Practicing Divergent and Convergent Thinking: Destination Imagination

For the past five years I’ve been coaching my kids and several of their classmates as they compete in the Destination Imagination (DI) challenge program. The program offers seven different open-ended challenges that allow kids to learn about creativity and innovation by experiencing the design process firsthand. This year’s program culminated last week at the global tournament in Nashville.

One of the key tasks facing any DI coach each year is helping the team understand what type of thinking is called for at different parts during the challenge season. At the beginning of the season, the team needs to brainstorm as many different potential solutions as possible. Then, once they have a rough outline of what they want to accomplish, participants need to focus on executing their solution efficiently and creatively. By following the design process through divergent and convergent thinking they arrive at the tournament prepared to win.

Work with our clients at Evantage also allows us to practice divergent and convergent thinking on a regular basis. Our clients often approach us with a need to design products, processes, or services that meet certain user needs or solve challenges facing a particular type of customer.

Traditionally, design thinking relies on two separate rounds of divergent and convergent thinking. The first round begins by thinking about all the possible drivers of a problem and ends by defining a discrete problem on which to focus. The second round begins with ideating as many potential solutions as possible and ends with focusing on finding the best solution through testing and iteration. (Unlike most work with our clients, however—where the first round often takes a great deal of time to research and complete—the DI challenge program gives us the problem, defined in great detail, so we skip to ideation.)

Design Thinking Cycle

 

Encouraging Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking—where we try to understand all possible drivers of the problem and imagine all possible solutions— is the place where creative types thrive. Yet many of us are deeply uncomfortable with this type of thinking. In school we are taught to come up with “correct” answers and may have few opportunities to exercise our innovation muscles. But anyone can be a good divergent thinker with practice and the right setting. Here are some techniques that encourage divergent thinking:

1) Warm up properly. To get folks comfortable with shouting out any idea that pops in their head, I often start with an “alphabet brainstorm.” In this exercise I hand a common household item—like a lightbulb, a pillowcase, or a birthday candle—to small teams of two or three people. I then give them three minutes to come up with 26 uses for the item, one for each letter of the alphabet. Once one person has shouted out something as silly as, “You could yodel into it!”, they’ll be ready to stop censoring all of their ideas before they make it out into the open.

2) Keep things moving. When facilitating an idea generation session, make sure each idea is brief. When one brainstormer starts elaborating and explaining her idea, it’s common for others in the room to converge around that solution and abandon their own divergent thinking efforts. For example, at a DI team meeting this fall, each member’s “pitch” for a mystery play the team would write and perform could only contain a two-word description of the time period, the names and professions of the three main characters, and a concise description of the crime that was committed. (It was like our own version of Professor Plum in the Library with the Lead Pipe!).

3) Level the playing field. Similarly, if one idea seems more “baked” than others, team members may focus on that idea at the exclusion of others too early in the process. Using design studio techniques or having team members sketch storyboards works well to force people to communicate their ideas at the same level of fidelity.

4) Quality is still king. Often, too much focus is placed on the sheer number of ideas generated during a brainstorm. Instead, look for a small number of truly novel ideas, or ways that traditional ideas could be combined in new and interesting ways. To encourage this, I lead the team in “pile on” brainstorming in which someone begins an idea and each person thereafter stretches it just a little bit further. For example, one person might say, “What if our vehicle had a rudder to steer?”; the next person might add, “Yes, and the rudder could be connected to a pair of handlebars”; and a third person might add, “We could mount a walkie talkie to the handlebars so the driver can easily talk to the navigator.” And so on.

Effectively Practicing Convergent Thinking

As the project progresses, convergent thinking takes over and the team focuses on efficiently executing their chosen ideas. Unlike the lateral jumps and unexpected connections of divergent thinking, convergent thinking is relatively linear (e.g., first we sand the rudder and then we attach it to the vehicle) and often there is one best answer. Here are some tips for narrowing in on the best solution:

1) Try it out. In many cases, hands-on experimentation and iteration are required to find the best solution (e.g., the walkie talkie won’t stay attached and if we just tape it on, we can no longer change the batteries, but we could build a holster from duct tape and cradle the walkie talkie in it). Have extra materials on hand so you can prototype ideas to see if they work, rather than just talking about them. Each time a production method doesn’t work, teammates must come together to think up new solutions to move forward (some of the same methods listed above may help).

