You may have heard that the ideation stage of innovation is about quantity over quality. But it’s also about having divergent ideas.

Divergent ideas branch off in different directions. Divergent thinking opposes convergent thinking which is where thinking converges (comes together at a point) on one right answer.

📺 Watch this

Watch this video from Harvard Professional Development for a primer on the difference and the mistake we all tend to make in meetings.

There are three specific rules you should follow for divergent thinking.

  1. Have creative confidence: everyone has to express any and all ideas that come into their heads.
  2. Quantity before quality: output, output, output! Set the pace, don’t let teammates or yourself dwell on getting an idea out.
  3. No criticism of ideas yet. This is a sheer output phase!

Keeping everyone engaged and working at their best requires that credit is given fairly. Here are tiny tips you can carry out whether you formally facilitate an ideas conversation or not.

  • 🏷️ Always tell someone if you react positively to their idea and say their name.“I had never thought of engaging new customers in the way you just described, Catherine!” Using someone’s name is Better Allies’ number one ally action.
  • 😮 Ask whose idea something was. “Who’s responsible for this suggestion? I love it because…”
  • 🍎 Play teacher. Jeffrey Baumgartner, author of The Way of the Innovation Master, says you should play the role of a primary school teacher when leading a team through creative processes. Baumgartner says if Bill starts riffing off Natalia’s idea, say, “Natalia, it sounds like Bill likes your idea!”. It reengages Natalia and lets everyone know who began it.
  • 📣 Practice amplification. Look out and identify whether there is a group in the conversation that is prone to having credit stolen from them. This might be a certain personality type, women, an underrepresented culture or juniors and so forth. Make like the women in the Obama and repeat a key point as soon as it’s said by a member of a group, clearly giving credit to who voiced it. This stops yourself and others ‘accidentally’ repeating an idea and claiming it.

We want to have discussions that feel natural and conversational. But, left unchecked, sometimes some people in the room do far more of the talking.

It can be because the topic is their specialist subject, they feel more relaxed in the group, or the group is locked into one way of thinking. It happens to the best of us!

Round robins or calling on quiet people to contribute might get more nuggets of contribution from the room. But did you know we can actually equalize the air time everyone receives over the whole session in a way that, at the same time, helps us have divergent ideas?

⚡ Reveal in advance
“I will continually reframe our discussion as we go to make sure we don’t settle for any two-dimensional ideas or go down any rabbit holes.”

⚡ Respect
Never say, “Josh, you’ve been speaking too much and Maggie I haven’t heard a word from you.”. It will deflate your teammates, and you want to keep everyone at their best.

⚡ (Be) Reasonable
Don’t take the room off a promising trajectory, don’t reframe with an incredibly difficult or zany challenge until they’re ready, and no drill sergeant ultimatums like saying you have to generate 300 ideas before you leave the room.

⚡ Responsibility
Use accountability and pride when you reframe. Ask the room to help one another get their ideas out, give individual mini-goals (“I want two normie ideas from each of you and one crazy one”) or point out when someone has a really valuable lens on the problem and can help their teammates out by explaining something or throwing an expert nugget into the mix.

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The bottom line?

Divergent thinking is about unlocking lots of branches of ideas and possible solutions. Delimit the group’s thinking by following ground rules specific to divergent thinking, and reframing the question. Give credit fairly to ward off inequality and keep everyone engaged.

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