Divergent thinking and collaboration

I watched an illustrated video of an illustrated speech by Ken Robinson on changing education paradigms. I believe the paradigm shifts he calls are also needed in the development process of software and information products.

In his speech, Robinson cites a study on divergent thinking—thinking in an unusual and unstereotyped way—which isn’t the same thing as creativity. Divergent thinking is an essential part of creativity. It is the ability to see:

  • lots of possible ways to interpret a question.
  • lots and lots of possible answers to a question.

Interaction designers engage in divergent thinking when they explore multiple ideas and try to “saturate the problem space.” Divergent thinking Initially, this exploration isn’t linear or convergent. Instead, it’s about trying different things, borrowing ideas, letting go of ownership and letting go of the idea that your idea is too good to edit or to combine with the ideas of others. Brainstorming is a structured form of divergent thinking. Only after the divergence—after the problem space is saturated with ideas—is it time to converge, to assess, to use judgement, and to make design decisions.

You can engage in a divergent-then-convergent process on your own, but for people new to the process, results are much better when they can borrow and combine each other’s ideas during the divergent stage. In the workplace this is called collaboration, and we need to add it to iterative, Agile development processes.

If development teams find collaboration difficult, it could be because of the paradigms we learned at school. As Robinson points out, the education system refers to sharing as copying, refers to re-using as plagiarism, and sees both as forms of cheating?

Although children innately engage in divergent thinking, Robinson cites a study from Break Point & Beyond that shows how our Return the fish to water ability to think divergently dries up as we pass through the education system. In school, divergent thinking is a fish out of water. At work, we need to put the fish back in the water.

It’s true. There’s a mismatch between what business leaders say they need and what schools teach, according to a 2009 Asian Development Bank publication, which reports:

What best demonstrates creativity?   (1 is highest) Business Schools
Problem identification or articulation 1 9
Ability to identify new patterns of behaviour or new combination of actions 2 3
Integration of knowledge across different disciplines 3 2
Ability to originate new ideas 4 6
Comfort with the notion of “no right answer” 5 11
Fundamental curiosity 6 10
Originality and inventiveness in work 7 4
Problem solving 8 1
Ability to take risks 9 (tied) 8
Tolerance of ambiguity 9 (tied) 7
Ability to communicate new ideas to others 11 5

In the table, above, compare where business ranks originality and inventiveness versus where schools rank it. Similarly, note the contrast between problem identification and problem solving.

Where to start? Sketching is one method that supports divergent thinking because a sketch intrinsically says: “As an idea, I am disposable. You can change me, or discard me, and then have more ideas.” Ideas are cheap, so have lots of them—that’s key to divergent thinking. There are people in your workplace who know this, already. People formally trained in design have been taught to use divergent thinking. Ask them for help. For other ways to learn to collaborate and to reward collaboration, an Internet search will identify many ideas and methods. One of the first things you’ll read is that collaboration requires support at all levels. Here’s a to-do list for executives:

  • Make sure the vision and mission are clearly communicated. This helps others to understand the problems to solve.
  • Remove the bureaucratic obstacles that strangle creativity.
  • Create a climate for an open flow of ideas, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Freedom and trust are key to creativity.
  • Embrace diversity. The more personality types (or team roles) are on the team, the more likely the project will succeed.
  • Give employees an opportunity to reap the rewards of the success they helped create. Stage celebrations to benchmark success.
  • Cultivate continuous learning. Revitalise by cultivating outside interests.

Sketch, wireframe, prototype

Over the past month, I’ve come across the same discussion several times: “When designing a website or product, do you use wireframing or prototyping?”

The first part of my answer is: “Make sure you sketch, first.”

At the design stage, sketching, wire-framing, and prototyping are not equal. Sketching is useful at the divergent phase of design because it lets the design participants express and capture lots of different ideas quickly and anywhere that pen and paper will work. Nothing is as fast as running a pen across a sheet of paper to capture an idea—and then another, and another. And since sketching is intentionally rough, everyone can do it.


Responding to Œ the problem statement, first  saturate the design space with lots of ideas, and then Ž analyse and rapidly iterate them to  a design solution.

I also believe sketching is great for the convergent phase of design, but there are potential hurdles that design participants may encounter. It can be challenging to convey complex interaction, 3D manipulation, transitions, and multi-state or highly interactive GUI in sketches without learning a few additional techniques. This is unfortunate, because having to learn additional techniques reduce the near-universal accessibility of sketching.

The second part of my answer, therefore, is that “if you need to learn additional techniques to make sketching work, feel free to choose wireframes or prototyping as alternatives when there are compelling reasons to do so.”

I should point out that the three techniques—sketching, wireframing, and prototyping—are not mutually exclusive. Wireframes and paper prototypes can both be sketched—especially for simple or relatively static GUI designs.

There are no validity concerns with the use of low-fidelity sketches, as these readings show:

Why pen+paper is better

When solving a software-design problem or a web-design problem, you get the best results from following a design process. I’m not referring to something I made up. I’m referring to something that people who are trained in “Design” will recognise as a design process. And such processes inevitably include divergence and convergence.

Divergence is the stage when the designer or design participants come up with ideas. Lots of ideas. Not just comfortable ones, but ideas that push at the edge of the envelope. Ideas without judgement.

Convergence is the stage when ideas are judged, rapidly iterated, assessed, and checked against the requirements.

In my experience, divergence is best done by sketching, with a pen on paper:


Sketching on paper with a wide-nib pen is best because this “technology” is familiar—it’s easy—and inexpensive. Everyone can Wide-nib markerhave a pen and paper, so there’s no need to wait your turn. Sketching is fast, so designers have little invested in any one sketch. Modifying or iterating any one of the ideas is easier to accept. Most importantly, for inexpert sketchers, the sketching process intrinsically discourages high-fidelity work and the wide-nib pen discourages sketching the fine detail that detracts design participants from getting the ideas out, fast.

Software that’s intended to help people “sketch” detracts from a good result. The software often lets users build prototypes with a great level of interaction detail. The problem with this: attention to detail is a distraction at the divergence stage. When filling the design space with ideas, it’s sufficient merely to evoke the idea and share it. Ambiguity actually helps the team see more than one idea in the same sketch; each interpretation of the idea can be iterated. Software that’s not intended to help people to “sketch” slows them down at the divergence stage—just when we need ideas to flow quickly. Divergence is about filling the design space with lots disposable ideas.

Read my blog post about why ideas are disposable.