2) Fail fast. Failing fast means doing the least amount of work you can do to find out if an idea is feasible or not. Don’t build an entire product when testing a prototype will tell you if meets the users’ needs, and don’t ever spend more than a week of working without testing something out.

3) Avoid backsliding. At this stage, having teammates who continue to practice divergent thinking can be troublesome. With the tournament (or, in real life, perhaps a code freeze) a few weeks away, it becomes disruptive to say, “Wait, maybe we should build a hovercraft instead!”

4) Embrace project management. The basic tools for managing convergent thinking are well-known to most of us. Create a timeline with milestones, call out dependencies, and plan what materials and tools you will need along the way. This will ensure smooth progress from idea to solution.

 

Celebrating Your Solution

On launch day, or tournament day, it’s time to put it all out on the table and execute flawlessly. A team that has spent dedicated time in the first divergent and convergent thinking cycle can feel confident that they are solving a well-understood problem. If they’ve also practiced convergent and divergent thinking in the second cycle they will arrive with the absolute best solution possible. It’s time to celebrate by raising a cupcake or a pint of beer, as appropriate to your team’s age!

Learn More about Designing for the Caring Professions

I’m excited to have the opportunity to speak at the Healthcare.MN monthly meet-up on June 13th  I will be providing an in-depth look into what it’s like to work on the front lines of healthcare and social services as a caring professional, based on nearly 200 individual interviews conducted over the last two years.

We will begin by understanding the unique mindset, environmental challenges, and information expectations that shape how nurses, social workers, and allied health professionals approach their work. The interactive presentation will also provide attendees ample opportunity to practice new research methods and meet others in the group. Lastly we will discuss concrete guidelines to help those who are designing products, services, or applications for this specialized user group to maximize the effectiveness of their solutions.

Hope to see you there!

When: Monday, June 13th from 5 pm – 7:30 pm

Where: 1625 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis

REGISTRATION

The Five Cs of Consulting

5cs-wordcloudConsulting can be an extremely rewarding, yet challenging, career choice. When I think about the characteristics of the consultants I’m fortunate enough to work with, five Cs become clear:

  1. Candor. We’re incredibly honest with each other and our clients. One of our consultants summed it up when she recently said she’d rather work where people are candid rather than where everyone is simply nice. And a client once introduced us to his new boss by saying we’re “in the business of having difficult conversations.” We constantly question our approach, findings, and recommendations, asking “Is there a better way?” We review each other’s deliverables and expect to get them back marked up with lots of edits. We do dry runs of twenty minute presentations and then get an hour of feedback. Most importantly, we do all this with the utmost respect. It’s never about putting anyone down — it’s about constantly pushing all of us up.

 

  1. Continuous improvement. We’re constantly looking for new ideas and ways to solve problems. We strive to consistently demonstrate curiosity, listen, learn, and think holistically and proactively share our knowledge and insights with each other and our clients. Through our work with clients of all sizes from start-up to Fortune 50 and across many industries, we glean insights that can be applied in new and unique ways.

 

  1. Collaboration. We know we are stronger when we work together. We have very diverse educational and professional backgrounds, but very similar analytical minds. This makes for some really robust conversations and revealing get-to-know-you icebreaker-question answers. This level of interaction produces results none of us could on our own.

 

  1. Competition. We have a bunch of type-A personalities. When something can turn into a contest or a race, it will. While this is easy to witness during our internal events (scavenger hunts, Amazing Race, Cutthroat Kitchen, curling, lawn bowling, basketball pools …), I think this contributes to the quality of our work too. We see one of our coworkers create a great findings and recommendations report or final presentation and immediately start asking how we can do it even better next time. It’s not about making the other person lose — it’s about making all of us win.

 

  1. Comradery. We actually like each other (it’s true). We work hard and play hard together and have fun doing it. Knowing we’re all in this together and working toward the same goal makes it easier to work hard and to give and receive feedback, even when the work itself or the message is difficult.

 

Every firm has its own culture and keys to success, but it always comes down to the consultants themselves. They make the firm climb, chug along, or crawl. Here’s to a continuous climb. Cheers!

