Imagine that your organization faces a complex problem, and your team seems to be stuck. People appear to be fixated on a narrow range of potential solutions, none of which seem particularly innovative. How can you encourage divergent thinking and help your team generate more creative options? Let’s examine three techniques for broadening perspective and uncovering novel solutions.
Find Analogous Experiences
First, encourage your team to search far and wide for analogous situations and experiences that might offer useful insights. Too often, we search narrowly for solutions, looking at our past experiences or at our competitors’ best practices. When we benchmark our rivals, we often find ourselves imitating them, rather than innovating. Rampant benchmarking can lead to herd behavior and strategy convergence in many industries. Instead, encourage your team to think about how people in other industries or fields must approach this particular problem. Ask yourself: Who else has had this type of problem and how have they addressed it? Research shows that we tend to generate more novel solutions when we mine analogous contexts for inspiration. For instance, a pediatric hospital in the United Kingdom wanted to enhance patient safety. They knew that errors often occurred during “handoffs” – i.e., when patients were transferred from one clinical team or unit to another. The doctors asked themselves: Who is world class at executing handoffs? That question led to them to study Formula One Ferrari racing teams. Errors decreased dramatically thanks to ideas sparked by examining this analogous context. Similarly, firms from a range of industries have developed novel solutions to customer service problems by studying firms such as Ritz Carlton Hotels, a firm known for delivering an exceptional customer experience.
Second, ask your team to step back and “un-focus” for a moment. We all know that multitasking proves highly counterproductive in many cases. However, complete focus has its limitations too. We can get trapped into a particular way of thinking and too mired in the details. Sometimes, we simply need to step back and gain some distance from a problem to achieve a breakthrough. How can we encourage our team to detach from their work in a constructive manner? Achieving distance means more than simply taking a break or going for a walk. Creative ideas often emerge when we embrace a bit of “time travel” as a means of gaining fresh perspective. We look forward and reason back. For instance, Amazon asks software developers to imagine what the press release and frequently asked questions document will look like before they start a project. After leaping ahead in time, they work backwards to re-imagine their proposed solution. In the military, teams conduct pre-mortems as a means of sparking new ideas. In this technique, we imagine that our concept has been implemented and has failed at some point in the future, and we ask ourselves how we are likely to explain the failure at the postmortem. Envisioning this scenario can help us see our proposed solution in a whole new light. Achieving some distance in this manner helps us get “unstuck” at times and enhances divergent thinking.
Play Devil’s Advocate
Finally, directing one or two team members to play the devil’s advocate can spark creative solutions, provided that these individuals approach the role in the right manner. Devil’s advocates can quash creativity if they simply act as naysayers, seeking out all the reasons why an idea won’t work. If they lecture the team repeatedly, they can quickly become a broken record. Others will stop listening to them. Moreover, they can discourage people from proposing novel solutions for fear of facing withering criticism. The best devil’s advocates help the group reframe the problem when people are thinking too narrowly about a particular category of solutions. They can enhance divergent thinking if they ask thoughtful questions, rather than pretending that they have all the answers. Constructive devil’s advocates enhance creativity if they help a team generate new options rather than simply criticizing existing proposals. Simply, the right kind of tension, applied with care, tends to unleash the creative juices. The most successful leaders do not always generate novel solutions to perplexing problems themselves. They often enable others to develop creative ideas. They marshal the collective intellect of their teams. To accomplish that, leaders need to apply the right techniques to help their people get unstuck, broaden their perspective, and look at problems in a whole new light.
About Prof. Michael Roberto
Michael Roberto is the Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI. He joined the tenured faculty at Bryant after serving for six years on the faculty at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on how leaders and teams solve problems and make decisions. The Case Centre ranked him #25 on their list of the 40 best-selling case study authors in the world. He is the author of three books including Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus and his latest book, Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets.