Conversations that Create

Last week I wrote about “Conversations that Connect” – the importance of designing conversations that enable individuals to experience deep personal connections with others. That, after all, is what makes relationships meaningful and lasting.

Brainstorming Now let’s build on that foundation to explore about how to lead conversations that create. Most work in organizations is focused on solving problems or producing new ideas – product designs, marketing campaigns, new ways of understanding why sales are growing or shrinking, cheaper ways of operating the business.

I sometimes think the biggest barrier to effective brainstorming and problem-solving is the tendency most groups have to close in on a solution too quickly. Unfortunately most people have a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; being aware of a gap between where you are and where you want or need to be can be highly stressful.

Understandably, we want to develop a solution as quickly as possible so we can relieve the stress of uncertainty or the prospect of failure. However, the more widely we search for an answer the more likely we are to discover (or invent) a better solution

In fact, many groups are guilty of what has been called the “streetlight effect.” Actually, behavioral scientist Abraham Kaplan described the streetlight effect in his 1964 book The Conduct of Inquiry link is to as the “principle of the drunkard’s search.”

The story has been told in many different variations, but it usually goes something like this:

A policeman encounters an old man, clearly drunk, wandering around in circles under a streetlight. “What’s the matter?” says the policeman. “I dropped my car keys,” said the drunk. After several minutes of searching with him, the policeman asked “Are you sure you lost them here?” The drunk replied, “No, no, I lost them over there,” pointing to a nearby park.” When the policeman asked why he was looking for them at the street corner, the drunk replied, “It’s a lot easier to see here.”

In other words, most groups don’t search widely enough, or long enough for creative solutions; they focus on the easy and familiar ideas they already know (where it’s a lot easier to see an answer). They can’t handle the stress of not knowing what their ultimate decision and actions will be, or of considering something radically different from what they already know.

I find it useful to think of problem-solving in two phases: first a wide, divergent search for ideas that might be useful, without any attempt to pick a “winner”; and then a second, convergent phase that focuses on selecting the best solution from among all the possibilities that were identified earlier on. And the wider the divergent search the higher quality the final solution is likely to be.

But don’t think of the creative process like searching for car keys. That drunk was not looking for a creative solution; in his case there was only one right answer, and the policeman was right:  it made much more sense to look for those keys close to where he had dropped them.

On the other hand, when you are seeking to discover or to invent a completely new solution, the farther afield you venture from where you start, the more likely you are to find an unexpected, novel, never-before-imagined idea that will be genuinely innovative.

What if that drunk were looking for a new drug that would cure AIDS (not while drunk, of course!). He might be more successful if he got completely out of a traditional pharmaceutical lab and experimented with plants harvested from isolated south Pacific islands, for example (I am by no means proposing that specific strategy; I am just trying to demonstrate how to think way outside the traditional boxes that limit so much of our thinking – boxes that we put ourselves into all the time).

Envision the process as being like this:


Note two things about this image: first, the longer the two diverging arrows are, the wider the solution search becomes; and second, this picture implies equal time spent on each activity, but there is no requirement that the time spent on the two steps be identical. A group searching for a breakthrough solution might spend four hours brainstorming, but then be so clear about the value of the new concept they’ve invented that it takes only 30 minutes to select the best solution and build unanimous support for it.

One more note about divergent thinking: the more diverse the contributors are, the more likely you’re going to come up with something truly new and innovative. I just heard a story from my good friend and colleague Dr. Patt Schwab, CSP, that one large high-tech company based in the Pacific Northwest has hired onto one of its product design teams not only techies and software programmers but also a classical musician and a professional hockey player. Why? Different perspectives. And different insights into what consumers want. Divergent thinking thrives with diverse input.

We are left with one more important question for team leaders: what kinds of questions and comments encourage divergent and convergent thinking? I’ll address that next week.

In the meantime,

What does your own experience suggest? Is there one good question or a good story you rely on to get your team into a creative, divergent mode of thinking?

Contact me for a free consultation about how you can orchestrate creative corporate conversations and produce breakthrough organizational performance.


1 reply
  1. Chris Hood
    Chris Hood says:


    I enjoyed your article, as usual, and the drunk circling around the lamp-post, reminded me of college!
    In the spirit of your comments I think there is much to be done mixing people up in the Workplace. I am becoming increasingly disenchanted with organizations that organize footprints and stacking plans based upon large scale and conventional adjacency conventions. If we mixed everyone up, I suspect we would learn (and create) a lot more!

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