TreeHouse Health Adds Evantage Consulting as a Service Provider Partner

MINNEAPOLIS (May 16, 2016) – TreeHouse Health, an innovation center designed to invest in emerging healthcare companies and help accelerate their growth, announces the addition of a Service Provider Partner, Evantage Consulting, a business consultancy that helps healthcare and health technology organizations capitalize on change and how they interact with their customers.

“Our ecosystem is designed to help our portfolio companies gain traction in the marketplace and grow their businesses. To do that, we look to partner with leading organizations that see the value and opportunity in working with emerging healthcare companies and can aid in their growth. With over 17 years of deep industry experience, Evantage brings a unique and valuable perspective to TreeHouse Health,” said J.D. Blank, Managing Director at TreeHouse Health.

“Our mission at Evantage Consulting is to partner with our clients and community to affect meaningful change,” explained Rachael Marret, Evantage Managing Director. “Evantage has long been an active participant in the Twin Cities healthcare community and this partnership with TreeHouse Health is a great opportunity for us to lend support to emerging companies that will further advance this market as leaders in healthcare and health technology.”

As a Service Provider Partner at TreeHouse Health, Evantage will serve as an excellent resource to the Portfolio Companies. Evantage will participate in an educational event at TreeHouse Health in December and plans to host workshops for the Portfolio Companies throughout the year.

About TreeHouse Health LLC
TreeHouse Health, established in 2013, is an innovation center that helps emerging healthcare companies accelerate the growth and development of their business within and innovative and collaborative ecosystem by providing investment and expertise. To date, TreeHouse Health has invested in twelve early-stage healthcare companies and has two Anchor Tenant relationships with Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (BCBS). To learn more, visit TreeHouse-Health.com.

About Evantage Consulting
Evantage Consulting is a business consultancy that helps organizations capitalize on change and how they interact with their customers. Clients engage them as proven partners in unraveling and solving strategic, operational, and customer/patient experience challenges. They serve Fortune 500 to startup companies, including providers, payers, pharmacy benefit managers, and medical device manufacturers. Established in 1999, Evantage has a long-standing legacy of driving business outcomes through unrelenting customer focus, digital expertise, and operations know-how.

The Importance of New

Last year, my friend Bill proposed we run the Pikes Peak Ascent, a half marathon up, you guessed it, Pikes Peak. The race description itself was daunting: Elevation gain of 7,815′, starting at 6,300′ and finishing at 14,115’ with an average grade of 11%; the trail is narrow and winding with gravel, rocks and dirt and includes sharp turns and abrupt changes in elevation and direction. After a few seconds of consideration, I said I was in.

We’ve both run marathons (Bill many more than me) along with 50k and 50 mile ultras, so we have some experience, but we knew this was going to be completely different, especially since we live at 900’ in Minnesota.

Pikes Peak Marathon Course

Google Earth view of the Ascent and Marathon course.

 

We did as much as we could to prepare (Bill much more than me), but really went into it pretty blind. We both made it to the top (Bill far ahead of me) and as we conbret-bill-pikes-peakgratulated each other on the achievement I was tremendously thankful to have such a good friend, pardon the pun, push me to such new heights.

Once my endorphins settled down and I had time to reflect, it was clear something truly special had just happened. I concluded the reason this was such a big deal was because it was a completely new experience and it’s been quite a while since I’ve done something this new. Running at altitude, the 11% grade, the terrain, the smell of the Bristlecone Pine trees — it was all different than anything I’d come across in the past. And it was exhilarating.

Obviously it’s not realistic to experience something this dramatic throughout the year, but I do think it’s important to consistently encounter and tackle new challenges. The opportunity to do this is what draws many of us to consulting, especially the work we do at Evantage.

New problems force us to come up with new solutions.

A canned or cookie-cutter approach won’t be enough. We have to explore new ways of thinking and constantly ask if there is a better way.

New environments sometimes put us in uncomfortable situations.

We have to be flexible and willing to take risks, and trust our colleagues to do the same. I believe the quote goes something like, “You have to get comfortable with discomfort.”

New relationships cause us to look at ourselves.

What can I learn from this person? Does she possess qualities I admire and can try to emulate? Does he possess qualities I dislike and want to avoid myself?

