From Blue sky to Earth – supporting creative thinking in Action Learning

March 11, 2013

Whilst in conversation about strategy with a fellow Action Learning Centre colleague, Helen Crane, she mentioned divergent and convergent thinking and how we each have a preference to one way of thinking or the other.

Instantly, I recognized myself as a divergent thinker and both the value and limitations – dare I say frustrations of it.  As ever, I got curious so I took a deeper look as I could recognize its relevance to working in Action Learning Sets (ALS) and how it is implicit within the Action Learning process.

Divergent thinking lends itself to open-ended problems and encourages people to develop their own solutions to problems. It’s about creating options and possibilities and not judging the ideas and suggestions that arise. It’s akin to De Bono’s Green Thinking Hat and engaging the imagination – the ‘what if…, what’s possible and what’s impossible…?’. Whilst in divergent thinking we create potential solutions, however unrealistic or impractical they might be. It’s a creative, non-judging process.

If divergent thinking is about creating options, widening the field then convergent thinking is about narrowing down and making choices. Not any old choice. Whereas divergent is non-judgmental convergent does apply judgments. Convergent thinking weeds out the impractical through considered criteria, analysis and evaluation. It supports us gain clarity, make conclusions and choices, grounding ideas before shaping them into plans and action steps.

What is powerful about the Action Learning process is the Presenter is engaged in both.  The divergent phase comes after identifying the issue and clarifying the outcomes when the Set starts to explore though asking open, discovery questions.

These questions invite the Presenter to view their problem from different viewpoints and therefore open up new vistas never previously considered.  This leads to emerging ideas, sparks new thinking and new levels of understanding of the issue at hand.

The convergent stage comes through evaluating options and the Presenter making choices of which options and avenues to follow through on. It’s that reality checking and planning followed by agreeing actions. The “What will you do” stage?

What my recent reading and reflection on my practice has sparked is how well do we do the convergent thinking? I know ALS are great at generating ideas and options yet how good are we at helping the Presenter evaluate options, or identify the criteria by which the evaluation and assessment will be made?

It has also got me wondering if the personal preference of the facilitator influences the Set. I’m a divergent so very comfortable with this way of thinking. If that is the case do I have a blind spot? Do I step over the essential stage in the creative thinking process that moves ideas from ‘Blue sky’ thinking to workable solutions and action steps? Do I leave things hanging, so to speak!

It really has given my food for thought about the process, how to use the understanding and the model within my facilitation and how it will influence my practice and ultimately the success of my Set members.

And after many years a penny has dropped. When I was first introduced to AL the facilitator used the following.  He would say “Are you solutionising too soon?” I finally, truly get it after all these years. We were moving the Presenter too quickly to the convergent thinking and pinning ideas down without really engaging fully in the divergent, idea generating stage.

I always loved the phrase yet never used it. Now that I have a greater understanding of what underpins it I feel comfortable to use it.

Fiona

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