There are two reasons most of us aren’t very good at creative problem solving. First, few people get training in how to be creative in their education. Second, few people understand group dynamics well enough to harness their power to help groups maximize their creativity.
Resolving the first issue requires getting your employees to learn more about the way they think… a tall order for managers. The second issue, though, is well within your ability to change.
A key element of creativity is bringing existing knowledge to bear on a new problem or goal. The more people who can engage with that problem or goal, the more knowledge that is available to work on it. Unfortunately, quite a bit of research demonstrates that the traditional brainstorming methods first described by Alex Osborn in the 1950’s fail. When groups simply get together and start throwing out ideas, they actually come up
fewer ideas overall and fewer novel, actionable ideas than the individuals in that group would have come up with had they worked alone.
To fix this problem, it is important to think about the two phases of group problem-solving: divergence and convergence.
Divergence happens when the group considers as many different potential solutions as possible. For example, a common test of creativity is the “alternative uses” test. People are asked questions like, “How many different uses can you find for a brick?” This test requires strategies for considering as many distinct solutions as possible.
Convergence happens when the variety of proposed solutions are evaluated. In this phase, a large number of ideas are whittled to a smaller set of candidate solutions to the current problem.
The core principle of group creativity is that individuals working alone diverge, while group members working together converge. In group settings, as soon as one person states a potential solution to everyone else, that influences the memory of every person in the group in ways that make everyone think about the problem more similarly. That is why groups working together diverge less than individuals working alone.
To fix group idea generation, then, be aware of when you are trying to diverge and when you are trying to converge. For example, early in the process of problem-solving, think carefully about the problem itself. Have your group members work alone to craft statements describing the problem. Then, get them back together to discuss their descriptions. The individuals are likely to come up with a variety of distinct problem statements. The group discussion will lead everyone to accept one or a small number of variants of these statements to work on – this is healthy convergence.
When you start to generate solutions, you again want divergence. Again, have people work alone to start. Then collect people’s initial ideas and send them around to other group members and allow the divergence to continue as group members individually build on the ideas of their colleagues. Because people are still working alone, the way they build on other people’s ideas is still going to be different from how other group members are building on those ideas.
After this process, you can give the resulting ideas to everyone and then let the group get together to discuss them. This discussion will gradually lead the group to converge on a small number of candidate solutions.
This process maximizes the contribution of the group. Everyone gets to engage their knowledge in service of the problem to be solved without having their memories influenced by other people’s solutions. Everyone also gets to enhance the ideas generated by their colleagues. Finally, the group gets to work together to build further on the ideas and to evaluate the candidates.
This simple procedure works effectively, because it respects what individuals and groups do best.