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Understanding divergent thinking

When you want to generate ideas you use a certain type of creativity called divergent thinking. This involves using lateral-thinking strategies to create options or come up with many potential solutions. Good examples of divergent thinking are brainstorming and mind mapping.

To show you how divergent thinking works, spend the next ten minutes writing down as many ways you can think of to use a paperclip. Be as creative and ridiculous as you like. How many did you come up with? Three? Ten? Or how about twenty?

You may notice that initially it’s hard to think of even just a couple, but very soon your brain ‘loosens up’ and starts to think more laterally, coming up with ever more bizarre uses.

Divergent thinking reflects Einstein’s take on creativity as “intelligence having fun”. Researchers have found a number of ways to increase your divergence, enhance your idea generation, and consequently getting better at brainstorming.

How to improve divergent thinking

Go for quantity not quality: At the early stages of the process all ideas are good ideas.

Defer all judgment and try to think unrestrictedly: Remove any ‘filters’ and be sure not to moderate your ideas. People often keep their ‘silly’ ideas to themselves, when it’s the silly ones that are often the best.

Involve other people: Brainstorm as a group – BUT research suggests you should ask individuals to brainstorm alone and then combine all of your ideas. This approach results in a greater number of total ideas, which at this stage is what you’re after.

Give it more time: Don’t rush your brainstorming sessions. Creativity follows a process and the more time you can give to it, the better the outcome.

Prime your brain: Doing an unrelated ‘alternate uses task’ (such as the exercise above – potential uses for a paperclip), prepares your brain to shift into a more lateral way of thinking.

Reframe the problem: Ask yourself questions and challenge your assumptions. try to see your problem in a new way and this will help generate novel ideas.

Change your perspective: Do your best to see the world from someone else’s perspective. This can be particularly helpful when thinking creatively about business strategy: What would your customers think? How would your employees feel? View your problem through the eyes of others and it’s possible you’ll discover a perspective you would otherwise have missed.

Combine, distort, and delete existing ideas: What happens when you modify or combine existing ideas or current solutions? Do new ideas present themselves?

Adopt a ‘counterfactual mindset’: Your brain has an amazing ability to imagine ‘what if?’. Entertain what might be rather than what is, to help challenge your current reality.

Go somewhere different: Move to a different room or leave your office/home and go somewhere else entirely. Why not go to the pub? A couple of drinks can often spark creativity. Simply getting up from your desk may be all it takes for you to see a problem from a different angle.

Go for a walk: Researchers from Stanford University found people generated 50% more ideas after a walk. This makes a case for walking meetings and getting out of the office. Walking also helps oxygenate the brain, and the daylight might also make you more alert.

There are no shortage of ways to coax your brain into a more divergent and lateral state. The strategies listed above will help the next time you need to generate ideas: mix it up, shift your perspective, ask other people, combine your ideas, and give it time.

How to process your ideas

Let your ideas incubate: Once you’ve generated an exhaustive list of ideas you’ll need to process them – find themes, notice relationships, and make some decisions. Don’t do it straight away!

Have a proper break, or better still, sleep on it. You’re probably familiar with the phrase “sleep on it” and that’s because your brain is particularly good at forming association and making sense if things while you sleep. When you return you will see your ideas with a fresh perspective and with greater insights.

Best of luck

For more tips and tricks, get your copy of The Brain Book



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