How Disruptive Change Can Make You Blind: 4 Ways to Open Your Eyes

”The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [Tweet this]

Three Types of Thinking

Have you ever wondered why organizations with really smart people have to bring in consultants to see the solutions that have been right in front of them all along? It has to do with the way that our brains process information and solve problems when we are under stress or going through times of tremendous change. Read on and you may feel like a kid that just got his first pair of glasses.

In 1967, Guilford first contrasted two types of thinking that he called divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is like looking at the world with a wide angle lens. When the brain is using divergent thinking, it looks for ways to put information and concepts together in new ways. Think of your favorite comedian taking something from the far right of his/her periphery and putting it together with something on the far left. We laugh hysterically and blurt out, “I never thought of that before!”

Convergent thinking, on the other hand, focuses like a magnifying glass on the outcome. The distractions are gone and it is time to “get down to business”. It is a narrow view that disregards other options and moves to with precision to accomplish the objective.

In his book, Gamestorming: a Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers, Dave Gray uses the analogy of a golf pencil sharpened at both ends to describe how to solve problems. He suggests that we begin with divergent thinking (starting from the left pencil point and getting wider) to reveal potential solutions. Ideally, we should then spend some time doing “emergent thinking” (the body of the pencil) where we kick around the ideas that we’ve come up with until something “emerges” that will work. Finally (and not any sooner), we move into convergent thinking to trim away the fluff and narrow down the thinking until we have a idea we can act upon. We end up on the opposite end of the pencil from where we started at a sharp point with a clearly focused plan. Each phase serves a strategic purpose in the problem solving process and it works best to do them in order: divergent, emergent and then convergent.

The problem is when we are undergoing times of rapid change or gut wrenching stress, our brains tend to default to and get stuck in convergent thinking from the very beginning. When we are in convergent thinking mode, we can no longer see potential solutions that are not directly in front of us. Not only do we develop tunnel vision but we develop tunnel hearing as well. Just ask someone that has been the victim of an armed robbery. They don’t hear anything and all they see is the HUGE gun. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not limited to just our senses of vision and hearing. When we are under stress, we develop tunnel thinking as well.

Shifting to Divergent Thinking: Four Ways to Open Your Eyes

There are four different techniques that you can use to shift your thinking into the divergent mode so you can improve your vision and discover some breakthroughs.

Exercise

”All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” — Friedrich Nietzsche [Tweet this]

In a study done at Stanford University by Oppezzo and Schwartz they found that if you walk with someone at a normal pace (not pushing it), it will lead to a nearly 60% increase in creativity as measured by the Guilford Alternate Uses (GAU) test.1 The GAU is a test that measures the ability to come up with new uses for common objects. In the disaster world, we are constantly using materials and equipment in new ways because the resources are so scarce. A 60% increase in creativity and I don’t even have to break out in a sweat. It’s hard to beat that!

Improv

With my background as a street mime in Seattle, people may not be surprised that I list Improv as being helpful. However, there is good research to back it. Lewis and Lovatt showed that those that participated in 20 minutes of improv games (not standing up doing improv on a stage) had significant improvements in fluency, originality and flexibility scores.2 Next time your feeling stuck, try each of these games for five minutes each with your team:

  • Random Numbers: Have members of the group shout out a random number every time the leader claps. In short order, you’ll discover how difficult this is to do.
  • One Word at a Time: Going around the circle, each person says one word at a time to form a coherent story. Try to go around the circle more than once.
  • Three Words at a Time: Have a conversation with someone using only three word sentences.
  • Alphabetical Conversations: Have a conversation with someone using a sentence that starts the the next letter in the alphabet. There first person starts with a sentence that begins with the letter “A”. The other person responds with a sentence that starts with the letter “B” and so on.

Gratitude

Positive mood is very important in the divergent thinking phase of problem solving.3,4 One of the fastest ways to move you and your team into a positive mood is to use gratitude. When you focus on gratitude your brain wakes up and looks for opportunities to celebrate. (Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If you focus on the negative, your brain will disengage.) Try keeping a gratitude journal. My favorite is the 5 Minute Journal. You can get the app for iOS here or the paper version here. Either on your mobile device or on paper, it is a life changing habit. It has been one of the most powerful strategies that I’ve ever done to improve my vision, reignite my passion and restore my commitment to persevere when times are tough.

“When you get discouraged and choose look down, it looks like the only way out is to dig a hole.” — Dan Diamond, MD [Tweet this]

Humor

Another way to improve mood is humor. Using functional MRI, Karuna Subramaniam (a researcher at Northwestern University) found that creative insight is correlated with increased activity in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The activity increases just prior to solving a problem. People in a positive mood have more activity in the ACC which is believed to help the brain discover novel solutions. When participants in her study watched a scary movie (the Shining), the activity in the ACC diminished and they were less creative in problem solving.

One of the things that I do in disasters when I am trying to rapidly solve problems is to ask a very counterintuitive question. In fact, I’m a bit reluctant to share it with you because I don’t want you to misunderstand. The question I ask myself is, “What’s so funny?” It certainly is not because I’m making fun of the suffering. It is because I know that doing so will get my brain firing in new ways and it will facilitate creative problem solving so I can more effectively deliver the care that people so desperately need.

Key Points to Remember

  • To most effectively solve problems when you are under pressure, use the following types of thinking in order:
    1. Divergent
    2. Emergent
    3. Convergent
  • Your brain will default to convergent thinking when you are stressed.
  • To shift your brain into divergent thinking, try the following (in any order):
    1. Exercise
    2. Gratitude
    3. Improv
    4. Humor

I look forward to you comments and ideas....



  1. Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: …, 40(4), 1142–1152
  2. Lewis, C., & Lovatt, P. J. (2013). Breaking away from set patterns of thinking: Improvisation and divergent thinking. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 9, 46–58.
  3. Vosburg, S. K. (1998). Mood and the Quantity and Quality of Ideas. Creativity Research Journal, 11(4), 315–324.
  4. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.