The Power of Divergent Thinking
Your First Idea Is Almost Never Your Best Idea
How to use divergent thinking to uncover your BEST idea
It starts with a question. A curiosity we want to follow.
Low stake questions have easy and frequent answers. But sometimes, the stakes are high, the question has important consequences and we need the BEST answer.
Regardless of the complexity of the question, we generally have an idea that springs to mind quickly. Our first idea comes easily because it connects strongly with existing concepts and experiences in our mind. However, by their nature, associative connections are often cliche, routine, frequent – so not creative, fresh and useful for our project.
We don’t like using unnecessary energy so our brain rewards this ease with a feeling of confidence. The more experienced you are with your subject, the more confidence you feel.
It is not just the first idea, it is the only idea which means it appears to be the best as there is no comparison.
When I was studying Visual Communication Design, we were given an assignment to create something that represented the concept: “The mind is like a parachute, it works best when open.” I had recently seen an artwork where the artist had created a visual acrostic poem using images of vehicles to spell the word TRAVEL (eg, T = train). Because of this recent and strong connection, I decided to do a similar idea using ‘open things’ to spell the word MIND (eg, an open Magazine = M). I was very confident with this first idea.
As you can imagine, this didn’t translate well and the concept was too complicated – it was completely lost. On top of that, it was execute poorly because I felt that my idea should speak for itself.
A few weeks later, we had to showcase our idea. In the room 20 different responses to this prompt were on display. Suddenly, I had basis for comparison, I could see many of these had been more thoughtfully and creatively put together.
Presenting my solution was embarrassing. I received very ‘constructive’ criticism and learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of running with your first idea untested.
So how do we make sure we’re working with the best idea?
If we want the BEST idea, we must push past this illusion of confidence.
If we put our first idea aside and force ourselves to really think, we draw up more than easy associations in our memory. This is divergent thinking – adding more ideas to create options. Divergent Thinking generates responses that are generally more creative, more aligned to the task and offer better results. They also save us the embarrassment of sharing the predictable (and often less effective) idea.
This concept can be applied in a few ways:
- Inventing New Ideas: Brainstorming.
Challenge the brainstorming beyond the easy to come by, associated ideas and dig deeply. A good way to do this is make a list of 20 ideas or 100 ideas – definitely more than 10. The first 5-10 will come easily, the rest will be much more difficult but will generally be more inspired by original and novel connections in the brain.
Don’t expect all of your ideas to be winners. Allow yourself to go through the process of knocking the easy ones off.
- Perfecting an existing idea: Iteration and Editing.
If you have challenged your first idea using the list method and still believe your first idea is the best, then allow it to incubate and iterate to create a better version of this idea.
Take off the creator hat and put on the editing hat. Sometimes, you will need some time to edit effectively. When Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like an Artist” and “Show Your Work” writes something, he likes to put it away in a draw for at least a week until it becomes ‘strange’. Then he is able to edit it as a stranger, detached from the initial confidence and emotion of the draft.
This process almost always results in better, more robust results.
Too much of a good thing – when Divergent Thinking becomes excessive
Divergent Thinking introduces options we may not have thought of and help us see the question from different perspectives. But too many options overwhelm us. We become confused. Sometimes, we don’t make a decision at all.
When we’re sure we’ve got some good ideas, comparisons and perspective, we can use Convergent Thinking to narrow the options back down.
Here, we want to put on our editing hat and be ruthless about what we keep and want we ditch.
While Divergent Thinking seeks to add options into the mix and calls for uninhibited ideation, Convergent Thinking seeks to distill and concentrate the available ideas to the very best. It requires clear judgement and a focus on outcome.
For many things in life, we can rely on our instincts to guide us and rest in that confident ease. This idea will generally be ‘good enough’. However, If we want the BEST idea, if our idea or decision is important and valuable, we must accept that it is worth the effort to push past our first thought and explore alternative options. This investment of effort will pay off.
As always, let me know what you come up with. I’d love to cheer you on!
Be brave and curious,
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