Friday, March 23

Thinking outside the box – the basis of innovative thinking

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To get an understanding of customer outcomes, learn to think divergently

We have all used the term “Thinking Outside the Box” at some stage. I knew a few people who genuinely could -and I really wanted to be one of those people.But I quickly realised that a modicum of mental agility fuelled by a tendency to seek new ideas to alleviate boredom did not make me an “Out of the Box” thinker. At least not initially.

What I did discover was that the thinking pattern could be codified and therefore could be learnt. The greatest gift that this learning has given me is the ability to harness outcome-based thinking, which has enabled me to gain a depth of insight into customer wants and needs that all the data-driven approaches in the world cannot compete with.

In my search for how innovators think differently I quickly discovered that I was in good company. Countless articles have been written and training sessions developed – mostly starting with adverts like “23 ways to think outside the box – unlock the secrets of boundless innovation and make millions etc etc”. Yet, so many hours later, a few of the more appealing techniques may have stuck, but nothing really resonated, and my abilities did not really change that much.

Simply giving someone a series of techniques does not make a creative thinker!

Convergent vs Divergent Thinking

Then a friend of mine discovered a psychologist called Joy Paul Guilford and he called me up to tell me about it. My mindset was changed forever!

I very quickly realised that I, along with 99% of the population, was a convergent thinker. Innovators are not by nature convergent thinkers – in fact 180 degree the opposite. I also learned that convergent is not only a natural thinking pattern it represents the whole basis of how we are raised and educated. Almost everything we do seeks convergence, and whilst massively important for the everyday tasks and decisions, it does not help us create.

Convergent thinking is the thinking that collects data and/or knowledge and focuses on finding the single, most well-established answer to a question. It is how we are all taught to learn in most subjects where most of what we learn relies on converging to a single answer, which we then go away and apply.

Flip into our business life, and most us use convergent thinking in almost every aspect of what we do. It’s the way we have been trained to think and when we meet people who think differently, we look at them as having a genius or gift that is outside the realms of what we personally can achieve. Some of us then look at the innovator mindset and want to emulate it, hence the focus on techniques usually with little success. We conclude that it’s not possible to become an innovator and leave it to the privileged few to fill that gap.  This is a beautiful example of a self-limiting belief.

Divergent thinking focuses on generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.  Thinking patterns are typically non-linear, more spontaneous and unexpected connections are drawn.  Because the divergent thinker is doing it without thinking, ideas naturally and quickly flow. They do it as naturally as breathing.  The divergent thinker starts at a central point and works out. The convergent thinker takes a number of points and works in.

Convergent voices

Back in our everyday world virtually everything we do generally starts by taking chunks of information and data and converge to an answer. In our customer experience world, Voice of Customer relies on it.  You can argue that Net Promoter Score creates the basis for divergent thinking patterns but most NPS initiatives fail to harness the divergent thinking opportunities out there.  It’s not just in CX – it’s everywhere. Our traditional functional structure is a result of a convergent thinking pattern. Medicine is quite rightly based around convergent thinking patterns. Even most strategies rely primarily on convergent thinking based around the cheaper, better, faster mantra.

Does that mean we need to move away from convergent thinking? Of course not:it creates the basis of every decision we make and every action we take. What we need to do is to also use divergent creative thinking in our everyday lives.

Innovators think differently every single time they think about challenges or opportunities. They go “divergent” to the problem/opportunity before they ever go “convergent”.

Let’s do it!

Here is the good news: it is actually very easy to change your mind-set to one of an innovator. Yes, it does require you to be intentional and yes, it requires discipline, but if you follow it, it will change your thinking patterns forever.

Here is how you do it:

  • Set yourself a day when you are going to start this thinking transition. my suggestion is to find a period which you expect to be a little less hectic and will give you the opportunity for thinking time.
  • On Day 1, start by thinking about every problem or opportunity in the context of potential answers. If you think you already know the answer, yes write it down but then think about the answer in another perspective.Think about possible answers to the five levels of outcome I discussed in my previous blog: ideas around the problem/opportunity that create a different outcome to company, outcome to customer, outcome to stakeholder, outcome to employee, outcome to social agenda. If the clock is ticking, then limit the time you spend on it – X minutes – whatever X is going to be.
  • Make sure you can capture the idea, no matter how good or stupid, wherever you happen to be, since you will probably forget it later. It could be voice recording into your smart phone – it could be a pocket-size note pad. Whatever works for you.
  • Never go to an answer until you have given yourself that X minutes to write down potential answers from different perspectives. Now, when you first start, it will feel a bit odd, but it won’t take long before ideas start to flow.
  • Now the secret is to become intentional and it is a discipline. Ensure you repeat this behaviour every day for 28 days.  Remind yourself to do it everywhere you go, whatever works for you. I changed my alarm message. Every time I picked up my phone and iPad I was reminded. I was being intentional because I wanted to adopt thinking patterns not many of us ever harness.

If you follow this approach, there is a very strong chance you will have mastered the basic thinking pattern of an innovator. If you stop after 10 days, there is every chance your thinking patterns will slip back to what you did before. You do have to be intentional. If you are impatient you can go to the “X techniques for innovation” approach, but they will not help you unless divergent thinking becomes part of your normal thinking routine.

My suggestion is to harness the thinking discipline then play with the techniques.

The chances are you will have NOW changed the way you think forever!

As a wise woman once said “the sky is not the limit, your mind is!”


About Author

Founder & CEO. charles is an acknowledged leader in customer-driven performance change using both best practice and emerging next practice perspectives. He leads, mentors and coaches in both strategic and operational initiatives. A strong believer is the potential for "supercompnay performance" he innovates using next practice thinking and methods to enhance the business. He researches heavily to retain reputation as a thought leader, which he has applied across 40 countries, multiple sectors and companies such as Citibank, Nielsen, Microsoft, Vodafone, Tracker and governments in Middle East and Asia. Contributes to business journals and often invited as a speaker or chairman to events all over the world.

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