Divergent Thinking: Why “A” students teach “B” Students to work for “C” students

Photo Credit

If you’ve been a fan of TED Talks for any amount of time, chances are you’ve seen Sir Ken Robinson explain how “schools kill creativity.”  If you haven’t seen the talk, drop what you planned to do for the next 19 minutes and enjoy:

This idea is not new, and several authors have run with it since Robinson’s talk. My particular favorite is Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto which makes a strong argument that not only are schools ineffective, but today they are actually detrimental.  Fortunately, just this past week I’ve seen evidence that education leaders are starting to finally catch on.

I find it curious however (and pretty revealing about our culture) that people are so quick to criticize the education system when large businesses and organizations like to follow the same strategy.

killing creativity
Photo Credit: As it turns out, everyone likes killing creativity.

Micro-managers and centrally planned businesses suffer the same destruction of creativity in their organizations as overbearing, test-driven education systems.

Why does this matter?

Creativity, as Robinson defines it, is the development of original ideas that have value. In a world of ever increasing commoditization and automation, human creativity is the only remaining competitive advantage. When organizations fail to nurture creativity, they kill the last wellspring of competitive value their organization has to offer.

How do we fix it?

There are three methodologies for triggering creativity in business – Divergent Thinking, Lateral Thinking, and Contradictive Thinking.  I will discuss Lateral Thinking and Contradictive Thinking in future posts, but Divergent Thinking is typically the easiest to grasp and often the most potent.   Divergent thinking is best described as a brainstorm, or the generation of new solutions.  When conducted properly, brainstorming can be a very effective tool towards producing creativity in large organizations. However, as I’m sure you know, brainstorming in large organizations seldom works.

Photo Credit: This is why your brainstorming session failed.

How can we encourage Divergent Thinking without falling into the typical naval-gazing time waste that is the brainstorming session at large businesses and organizations?

The University of Washington, Inc.com, and even Quora offer some insights.  I’ve summarized what I believe are the most effective techniques below:

  1. Start by asking questions to gain a deeper understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. Is the problem really that the widget marketing isn’t working or is that the widget isn’t properly designed for how customers use it?
  2. Begin seeking a solution with individual idea generation first. Introverts are the unsung heroes of innovation, but too frequently their ideas never get to flourish because they are often never shared. Combat this phenomenon by requiring brainstorm attendees to spend 5-10 minutes writing down ideas individually first, and then share and build off them in the meeting.
  3. Include a diverse set of skills and perspectives in the meeting. Don’t hold an engineering brainstorm, hold a product brainstorm with representatives from every part of the product chain. I guarantee that the salespeople and floor technicians have solid design ideas that engineers would never have thought up.
  4. Mind/Subject Map your product/service/solution. Are there other ways to connect the steps of production? Are there other ways to reach your customers? What happens if you invert the process? Sometimes mapping your company’s value stream can prompt ingenious, divergent ideas.
  5. Don’t Hire Jerks. This should go without saying, but one of the most important reason to follow the No Asshole Rule is that overbearing personalities slaughter employees’ willingness to offer up unique ideas.

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