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Innovation through divergent thinking

A new approach to global challenges: the power of divergent thinking

Picture your typical global summit with multiple stakeholders.

A fixed seating arrangement at a large, boardroom style table.  

Attendees arriving in formal attire, with fixed perspectives that represent their country or organisation.  

A strict agenda, ensuring a decision is made in a timely manner.  

Highly ordered and stage managed, the meeting is not expected to discover something new. Discussion is intended to close towards a solution selected from a few predictable options.  

There is a time and place for these types of convergent conversations. But when it comes to addressing ‘wicked’ problems, we can’t just think convergently - we also need to embrace divergence.  

The nature of wicked problems requires divergent conversations

We live in a world burdened by challenges that resist simplistic or straightforward responses. Challenges like terrorism, climate change, and inequality are enmeshed in complex webs of cause-and-effect where the solutions are unclear.

We need to change our way of thinking when engaging these types of problems. We need to think divergently.  

Divergent thinking gives space for a variety of perspectives and a wide range of possible solutions. It is driven by questions and is reflected in fluid discussion, disagreement and disruptive ideas. 

By deliberately promoting exploration, we challenge our brain’s tendency to slip into familiar thought patterns. We are encouraged to be truly innovative, leading to new ideas and creative options.

John Body's profile'
John Body
Nina  Terrey's profile'
Nina Terrey
RSO Bali Process Event attendees

Engaging in divergent thinking with the RSO Bali Process

Among the wicked problems we face is the ‘super wicked’ refugee crisis. Over 65 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes to escape danger and find safety.  

How might we meaningfully address this crisis that cuts across borders and affects so many people? One way to improve life for refugees is to provide them with temporary work rights, to support their independence and allow them to contribute to their host countries.

In 2016, ThinkPlace explored this topic while facilitating a forum for The Regional Support Office (RSO) for the Bali Process, a regional platform to address refugee protection, irregular migration and related crime. The RSO is charged with bringing the platform’s agreements into practice, gathering stakeholders from governments, the private sector, United Nations agencies and civil society.  

Normally, the RSO runs traditional international summits that promote convergent thinking. This time, they chose to disrupt the typical format and encourage innovation through a series of interactive activities.

On the first day of the event, ThinkPlace ran an Innovation Challenge. Participants from a range of countries and organisations explored the challenge of refugee employment through a series of conversations.

Together, we better understood the challenge by visually mapping the connections and consequences of refugee unemployment. From this understanding, we imagined how the Southeast Asian region might look in 2022, examining how attitudes could shift to view refugees as an asset to the economy rather than a drain.

On the second day, we shifted towards developing new approaches and concepts. Participants were encouraged to go wide and generate as many ideas as possible, considering the perspectives of government, businesses, community members and refugees themselves. 

Collectively, we generated a range of creative concepts to present to the Regional Forum. The different backgrounds of attendees stimulated diverse ideas about how transnational policies could allow refugees to legally pursue employment. 

Participants admitted that little was understood about the challenges of refugee employment and more research was needed to tease apart the key issues and build an evidence base to inform policies. 

The RSO Bali Process event revealed gaps in knowledge and new areas to direct attention. The revelation of these insights was an important output from the event.

The power of divergent group conversations for innovation

Divergent conversations are essential for innovation. They create an environment which encourages open-mindedness and breaks fixed position thinking. They provide space to deeply explore a challenge and develop a wide range of possibilities.

Global summits and forums would benefit from deliberate use of both divergent and convergent conversations. Convergent conversations are necessary, to agree on an implementable solution. But only divergent conversations will create the innovative ideas necessary to solve the wicked problems faced by our increasingly complex and interconnected world.