In the 2016 movie, “The Martian,” staring Matt Damon our hero figures out how to communicate from Mars to Earth using ASCII code, a camera, and paper plates. This kind of thinking – exploring different creative solutions until finding one that works – is called divergent thinking and it’s a process we can all benefit from.
Divergent thinking is an excellent way to escape that box we’re always trying to think our way out of.
The office provides all kinds of problems that can benefit from a divergent thinking approach.
Ellen’s experience, optimism and work ethic are an essential part of the team, but she’s leaving the company in two weeks. You don’t have the resources to rehire. How do you approach the transfer of responsibilities?
You could give it all to the next person in line. Or, you could ask Ellen who she recommends, maybe it’s someone not even in her department? Who has expressed an interest in her focus area or shown an aptitude for her skills? Are there pieces of the job that can be automated, removed, pared down, or expanded into a more comprehensive approach involving more people, but fewer steps?
Many years ago the Boston Children’s Museum had the problematic honor of receiving a retired fire truck as a gift from the city. What should we do with it? Since we were situated on Boston Harbor I suggested pumping water from the ocean and spraying it back into the harbor, turning the truck into a fountain.
"Can’t do that,” says one colleague. “It’s salt water and will corrode the pumps.” Someone suggested we leave it parked and let kids climb on it. That was the end of the conversation.
I thought it could have been the beginning of the conversation. Finding innovative solutions requires creativity – divergent thinking – momentarily accepting unorthodox concepts and then exploring possibilities.
During office-communication workshops I often lead an exercise where one person writes down an object, like a shoe, and a different person is assigned a problem, like “the dishwasher is broken.” Their task is to fix the problem with the object.
How can you use a shoe to fix a dishwasher? Think for a second. (Seriously, take a second.)
(Did you think about it?)
There are many possible solutions. Here are a few...
Remember the infamous scene in Tom Hank’s “Apollo 13”? To decrease dangerous levels of CO2 in the Apollo cabin a NASA engineer on earth challenged his team, “We’ve got to find a way to fit this, into the hole for this, using nothing but that,” pointing to a table full of space parts.
Divergent thinking allows you to consider resources in new and productive ways. Sometimes all you have is a shoe. If Matt Damon can communicate with Earth using a paper plate, you can certainly find a creative use for a fire engine.