Thinking Inside Another Box: The Power of Divergent Thinking

Written by

Judy Oh Senior Strategy Director | Mike Brady Group Creative and Writing Director |

Jul 13, 2021 · 3-minute read

Welcome to a new thought leadership series from the BrightHouse Luminary Team that explores our process of divergent thinking and how we create entirely new boxes to help us think. This first piece explores the power of mixed thinking and how we can learn from some of its greatest proponents.

After years of studying the fossil record, Charles Darwin was inspired by an economics essay to conceive his theory of natural selection. Albert Einstein hypothesized special relativity after reading the moral philosophy of David Hume. The cognitive dynamic at work in these two epic examples is a kind of conceptual blending or what Einstein himself called combinatorial play. Whatever term you use, it’s a process that involves finding connections between seemingly unconnected ideas.

It turns out that breakthrough thinking doesn’t necessarily come from studying Galapagos finches or pouring over mathematical theorems. It’s often the product of something else, a kind of cognitive alchemy. The writer Maria Popova describes the phenomena like this: “We amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something new. From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our own original ideas.” (Source.)

And there’s science to support this. A 2014 Harvard Business Review study showed that problem solvers from outside the target industry were 66% more innovative than their peers who had relevant experience. It seems that problem solvers from analogous fields draw on dissimilar stores of knowledge and are therefore unconstrained by orthodox approaches or known solutions. (Source.)

“Look at any great body of creative work and you’ll find a crucial insight that came from outside the original domain. It is often a seemingly random piece of insight that transforms ordinary work into something very different” says information & change expert Greg Satell. (Source.)

At BrightHouse, we’ve seen first-hand the inventive power of divergent thinking. For over 25 years, we’ve relied on a network of minds from diverse fields to deliver transformative insights. These subject matter experts reveal human truths about universal needs our clients could address, or they help shed new light on a thorny business challenge. We engage mountaineers to talk about trust, knot experts to discuss managing complexity, and biological anthropologists to speak on imagination. Whatever the intent, the insights of our Luminaries — ­as we call them, coupled with our ability to connect the dots, produce invaluable results. A novel connection is created that wasn’t there before. A door is opened. An essential nugget of truth is transferred from the classroom to the boardroom, from the humanities to human resources, from the forest to the firm. Wisdom gets its wings.

Indeed, these creative breakthroughs are no small affair. They’ve encouraged some of the largest companies in the world to see and do things in bold new ways. Fair to say Einstein would approve.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, see our upcoming series on the impact of divergent thinking in business.

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