Have you ever been in a brainstorming meeting where the group gets stuck on one idea? They just want to run with it at the exclusion of all else. If your goal is to generate a lot of ideas, this can be pretty frustrating.
But what about the opposite? You’ve been through the brainstorming process, you’ve evaluated your options, you picked one, and you are executing it. But of course, someone comes up with a new idea and wants you to consider it. it’s equally frustrating.
It turns out there’s a time and place for generating ideas. And there’s a time and a place for evaluating ideas and picking a solution.
Tim Brown Helps Us Understand The Rhythmic Exchange
“The process of the design thinker, rather, looks like a rhythmic exchange between the divergent and convergent phases, with each subsequent iteration less broad and more detailed than the previous ones. In the divergent phase, new options emerge. In the convergent phase it is just the reverse: now it’s time to eliminate options and make choices.” – Tim Brown in Change by Design.
TIm Brown touches on two great points in this quote. First, it can be hard to move from one phase to the other. We can’t control when we have good ideas. Conversely, it’s easy to get stuck on one idea that stems the flow of new ideas.
And second, Tim highlights that each subsequent iteration narrows towards a solution. This is key because it doesn’t always feel this way. The creative process can often feel like you are going in circles. It’s important to remember that this rhythmic exchange isn’t circular, instead it spirals towards a solution.
Bring Your Team Along By Communicating Where You Are
Be up front with your team about where you are in this process. Make it clear, now is the time to generate ideas. Or now is the time to evaluate ideas and pick a solution. It sounds simple, but the more you provide guideposts that signal where you are in the process, the easier it will be for your team to make the transitions with you.
Manage the Transitions
And that brings me to the next point. This one is important. It’s just as important to manage the transitions as it is to manage the two stages. Before moving from brainstorming to evaluation, ask your team, “Does anyone have any other ideas? Are we ready to evaluate?” Better yet, give your team time to reflect and generate ideas on their own. Let people sleep on it, before moving on.
When transitioning from the evaluation stage back to the brainstorming stage, make sure everyone knows why. Did you identify an incorrect assumption? Did you hit a roadblock? Before people are willing to invest in new ideas they need to know why the current path is no longer feasible. Let people ask questions and digest the new information before completing the transition back to brainstorming.
But don’t just manage the transitions. You also have to facilitate each stage. Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline, distinguishes between dialogue and discussion which serves as great guidelines for facilitating divergent and convergent thinking respectively.
Use Dialogue to Facilitate Divergent Thinking
Senge describes dialogue as “the free and creative exploration of complex and subtle issues, a deep ‘listening’ to one another and suspending of one’s views.”
Each participant must be willing to identify and communicate their assumptions so that the group can objectively challenge them. Throughout the dialogue, the group shifts perspectives observing the problem from many viewpoints. The goal is not to identify the right perspective, it’s to understand all perspectives.
The goal is for each member to become aware of their own thinking and for the group as a whole to gain a better understanding of a complex issue by sharing and understanding each individual’s understanding of that issue.
Applied to idea generation, you can see how dialogue might help us work together to build on each other’s ideas, to first ask how could this work, rather than to find issues with each idea. It can also help uncover new ideas as new perspectives are explored.
Use Discussion to Facilitate Convergent Thinking
Discussion, on the other hand, is when “different views are presented and defended and there is a search for the best view to support decisions that must be made.” Discussion is great for when it’s time to pick a path forward, when it’s time to evaluate the ideas generated.
Senge explains that discussions are great for converging on a conclusion or choosing a course of action.
Put It In Action
A good way to think about the distinction between dialogue and discussion is to consider inquiry vs. advocacy. In the divergent phase, you want to inquire about the different viewpoints and explore each perspective. During discussion, you want each person to advocate for their perspective so that each can be weighed against each other so that the group can choose the best path forward.
Want To Learn More?
- Brown, Tim (2009-09-16). Change by Design (p. 68). HarperBusiness. Kindle Edition.
- Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (2nd ed.). New York: Doubleday/Currency.
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