster ideas for a new product or service or go deeper on each phase of a project. As well as with personal intentions, for instance, deciding together with the family where to go on holidays or identify healthier habits for yourself.
If you are wondering what to do with so many ideas, it means you successfully went through the divergent thinking process. You let your mind run free without constraints and judgement. Before moving to the next phase, let the ideas sink in for a couple of days. Afterwards, take a closer look and narrow down those ideas. Not doubting the awesomeness of your ideas, though depending on the situation or problem their applicability and practicability changes. This is called convergent thinking, more analytical and based on logic allowing you to pick the one or two ideas that resonate more with yourself and the challenge at hand.