How Divergent Thinking Can Advance Your Career
Sometimes, like during this current startup boom, it seems that everywhere you turn there’s an entrepreneur or biz guru pounding out the virtues of being innovative and creative. “Be a divergent thinker!” I heard a speaker recently proclaim. But how do we practice such virtues in daily life?
Well, LiquidPlanner’s Chief Product Officer, Charles Seybold, always has a unique perspective on trends, along with stretching the creative mind and challenging the status quo. So I recently cornered him bought him coffee to hear his perspective on divergent thinking. Read on to see what he says about developing the D.T. muscle and why it matters.
TM: So how do you define divergent thinking?
CS: Divergent thinking means that your mind is seeking unique solutions to a problem by thinking ideas through, and not reciting other people’s solutions. It’s thinking out beyond your grasp.
TM: It sounds like a doable challenge. What holds us back?
CS: People fall prey to the dangers of the well-worn path. It’s so easy to look at problems and think of other people’s solutions—all the solutions that have come before. In many ways we act like Pavlov’s dog; we hear about a problem that sounds familiar to a problem we’ve heard before and prior answers rush into our brains. If this becomes acute our thoughts are completely overwhelmed by one answer to the problem. Adults tend to think this way—black vs. white, right vs. wrong; kids are wonderfully free from this constraint.
You believe that all professionals and businesses should advocate divergent thinking. Why?
The box of tricks you’re using today isn’t going to last a whole career. You have to be growing, learning and staying current with the changing world, all of which goes hand in hand with divergent thinking. You have to develop your own curiosity and your own way to steer your ship – because nobody’s going to figure out what the best course of life for you.
As for businesses, they stand to gain the most by promoting divergent thinking. Think about it – most people aren’t entrepreneurs, they aren’t going to take a great idea and run away with it; they want to stay and help their company. This is hidden gold. But if companies don’t cultivate a curiosity about this hidden gold, they’re not going to gain the benefits.
How do we develop and practice our divergent thinking?
There are a couple ways to answer this. First: Approach divergent thinking as the dessert to a conversation. After you’ve finished the main course, take time to ask yourself and others, “Is it worth a little more thinking? Can we be a little decadent and throw out some crazy ideas?” Once you have the security of a main idea and a main solution, accept that there are still more answers. Then embrace the plurality of possibilities.
There are other ways to practice getting out of the habit of how you think, for example: Change the location of where you work. Work at home one day a week; switch offices (or jobs) with somebody, or job shadow for the day. Go talk to a colleague in your organization; have lunch with a co-worker who does work completely different than you but has a relationship with your department; have lunch with a customer. Use your own product! Use a competitor’s product. Do something scary, like make a video of yourself. Cultivate courage. A little bit of risk taking is a good thing; and they can be small risks. Blog, make a video, write something, watch TED videos to see how divergent people think. Give yourself your own job review—for you and nobody else—and be brutally honest.
And keep in mind that developing divergent thinking – like any discipline, sport or art – takes time, practice and effort.
For we visual learners, will you take us through your divergent thinking process?
Here’s my thinking process: I have a white board in my head that’s divided up into areas of problems I’m working on. Usually they’re design problems, sometimes a business problem, sometimes just an area that I’m studying – like video editing. This white board’s always with me—I can mentally write things down, erase items or add to it. If I can’t sleep, I look at this board.
Here’s my doing process: When I’m doing design work, one of my tricks is doing speed design. If an idea comes to mind I quickly grab a screen shot and then hack it up with photo editing tools and Power Point, just to get the shape of it. You can come up with something by working fast, especially if you tell yourself it’s a temporary placeholder. And a lot of times that produces happy accidents. The amount of times a rough idea has made it into a product because it was a first idea is surprisingly high. First ideas appear to have an unfair advantage over subsequent ideas.
I also take a lot of breaks to make sure I have more first ideas. Working on an idea can be like holding your breath and sometimes you get stuck and have to take little breaks and come up for air.
Forget about work for a minute. What are the personal benefits of divergent thinking?
Divergent thinking feels good. Divergent thinking aligns with the mind-is-a-muscle principle, and you have to use it. When you use it there’s an endorphin high – especially when it produces good results.
If divergent thinking applies to anything, it applies to your own life. You need to think about the way you want to live, the experiences you want to have and be open to options. That’s the way you’ll get the most out of life.
A spirit of divergent thinking is the secret ingredient for a successful happy life.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, excerpt from a talk given by Daniel Pink, based on the book of the same name.
How to Change a Habit: On Becoming a Morning Person, from our own LP blog archives.