Divergent thinking and collaboration

Divergent thinking—thinking in an unusual and unstereotyped way—*is what’s needed in software design. Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity—it’s 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.

User-experience designers engage in divergent thinking when they explore multiple ideas and try to “saturate the problem space.” But your entire development team can benefit from this—and save your project months of rework.

Divergent thinking: lots of ways to interpret a question, lots of answers, not linear.
Divergent thinking: lots of ways to interpret a question, lots of answers, not linear.

In general terms…. Divergent methods ask people to set aside linear or convergent approaches. Instead, they try different things, borrow ideas, let go of ownership and let go of the idea that their idea is too good to edit or too good to combine with the ideas of others. Only after this divergence—after the problem space is “saturated with ideas”—is it time to converge, to assess, to use judgement, and to make design decisions.

Borrowing and combining each other’s ideas partway through the divergent stage is also called collaboration, and we need to add it to iterative, Agile development processes.

In specific steps…. If the above is too vague for comfort, and you want a step-by-step method, then—after you finish reading this post—look at the Five Sketches Method. One software development team spent five days redesigning their mine-scheduling software into a touch-enabled user interface. By using the Five Sketches method, the South African development manager said: “This has saved us months of work. Months!”

Brainstorming is not divergent

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that brainstorming is not divergent thinking. The ideas people generate in the room are assessed and rejected at the same time, and people follow the leaders in the room—so divergent thinking gets stifled.

We unlearn divergent thinking at school

Development teams may find collaboration difficult due to the paradigms they learned at school. 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, this ability 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 to generate better solutions.

A report by the Asian Development Bank shows the gap between the skills businesses want and the skills that schools teach:

What shows creativity? (1 is highest)BusinessSchools
Problem identification or articulation19
Ability to identify new patterns of behaviour or new combination of actions23
Integration of knowledge across different disciplines32
Ability to originate new ideas46
Comfort with the notion of “no right answer”511
Fundamental curiosity610
Originality and inventiveness in work74
Problem solving81
Ability to take risks9 (tied)8
Tolerance of ambiguity9 (tied)7
Ability to communicate new ideas to others115

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.

We can re-learn divergent thinking

Sketching 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 you can have lots of them without worrying about what’s lost if an idea is discarded or changed—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.

Get executive support

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.