Practicing Divergent & Convergent Thinking - Creativity Part 3

Okay, so I had planned on covering all of the exercises in one post, but when I broke them out, I realized I would be delivering a gigantic, hard to digest mess. So I broke it up. Our next few posts will cover all of the exercises associated with the building blocks we covered last time, starting with Divergent and Convergent thinking today. It’s a great place to start, because if you develop your ability to separate these two ways of thinking, everything else will flow naturally.

For many people, the skill you will most need to improve is your ability to think up ideas - active divergence. If you're like me, this seems like a mysterious ability some people are born with, and is totally opaque. Fortunately, whether or not some folks are more naturally inclined to be good at it, you can practice and improve. My favorite practice for this comes from James Altucher. Here it is: write 10 ideas on a prompt, once a day every day. That's it. I first encountered it in his book The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth, which is one of my mental operating manuals, but you can also find it explained in this blog post on how to be "lucky". The lists don't even have to be on anything important - silly stuff works just as well for practicing. You aren’t shooting for good ideas, you just come up with a lot of ideas. This is pure active divergence practice. As you do this regularly enough, you will start finding it much easier to think things up on the spot in any situation, which comes in pretty darn handy.

Let’s say you’re jamming on the above practice and you screech to a halt, unable to think of any more ideas. Here’s a few techniques you can use to get the juices flowing again. The first is "unclumping" - look at one of the ideas you’ve already written and ask yourself what every possible variation of that thing might be. Say your prompt was “things that are round,” and one of your ideas was “balls." You could unclump that by writing baseballs, basketballs, bocce balls, et cetera. If you are wired like I am, this may feel like you are "cheating," but actually you are stimulating exactly the muscle we want to exercise here. The next technique is to apply your five senses to the subject you are trying to generate ideas on. Maybe you're locked into things that stimulate sight, or feel, and are ignoring others. In the case of things that are round, "smell" might make you think of an orange, or "taste" might prompt you to think of a scoop of ice cream - and then you can go off in a whole new direction. Finally, there's a specific list of modifications you can apply in a handy acronym: T.R.A.N.S.F.O.R.M. - Twist/Turn, Rotate, Add, Novelize, Subtract, Fuse, Omit, Reverse, Minify/Magnify. I tend to default to unclumping when I feel stuck, but all three can really help you expand the number of ideas you generate.

We've covered how to generate more ideas, but some people find that relatively easy and instead are challenged by what to do with them once you have them. These people need more practice with active convergence. Personally, I find this far easier and more intuitive than cranking ideas out, so I've had to engage in some reflection and discussion with people who think differently from me to figure out what to recommend here. There are two main ways you can come at evaluating the ideas you have previously generated: bottom up or top down. Bottom up approaches focus on evaluating ideas based on their similarity to each other, whereas top down focus on rating ideas with respect to how they fit pre-defined criteria.

My personal favorite convergence activity is affinity mapping. This is a bottom up approach used to organically figure out groupings and categories. To give it a try, first actively diverge as above, but put each idea on its own sticky note. Then, find a big stretch of wall or whiteboard and start putting the ideas up there . As you add ideas, look at the existing ones and ask yourself “do these go together?” If so, place them close to each other. Don’t worry too much about explicitly defining the criteria that makes them go together just yet. As you go through, you'll find that some of your clumps maybe should be split up, and others should be merged - that's okay, the point of the exercise is to discover these relationships. 

An example top down approach is a model called a Pugh Matrix - a name I only recently learned from an engineer friend for something I've been doing for years. To do this, put each idea on a line in a spreadsheet. Then, label each column with the different criteria you are using. Then go through the matrix you just created and rate each criteria on the same scale (1-5 is a common one, but you can also go for binary or just use whatever makes sense). When you finish, you’ll have a score both for each individual criterion but also an aggregate. If you want to get real fancy, you can apply different weights to different criteria. You can then perform all sorts of manipulations on the data so created (averages, spreads, et cetera). Just be careful to remind yourself that this is still a qualitative and subjective tool, despite its appearance of being a quantitative and objective tool thanks to all those numbers - just remind yourself you made them all up, you didn’t measure them somewhere.

By way of an example, my wife and I applied this system when we bought a house. Before we started looking, we came up with a list of features that mattered to us. Once we had identified two houses we liked, we compared them by rating each characteristic. By going through piece by piece and seeing how both houses stacked up, it made it very clear which one we actually favored. So we put in an offer and ended up in a place we love, with the peace of mind that we thought out our decisions thoroughly.  

The above exercises are merely examples of the deeper principles of divergent and convergent thinking, but extremely useful and illuminating examples. Idea generation especially is a habit you can incorporate into your daily life and start noticing its application in diverse situations. Join us next time as we discuss how to apply and practice the two problem solving frameworks we introduced previously.


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