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Divergent Thinking and Meaningful Thinking

Daniel Ospina

Good ingredients don’t necessarily make Innovation

Starting my career as a chef, I made my way through 3 Michelin star restaurants in France, Belgium and Italy. An opportunity to launch a restaurant took me to the United States and from there I moved to London in 2011. Looking for a new challenge, I took a position in the R&D Lab of the renowned “The Fat Duck Group.” There, I had the chance to work on exciting projects ranging from meal concepts for The European Space Station to the re-conceptualisation of The Fat Duck restaurant and the redesign of the R&D processes. During those three years, the nature of our work led us to collaborate with specialists from a wide array of industries. From Experimental Psychologists and Philosophers, through to Biotechnologists and Industrial Designers. After experiencing the gradual restructuring of the company, and having seen the good and the bad of the transformation, I found myself intrigued by the intricacies of the creation process and found it necessary to move from food into organisational design. Across the organisations I have been part of, I have been surrounded by highly passionate and talented teams, where members generate many ideas and don’t hesitate to put themselves into question. Yet, in most organisations, real innovation rarely manifests. I have often had conversations with passionate individuals but have rarely seen that passion translated into proportional positive change. In most organisations, somewhere along the line individual initiatives are dulled instead of energised. This observation is not new or uncommon. Innovation (the buzzword of our times) has been hailed as the solution to all our problems. Countless articles and books have been written on the subject, and yet, every time I see another “Dog Walking Uber” app come along (or a similar reshuffled idea), I feel demoralised. Not that I have anything against dog walkers. I am even sure that someone, somewhere will be happy with the extra cash. However, I am convinced that we can aim higher and use innovation to solve bigger issues. We are limited by our conception of what innovation is and how to work towards it.

The dual nature of Innovation

Innovation can be conceived as a dual mechanism. It has a divergent component, where a variety of ideas are explored, and a convergent one, where the variety is refined into a single solution. The Dual Process Theory of Reasoning illustrates how both mechanisms happen. On a conscious level we generate ideas and actively choose among the possibilities. On an unconscious level, our brain is discarding alternatives, without us even being aware of their existence. When working in a group, the exchange of ideas and their selection becomes a much more intensive task. Under the right conditions, working in a team can be more rewarding, but keeping the momentum is difficult. The recipe for a successful idea generation requires flexibility and freedom of thought. Trust is necessary to lubricate the interactions between members and allow ideas to surface. Both intuition and careful thinking are essential in the selection process. The skills required are almost synonymous with opposing mindsets. In fact, we tend to see great success in very diverse groups. Design Thinking provides a framework to organise the creation process in series of cyclical steps: Empathising with the user, Defining the problem, Ideating solutions, Prototyping, and finally Testing and evaluating. Each subsequent step enables a shift of the balance between the convergent and divergent mechanisms. The distinct nature of the steps allows participants to choose and alternate between methods optimised for convergence or divergence. Having a clear objective in every phase effectively lubricates the interactions between participants.

Uncreative creativity

While working in food, I discovered on more than one occasion the same “original” idea being born in a different group or company at the same time. “Being innovative” relied on claiming ownership first. Suddenly, I started to see friends from diverse backgrounds (artists, academics, architects, etc.) sharing this common problem. I was shocked. The scale and density of trends across disciplines (food delivery apps being a recent example in entrepreneurship) showed me that the solutions we devise tend to be highly unoriginal. Furthermore, competition phases out most organisations who fail to reinvent themselves. Many techniques have been developed to facilitate the different steps of the design process, and there is always room for improvement. Regardless, the divergent mechanism seems to be in particular need of support. We all tend to follow the same few big profile companies, celebrity leaders, TV shows, and so on. At the same time, we tend to befriend, hire, and marry people with similar world views and habits as our own. Our brains generate new ideas by recombining what we have experienced. However, we privilege recent and commonly found information when making associations. At the same time, our Ingroup and Self-Confirmation bias mean we give priority to the opinion of our closer group or tribe, disregarding information that would contradict our current paradigm. Our very nature creates a strong self reinforcing loop towards convergence. If we want to be creative, we need a more conscious approach to selecting our sources of information.

Designing for divergence

At Conductal, we are looking to create solutions at the organisational level. Some of our work is facilitated through Crossmodalism, where we provide meeting spaces for thought processes. A Human Collider open to the public. However, any organisational effort needs to be coupled with an appropriate design process. All the steps of Design Thinking methodology require some research for new information, but the main burden is placed on the Empathising step and in the more convergence-oriented Defining step. These two steps are engineered towards researching that which is closely related to the topic at hand. However, we already know that cross-pollination is a powerful tool for innovation. If we add a new step, designed to promote divergent thinking, we can compensate for the natural group-thinking tendency of teams. By bringing knowledge from other disciplines, we can find alternatives and save time. Thanks to focused research at the meta level, we can improve creativity. This brings up a new question: how do we prompt teams and organisations to take meaningful challenges, instead of just generating original solutions to relatively meaningless ones?

The importance of purpose and meaning at work

A shared mission that transcends petty challenges is a powerful motivator. When a common cause is placed at the core of an organisation, it aligns efforts and promotes collaboration over competition. Properly balancing a mission with a culture of playful experimentation leads to engaging and fulfilling workplaces. The good news is that the talent marketplace will help promote this model. A company where work is meaningful will have a substantial competitive advantage over a meaningless rival who can only leverage salary or promotions. The bad news is that creating a culture of meaning is not easy. While getting two people to agree on a common goal is hard, reaching an agreement between a large group is a massive challenge. Beyond pure market forces, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi offer a fascinating analysis. According to them, human thought (as a paradigm) has undulated between holistic thinking and analytical thinking throughout history. Every swing of the pendulum brings a new wave of thought revolutions and discoveries. We currently live in a super fragmented society. Our disciplines are specialised to the point that experts know more and more about less and less. Our institutions and organisations follow their individual goals at the expense of society (and hence themselves). Our dog-walking app, in that frame, is the result of exacerbated analytical thinking. We need processes that can lead us to understand the issues that really matter and devise meaningful solutions. Designing innovative organisations with meaning at their core might be a big challenge, but it is one worth undertaking.

Image: Joe Sarah Photography Image: Joe Sarah Photography