Oswald Letter

You’re doing it wrong—the proper way to approach creative thinking

Wood Bookshelf in the Shape of Human Head and books near break wby Dan Oswald

Fifty years ago, NASA asked Dr. George Land to develop a creativity assessment aimed at helping the space agency identify and hire the most creative engineers and scientists. The test proved successful for NASA, and in 1968, Land decided to use his assessment to test the creativity of 1,600 4- and 5-year-olds who were enrolled in a Head Start program.

The results were astonishing. Ninety-eight percent of the children were considered geniuses on the creative thinking scale. Amazed by the results, Land decided to continue to track the same group of children as they grew. He tested them again five years later and found that only 30% of the kids still scored at the genius level on the creative thinking scale. He let another five years pass and tested the group again as 15-year-olds. By this time, the number of students who scored at the genius level had fallen to just 12%. An amazing decline in only a decade.

When Land tested 200,000 adults, a measly 2% were measured at the genius level on creativity. 2%!

We all say we want to hire innovative thinkers. Good luck with only two out of every 100 candidates who walk through the door actually being creative geniuses. We all would like to be the next Steve Jobs, coming up with innovative new ideas that change the way millions of people listen to music or communicate. But the odds against us are overwhelming.

It seems that our education system is sapping the creativity out of our children, leaving us with a small group of creative geniuses. Land’s study found that there are two types of creative thinking necessary for innovation—divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is what we typically associate with innovation. It’s that free-wheeling thinking where unusual and creative ideas are tossed around. Some ideas might seem whimsical or completely impossible, but nothing is off-limits. The concept is to get every wild idea out on the table and evaluate them on their merits.

Convergent thinking is when we take all of the “out-of-the-box ideas” and try to put them back in the box. It’s weighing all of the creative ideas and assessing whether or not they are plausible.

For innovation to occur, both types of creative thinking must not only take place, but they must also take place in a certain order. Divergent thinking must happen first, and then convergent thinking must be applied to the ideas that were generated. If that can be done successfully—voilà!—we have innovation.

What Land discovered is that our education system teaches us to use both types of thinking at the same time, and that’s where the problem occurs. Creativity plummets when we attempt to combine divergent and convergent thinking into a single process.

So if you want your team to be more creative, you must figure out how to get them to think differently, to think more like a 5-year-old. I’m sure you’re thinking that can’t be too hard—they already act like 5-year-olds! But it’s not easy to undo what years of formal education have trained people to do.

Here’s the deal. You need to separate the divergent and convergent thinking. You need to create an environment where people are safe to practice divergent thinking without any fear that someone will tell them the idea won’t work or how that’s not the way we do things around here. You need to help your people remove all convergent thinking while they focus on all the ways something could be done.

Then, after allowing the ideas to flow, you bring everyone back together and systematically review the ideas one by one using convergent thinking. Can we put any of these ideas back in the box and really make them work successfully?

It’s not easy to retrain people after years of having something drilled into them. Most people don’t understand that they have been taught to practice divergent and convergent thinking at the same time. The first step in any recovery is the admission of a problem. That means it’s up to you as a manager to let your people know what the biggest obstacle to creative thinking is. Then you must provide them with an opportunity to change the way they think by giving them the tools to think differently.

1 thought on “You’re doing it wrong—the proper way to approach creative thinking”

  1. I’ve been in a few meetings where all ideas were written and hung all around the wall then we went back and eliminated duplicates and combined some then evaluated what was left. I am 80 and That was a while back but I don’t remember that the results were spectacular. Maybe it was a good start but the results weren’t handled properly

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