Divergent Thinking for More Effective Problems Solving

By Sandie Shaw


Encouraging Creative Thinking

For More Effective Problem Solving.

How to encourage ‘divergent thinking’, a type of thinking that allows new ideas to materialise and creativity to flourish.

Are you struggling with a problem that is sapping your energy and leaving you feeling, well… *big sigh* a bit ‘Mehh’?
Take a moment to consider how you think about that problem and how you’ve been managing it so far:-

  • How does your problem make you feel?  Give it a score out of ten: ’10’ being high, ‘0’ being low.
  • What level of personal energy do you bring to the problem, when you turn your attention to it?
  • On a scale of 1 – 10, how creative does your problem make you feel?

In my experience of working with people to help them find the way forward through and beyond their problems, I have noticed that people often get stuck in a pattern of thinking and behaviour which has proved to be ineffective, and often they will repeat the same pattern again and again with dwindling hope of getting a positive outcome. By the time people seek my help, their energy for the problem is on the floor and they will tell me that they are ‘stuck’.

Unfortunately, I don’t own a magic wand to wave over every problem (I wish I did!) but as a coach, I am  good at unsticking people and helping to unblock their creative flow, so they can explore new potential solutions.  Creativity is a plentiful renewable energy which is available to everyone. A creative person is experimental, playful, intuitive, fearless, adventurous, optimistic, limitless and resourceful, and we all have the potential to be a creative individual. After all, what cannot be explored and surpassed by an imaginative mind at play? However, play tends to decline when anxiety and worry set in…

When we think of creative people, we tend to think of musicians, artists and designers.  However, creativity is also the gentlest and humblest of activities.  We use it daily to make our lives run that little bit better, and frequently it goes unnoticed.  It’s that quiet little voice that says, ‘If I take a left at the next junction, I’ll avoid the traffic and get there quicker.’ or ‘perhaps I can use todays left overs to make soup at the weekend’.  And so, with lingering problems, when we feel like we’re  just not making any progress, we would all benefit from some input from our creative mind, if only we can provide the right conditions to think creatively.  Unfortunately, when we’re feeling stuck and frustrated, our creativity is often compromised.

What is creative thinking? We have many terms to describe the variety of recognised ‘thinking styles’. We have lateral thinking, vertical thinking, analytical, critical, strategic and solution focussed thinking, etc. And creative thinking takes it’s place amongst these styles. Creative thinking has come to be mostly characterised as the ‘lightbulb moment’, when ‘Aha!‘ an idea suddenly springs to mind.  The greatest creative thinkers use a combination of all thinking styles and go several steps further, by actually taking ideas from thought to physical action, allowing them to take form and change reality.

How can we provide our minds with the conditions it needs to think creatively? I often use a simple conversational structure in my coaching sessions from which to explore the problem solving process. Within the framework of the conversation is often an opportunity to find respite from the problem which can bring renewed energy to the table without avoiding the problem or burying heads in sand.  Here is how – I’ll use the GROW Model to demonstrate:-

GROW stands for ‘Goal’, ‘Reality’, ‘Options’, ‘Way forward’. Each stage required a good deal or research and reflection. Be realistic with a timeframe for how long you will spend in each stage; think about how long you would be with this problem if no solution was found and be generous with how long to give to this new problem solving process.  Begin by defining the problem, challenge or goal. The ‘goal’ is the objective you want to reach. Write it down and draw pictures or doodles, using images and colours to express how you would prefer things to be. For ‘Reality’, take time to digest all the facts and information you have on the problem. Remember where you started with this concern and know your position, how things stand right now.

Next comes the ‘Options’ stage, and a chance to quieten the mind so it can be illuminated with fresh ideas. Allow yourself as much time as possible to relax into this stage.  And, here comes the crucial bit, find activities which allow your mind to wander and be free from worry and analysis paralysis.  Listening to music, meditating, walking, art, craft, gardening, swimming, mindfulness, etc.  Any activity that feels good and does not require great levels of concentration will allow the creative side of your mind to open up.  All of these restful activities, particularly practicing mindfulness, the non-reactive observation of your thoughts over time, are activities that encourage ‘divergent thinking’, a type of thinking that allows new ideas to materialise.  Before and after each activity, ask gentle open questions of yourself with no demand for a response, such as: ‘If I had unlimited recourses and knew I couldn’t fail, what would I try?’  Or, ‘What have I seen others do, which might work for me?‘, ‘Who could help me?’, etc…

Since we don’t really know the exact moment when inspiration will strike, keep a small pocket notebook with you whenever possible. Write down any ideas, leads, curiosities and dreams as they appear to you.  Give yourself permission to take time out and ‘do nothing’ (responsibly and within the timeframe and the safety of the framework) whilst new ideas are being generated.   When you are ready, enter the final stage of the four-step process. The ‘Way Forward’. From your notebook of ideas, identify the most promising ones for further exploration and investigation, and take a step forward.

Give it a go, you might be surprised where this exercise takes you!

Best wishes,


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