“Diverge Before You Converge”: Tips for Creative Brainstorming

An integrative process for idea generation is based on ideas from education, consumer research, business model design and emergent strategy.

Can companies be more disciplined about creativity?

Many of us think of creativity as something that’s free-form. Certainly in the arts, there’s a stereotype of the musician or painter who is driven by an almost frenzied inspiration when he or she is most productive.

But businesses ask employees to come up with creative ideas all the time. And in the business realm, generating new ideas is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece is thinking through how ideas can be put to action.

In their article The Discipline of Creativity, in the Winter 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, Joseph V. Sinfield, Tim Gustafson and Brian Hindo write that they have developed “an integrative process for idea generation based on approaches drawn from several domains, including education, consumer research, business model design and emergent strategy.” They break down the process into seven steps that they’ve seen work in their research and in partnership with clients of Innosight, a global strategy and innovation consulting firm where they all work.

“The first three steps are designed to help managers understand the problem deeply,” they write. Those steps are to define the problem and solution space, break the problem down and make the problem personal. “Steps four through six describe how to generate tangible ideas for solutions,” they continue. Those steps are to apply an outside-in perspective, diverge before you converge and create “idea resumes” for a complete solution. The final step, create a plan to learn, explains how to translate the ideas into action.

One of the most intriguing steps is number five, “diverge before you converge.” What exactly do they mean by that?

“In confronting creative challenges, it makes sense to consider as many ideas as possible,” the authors write. “However, unless you’re careful, traditional brainstorming sessions can be risky: One powerful voice can overwhelm the others and cause the group to settle on early suggestions prematurely.”

To take full advantage of the divergent viewpoints, the authors suggest that instead of beginning with a group discussion, which can inhibit introverts or people who are shy about sharing, the facilitator first ask participants to write down as many ideas as they can individually.

“In our experience, the technique has two benefits,” the authors write. First, it gives introverts a chance to really be heard and to “maximize their contribution.” Second, “having lots of ideas on paper before the discussion begins prevents the group from rallying around any specific solution too soon.”

They cite a clear example. At a summit called by Lilly Foundation and the World Health Organization to discuss better ways to distribute drugs for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, “we divided the 35 participants into seven teams, each led by a facilitator. During the first 10 minutes of the 90-minute sessions, individuals quietly made their own lists before joining their teams. Each team came up with at least 20 sticky notes with ideas; in considering the 12 barriers, meeting attendees came up with more than 250 different ideas.”

This process of “diverging before converging” is tremendously useful for mixing individual thinking and group discussion. The authors cite a recent study led by Karan Girotra, assistant professor of technology and operations management at INSEAD, which found that teams using this hybrid approach were nearly three times as productive as group brainstorming teams, measured by the number of ideas they generated.

“As for idea quality,” the authors say, “the ideas of the hybrid teams were rated by independent outsiders as more valuable and attractive to potential users than the groups’ ideas.”

For more approaches to creative thinking, read the full article.