Thinking the Unthinkable

In our BB training we use the terms Divergent & Convergent thinking during the Improve phase. We cover a raft of brainstorming & lateral thinking techniques to encourage people’s divergent thinking. So please take a few moments to answer this question:

  • How many uses can you think of for a Brick?

How many did you get? Maybe you got just the one, “build a wall”? Or maybe you freely came-up with half a dozen? We could possibly use brainstorming here; try answering the question as if you were Pablo Picasso. Does that work?

Looking in more detail at this took me to Liam Hudson who devised this simple test to illustrate people’s thinking styles. But what Liam did was look deeper into the way we are educated to be Convergent thinkers.

The school system is based on achievement of exam results. This means being able to understand information and produce Model Answers that most accurately match what the examiner wants to see. Being good at this convergent thinking brings its rewards, recognition and good jobs become available.

Equally to what degree is divergent thinking encouraged. Starting an exam paper with, “I think the real question to answer here is……” or “I have looked at the course curriculum and believe it should be changed here and here”.

So what is the potential impact of focussing on Convergent thinking without balancing Divergent thinking? To what degree do the most successful people across industry focus on having a sense of imagination to challenge an approach? Who were the people who looked at the risks building in the financial system and saw the consequences?

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It seems we should be regularly training and rewarding people for Divergent thinking rather than having as a small part of a BB training they might attend.

Comments 5

  1. Sue Kozlowski

    Robin, you bring up a great point. A lot of BB training these days seems to be focused around the tasks and deliverables of Lean and Six Sigma project work. It has always stumped me that when you get to Improve, there seems to be very little on how to brainstorm effectively or utilize the power of group work to come up with ideas "outside the box." I am reminded of the cartoon (by S. Harris) showing two scientists peering at an equation on a blackboard, which has written in the middle: "Then a miracle occurs."

    The GE Healthcare program for training Black Belts includes their WorkOut structure for rapid problem-solving. This explicitly states that we need to open (come up with ideas) before narrowing (to prioritize within the project scope) and then close (with specific action plans for the selected ideas). I’ve used this model many times, along with Backwards Imaging ("ideal day") type of exercises to get people to think new thoughts.

    After all, that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of problem-solving, isn’t it, to watch the light bulbs turn on in peoples’ minds – especally when the team members start out by thinking "this is never going to work!"

    Thanks for a stimulating post, and the interesting link to the review of Liam Hudson’s work.

  2. Robin Barnwell

    Thanks Sue,

    I think we have created a limiting belief that says we use brainstorming in a small part of Improve to rapidly generate a list of potential ideas that we then reduce to final solutions.

    This is an extremely limited use of brainstorming and in general we are surrounded by Convergent thinking (logical and conventional thought leading to a single answer).

    The point being that we should re-balance and ensure we train and reward people for thinking divergently (creative, lateral, imaginative, challenge conventions).

    Convergent thinking is essential but I think we could benefit from more extensive use of this creative divergent thinking.


  3. Sowmyan

    Edward deBono has described a lateral thinking approach where he has a 100 keywords of diverse nature. One picks a word at random and takes it as the clue for the solution. Then the team proposes many solutions in a brianstorming with that word as the key to the solution. This is repeated a few more key words. This technique forces a person to think in a different direction.

    Peter Senge has also talked of how divergence is required before convergence.

    Altschular’s TRIZ also generates solutions based on conceptual expressions that are interpreted to suit the context.

    I agree with you divergence has a great value to play.

  4. Helen

    We play ’how many uses for….’ on family car and train journies. We usually get 30 -50 before the ideas become too surreal and we pick another item. Must answer quickly, going round each person in turn. ’Is that really useful?’ and ’can the item be used in multiples or only singly?’ are two questions that have become very heated occasionally – but much more fun than I spy, and hopefully we’re bringing up lively, free thinkers!

  5. Robin Barnwell

    30-50 is good, did you give a Brick a go?

    When Liam Hudson devised the test back in the 50’s he used university students to test it out. For some students the ideas becoming increasingly crude and violent which I think lead on to other theories.

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