Great artists will always be terrific examples of convergent versus divergent thinking. Convergent artists stick with established principles and work on perfecting the foundations they learned as apprentices or in school. Instead of straying from the norms, they focus on getting the norms right.
Divergent artists, on the other hand, offer the world cubist or impressionist views. They tape bananas to walls a la Maurizio Cattelan, whose radical, absurdist installation recently sold for $120,000. Both types of artists are working within the same world, yet it’s the divergent ones that we tend to remember, one way or another.
Entrepreneurs who long to make a memorable impact and reimagine their place in the world would be wise to embrace divergent thinking. Unlike convergent thinking, which relies on established parameters, divergent thinking opens the doors to an “anything’s possible” mindset. If convergence is basic Creativity 101, divergence operates as a grad-level course in dreaming and doing.
Not that you should disregard convergent thought completely. It’s necessary for lots of business tasks. However, its divergent cousin offers color and depth to brainstorming, enabling more complex problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills, and unadulterated innovation to take over. As LinkedIn Learning Instructor Stefan Mumaw mused when discussing how to come up with imaginative solutions, “Creativity is problem-solving with relevance and novelty.”
Feel like your divergent thinking has been on a permanent vacation? Summon it back home and start implementing the following techniques to see the future--and your company’s place in it--much differently.
1. Plot a pliable business plan.
Not to beat a dead horse, but ... Blockbuster. Need I say more? The brand’s demise could be traced back to an inflexible business strategy. Because Blockbuster viewed its purpose with tunnel vision, Netflix was able to swoop in and sideline the movie rental chain’s entire operations. The reason Blockbuster never saw the end coming? Its leaders didn’t apply divergent thinking, even after they knew Netflix was on the scene.
Your mission doesn’t need to change, of course. In fact, many businesses keep the same mission for decades. However, what the mission means in the context of the changing global economy will likely be far different a few years from now. To account for this and build a more flexible business plan, you’ll want to incorporate risk assessments and contingency plans in case a worst-case scenario presents itself. At the same time, evaluate the usefulness of different business models and revisit your strategy on a regular basis to see what’s working and what’s not.
2. Petition for diverse opinions.
The next time you face an obstacle, do yourself a favor and reconsider the voices at the table. Chances are you’ve been asking the same people to help you solve problems, and that leads to bias and blind spots. Before starting any project, you should bring in additional stakeholders to contribute to a wide variety of perspectives.
“When there is an important point of view that we need to consider, we ensure that someone with that point of view is part of the process,” says M&C Saatchi LA’s partner and chief creative officer, Maria Smith. “Otherwise, our work might come across as flat--or worse, as singling out a specific audience.” Your willingness to hear other voices will illuminate new choices you and your usual meeting mates might never have imagined alone.
3. Pursue extracurricular studies.
Many founders get locked into their businesses, and over time, they start to lose perspective. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything around you looks like a nail. The easiest way to break out of that kind of self-sabotaging rhythm is to learn something novel. Even if it’s not directly related to your industry, new knowledge builds divergent thinking synapses, increasing the likelihood of an “Aha!” moment in the future.
Let’s say you want to improve your company’s widget, but your standard upgrade process hasn’t yielded great results. Rather than give in to your frustration, go off and read a book on an adjacent subject. Chances are good you’ll come back to the widget problem with clear eyes. Write down connections between what you just read and the task at hand. Come up with as many links as possible, then ideate without prejudice or limits. Finally, whittle down those concepts to see what percolates to the surface.
4. Practice opportunistic risk-taking.
Most entrepreneurially minded professionals don’t mind taking risks, but not all of those individuals have super-high risk profiles. Instead of always waiting until you’re 90% sure that an opportunity is worth pursuing, occasionally lower your standard to 70%--or less. Being a bit off-kilter can cause you to get more imaginative, especially because you want your risk to pan out.
When Apple invented the iPod, the company took an enormous risk. Instead of simply supplying a device for people to listen to music, Apple also had to become a player in other markets, such as marketing and selling the music itself. Though the iPod itself is now virtually obsolete (see: iPhone), it was the springboard to Apple’s now commanding position in the music business. Yet before and during its birth, the iPod was a proposition with vast promise and almost equally vast risk.
You may not be ready to affix fruit to the conference room wall. That’s OK. But it’s a good idea to go a bit bananas occasionally by peeling yourself away from convergent thinking in favor of more divergent wellsprings.