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The Power of Divergent Thinking

How the Best Think Differently

Michael Lombardi learnt the essentials of NFL management driving Bill Walsh around San Francisco in the coach's pristine Porsche.

En route, Walsh would share his secrets to Lombardi, including why only eight teams could win a Superbowl, the purpose of culture and importance of divergent thought when assembling a team.

Bill Walsh built an American football dynasty. He sat atop the San Francisco 49ers organisation for over a decade, guiding them to multiple NFL championships as head coach.

He wrote the book on organisational management in the NFL. His work is accepted as the bible for aspiring head coaches in the sport and remains highly relevant a few generations later. 

The book breaks down every aspect of coaching, leading and building a culture that produces a self-perpetuating success. 

Bill Walsh Divergent Thinking

Bill Walsh

Group think in any organisation is the enemy. New ideas are filtered out and fear of failure is rife. Woe betide the junior analyst who has a fresh take on a stock! What fate will befall the civil servant with the audacity to create new tax reform?!

Walsh had the perfect prescription to group think. Divergent thought.

Divergent thought is freeform, non-linear thinking, making jumps from problem to solution that may not be obvious at first but does unearth a causal relationship that can really blow-up a problem.

It allows the best idea to win without the weight of prescribed notions infecting the process.

Throughout early schooling and further education, divergent thought is largely discouraged as it requires a level of failure before the successful solution is acquired.

Children learn at an early age that failure is bad, despite it being essential to creativity and formation of fresh ideas.

"Bill Walsh was a divergent thinker because he took an offense and he divergently thought of how he could make it utilise the skill set of the talent that he had; and so he didn't really invent the wheel, he modified the wheel."

 Michael Lombardi

Walsh is a great example because he was so successful in applying divergent thought. He built a whole new form of attack in American football by fitting the pieces of his team together in a way that made them greater than the sum of their parts. 

Indeed, Walsh could adjust in any scenario to refit a plan in a way that created a cohesive team that could compete at the highest level.

Saving Apple

The late Steve Jobs is another divergent thinker. Known for its beautiful products and usability, Apple was once far from being the giant of Silicon Valley that it is today. In 1996, with Apple 90 days from bankruptcy, Steve Jobs was faced with a litany of problems.

After staging a boardroom coup that restored his position as CEO, Jobs got to work. The company was weighed down by its production of hardware, too many products, too many people. Some experts said close it down and return money to shareholders.

Jobs, envisioning a company uniquely committed to hardware, stripped the product lines down to four and told his design team to get to work.

Steve Jobs used a simple diagram to illustrate his solution.

Steve Jobs Quadrant Divergent Thinking

Steve Jobs' new paradigm for Apple


This diagram illustrates the jump Jobs made from manufacturing 1,000's of products, to four.

Today Apple continues to execute on his vision and one of the biggest companies in the world. And everyone loves their products.

His solution lay in simplifying everything from the management structure to the supplier base, but can be neatly shown in these four products. The message is clear. Focus on what people need and want. 

It can be considered divergent in thought because he did not go "blue sky." The market he is tending to is the same, he simply tweaked what was already being done, albeit in a very streamlined manner. 

"A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem."  

Steve Jobs

Divergent thought is about generating multiple solutions to a problem, choosing the most suitable idea with the resources at hand and, as an addendum, executing with ruthless focus in the manner of Walsh or Jobs. 

A great story from the launch of the first colourful iMac was classic Jobs, and pure divergent thinking. 

Airfreight was highly competitive from the Far East where Apple had its manufacturing base. To ensure guaranteed delivery, Jobs and his team, which included Tim Cook, bought up all the airfreight capacity available, denying their competitors route to market. 

This ensured delivery, and also meant any competing consoles or computers for the Christmas rush wouldn't make it to the shelves. I think it sums the new Apple the best. Highly efficient, ruthless with a streak of mischief. The company would go on to disrupt multiple industries for the next two decades.

Applying Divergent Thought

People can struggle with divergent thought because it appears so non-conventional. This is due to the non-linear nature of jumps made by the divergent thinker. 

Programs like MBA's, professional training and schooling systems are deeply structured. They may study an example like Jobs, but their curriculums have a built-in immune system that kills divergent thought. 

Children by their nature are divergent in thought. Playfulness is closely linked to divergent thinking. Lego is a wonderful example.

Kids can start with a box of bricks, no instructions and build something completely novel with parts already at hand. Indeed the structure's purpose may change a few times while it is being built.

For the aspiring divergent thinker, I have good news! The technique can be honed and improvised. Having a child-like curiousness helps, an openness to new ideas and solutions that lie in the structure of the non-obvious.

Keep a journal, brainstorm loosely around the problem at hand. Brainstorming allows us to generate in a creative, unstructured way.

Analyse why things are done a certain way. If there are bottlenecks within your company or place of work, jot down how you might solve such a problem. Again, the answer lies in the structure of the non-obvious.

Mind-mapping is another way of harnessing divergent thought to generate ideas around a problem. Indeed, the success of mind-mapping as a revision tool in school highlights the power of divergent thought. 

Mind Mapping Divergent Thinking

 Mind Map 


Divergent thought is a creative superpower that enables a person to break out of the chains of causal thinking. It presents unique, simple solutions to problems weighed down by convention. 

Being able to think differently is a major competitive advantage across every discipline. In essence, you will be playing another game to your competitors.

Sure, the first solution you pick may be wrong, but it won't be unoriginal. It is in this originality where the evolutionary jump will come from. You can change the paradigm of the problem with the new solution.

If you infuse your creativity with a dose of reason, you will see why organisations like Apple behave the way they do. 

Your answers will be more diverse, focused and suitable for the problem at hand. It allows you to be creative within a framework of the problem. And it is used by the best.


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