The business of systems engineering is problem solving. The ability to see and understand the problem and then to explore the solution set in search of the best answer is the core skill for the successful practitioner. It is important that we devote our attention to our processes, tools, and methods so that we can find the greatest leverage for high-quality solution seeking.
The divergent thinking phase of the problem-solving process is where the idea reservoir is charged with material for further consideration. An impoverished divergent phase acts to constrict the rest of the process and to impair the quality of the ultimate solution. Fortunately there are ways in which we can intentionally raise the quality of our divergent thinking.
The first involves feeding the idea machine. The process of generating ideas for solving our problems rests on the ability to take known elements (e.g., physical components, processes) and put them together in new and helpful ways. By combining and recombining existing elements we are able to create problem-solving systems that manifest new capabilities to be applied to the problem at hand.
This is true because the essential nature of any system is that it produces results that transcend even the sum of the capabilities its parts. New capabilities emerge from new combinations and the resultant new relationship between elements. In his valuable little book A Technique for Producing Ideas, James W. Young cites the Italian engineer, economist, and philosopher, Vilfredo Pareto for the proposition that new ideas are the direct result of making these new combinations from existing elements. He states, “. . . an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”
Expanding the number of ideas is a matter of increasing the number of possible combinations. This happens by acquiring a broad knowledge of the field of elements present in the world and by understanding the ways in which they might relate to each other. The broader this knowledge the greater the possible combinations that can be created as candidate solutions.
Consider the example of Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press. Certainly one of, if not the, pivotal idea of our civilization to that point, his press sprang from the combination of very disparate ideas. The world-changing innovation came from adapting an agricultural pressing machine, the metallurgy he learned from his father, a craftsman in the ecclesiastical mint, and his knowledge of inking chemistry into a completely new printing machine and process. Without his broad knowledge of the world around him his invention would not have been possible.
The first strategy for improving our divergent thinking process is, therefore, to broaden its base. We need to use our curiosity and resources to add to our reserve of knowledge. While we won’t bother with the mathematical proof here, it should be obvious that the bigger the pool from which we draw the greater the possible combinations. As systems engineers we should consciously work to broaden that base.
The second strategy is adopting a discipline that enables us to refrain from prematurely applying the convergent process to our divergent generation of ideas. The premature application of convergent thinking causes the truncation of the idea generation process. Our training and environment combine to encourage us to make judgments as our ideas are produced. The resulting temptation to evaluate their possibilities can be quite strong. We justify acting on this temptation by pointing out the relative lack of merit in the ideas we eliminate and the validity of the reasoning applied to their removal from further consideration.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this is that when we eliminate an idea from consideration, we lose not only that idea but any ideas that might flow from it as well. Professional facilitators often observe that when we kill an idea in the generative phase we kill its children along with it. We may be exactly right in our assessment of the inherent value of a particular idea but it still has value as the progenitor of further thinking in that same vein. Once the idea is no longer around to act as a stimulus a whole avenue of thought is closed to us.
This is why the classic divergent thinking technique of brainstorming involves the prohibition on evaluative comments. But the judging compulsion is so strong that even the brainstorming technique itself has been called into question. In an article entitled Groupthink: the brainstorming myth, in the January 30, 2012 edition of the New Yorker, (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/groupthink), contributor Jonah Lehrer chronicled the shortcomings of brainstorming (all of which involve the leakage of judgmental processes into the tool) and discussed some of the more sophisticated strategies for plugging those leaks. There are a number of modifications of brainstorming and other tools to promote divergent thinking. Whatever the tool selection it is incumbent on us to select and practice a discipline that leverages truly divergent thinking on the front end of our problem solving processes.
The third strategy is to adopt tools and methods that make the divergent process accessible. Not only should they guard against the intrusion of convergent choice-making into the idea generation phase but they must make the divergent process as open and easy to engage as possible. Divergent thinking depends on rapid thinking and equally rapid responses that build on the thoughts already generated. Ideas must be surfaced and produced as a stimulus for others. The abundance of possibilities coming out of the divergent phase is as important to the systems engineer as it is to any other problem solver.
This can be counter-intuitive in an industry/profession where our tools are largely geared to making critical judgments and refining choices. The power of our tools and methods resides mainly in building out, testing, and narrowing our choices. The sophistication that makes these tools and methods ideal for refining ideas into a solution at the same time makes them an impediment to the rapid generation of numbers of high-level, low granularity ideas.
In a lively TED Talk Tom Wujec presents a technique for solving problems (https://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_got_a_wicked_problem_first_tell_me_how_you_make_toast?language=en). He argues that the technique must be easy to use, promote iteration, and allow collaboration. By using tools and methods with a shallow learning curve groups of varying technical sophistication can rapidly move into contributing ideas to the shared pool. The quality and number of those ideas are enhanced by the ability to iterate and think “aloud” where “aloud” can be taken to mean visually. The ideas and their iterations (progeny) are surfaced for all to see thereby magnifying the stimulus effect and enhancing the idea pool.
Promoting the effectiveness of the divergent thinking phase of problem solving ventures depends on generating a large pool of ideas to feed into the convergent process. This can be facilitated by broadening our base of knowledge from which we can make combinations to be used as candidate solutions. We then need to guard against the intrusion of convergent processes into the divergent phase. We must fight our nature and our nurture to lay aside our critical thinking until we are largely done with the idea generation process. Finally we must find tools and methods that allow us to easily engage in the divergent processes. Tools and/or methods that get in our way are counterproductive in this phase.
One further thought in closing- the ultimate dream would be for a tool/method that promoted our three strategies and allowed us to transition our pool of ideas directly into the convergent process. The divergent/convergent problem solving process is not a disjoint undertaking. The two phases are inextricably linked with each one bearing on the quality of the ultimate result. A tool and method that honors the three strategies suggested here while linking seamlessly into the next phase would be the ideal solution seeking aid.