Conquering something new inspires us to ask, “What’s next?”

Once we’ve solved the puzzle and know we’ve delivered exactly what our client needs, we’re ready to continue on to the next challenge — often for the same client.

New keeps us on our toes. We’re never sure what’s around the corner, but we know we can handle it.

The Importance of Being Impressed

You become like the 5 people you spend the most time with. Choose Carefully

Much has been written about how your friends influence you and how you become the people with whom you choose to associate. It’s easy to find great quotes about this and I believe them wholeheartedly. I also believe they apply to your work colleagues, especially when they’re also your friends. Choosing to surround yourself with people who can teach you more than you can teach them simply makes you better at whatever you do.

I consistently find myself in meetings and presentations, whether they’re with clients or internal, where my colleagues are speaking and I’m thinking, “Man, this is so impressive.” I don’t mean they just had a great one-liner or a pretty slide. I mean the quality and depth of thinking, the detailed analysis, findings and recommendations, the command they have of the room, and yes, sometimes the pretty slides — it’s all truly impressive.

There are tremendous advantages to this:

people-surround

It makes us excited to come to work.

We’re constantly looking for new ideas and ways to solve problems and we want to see what our coworkers come up with. It might be a completely new approach to a project or a new way to organize and present the data, but they continue to push for the best way to do it. We’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time and it’s fun to still see something new so often.

It makes us trust everyone we work with.

We know they’ll do great work every time. We can collaborate on the big picture and then know everyone is focused on the details until they come together into a clear, cohesive deliverable. This level of trust allows us to be incredibly honest each other. When we review each other’s work and get it back marked up with lots of edits, we know it’s about high-quality service delivery, not about putting each other down.

It makes us want to continuously improve.

With all this great work going on, everyone is raising the bar and we want to keep up. We see one of our coworkers create a great findings and recommendations report or final presentation and immediately start asking how we can do it even better next time.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common to hear stories from people about their experience with the opposite reactions:

eagles-soar

I’m not excited to come to work.

“Nothing new ever happens.”

“I’ll just put my time in, nothing more.”

I don’t trust my coworkers.

“If I want something done right, or done at all, I have to do it myself.”

“I don’t want to share my work with anyone else because they’ll say they did it or they’ll just tell me it’s all wrong.”

I have no incentive to improve.

“When I first started I had all these fantastic ideas about how we can do things better, but my boss dismissed them all so fast and so often I just stopped even thinking about it.”

“We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.”

It’s easy to see which scenario provides a better overall experience for employees and clients. I can’t wait to be impressed again tomorrow.

Allison O’Connor Speaks on Healthcare Operations

Allison O’Connor has been invited to speak at the 2016 Insignia Health Client Summit on Health Activation in Portland, Oregon. Allison will speak as part of a panel on May 4th that will be addressing the topic of implementing, managing and optimizing an activation-based approach to care. Attendees include large and small provider groups and systems from around the country.

Allison leads strategic planning, operational improvement projects, and M&A project management for Evantage clients. She has worked with national provider and payor systems, regional health systems and critical access hospitals and clinics. In 2012, Allison was awarded the Top Women in Finance award by Finance & Commerce magazine.

Design for the Caring Professions: New White Paper and Slideshare

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present to 45 UX professionals at TC UX Meetup. I chose to speak on a topic that has become close to my heart over the past few years:  what it’s like to work on the front lines of healthcare and social services as a caring professional. We explored methods for doing in-depth user research and guidelines for designing effective solutions once you understand the user needs.

This topic is also covered in a white paper I recently wrote. Analyzing data from nearly 200 individual interviews, the paper explores how the unique needs of caring professionals are shaped by how they think about their work, the environments in which they perform it, and their interactions with other people. In addition, it provides concrete guidelines to help those who are designing for this specialized user group to maximize the effectiveness of their solutions.

Download the paper for a deep dive into:

  • The mindset of those who have chosen to work caring for people,
  • Constraints imposed by the environment in which they work, and
  • Expectations placed on them by others.

 Design_for_Caring_Professions_Icons

Gaining a deep understanding of how care professionals approach their work, spend their days, and adapt to their organization’s expectations enables the creation of systems and procedures that work for this unique user group.

The same techniques used for this research and analysis could be applied to most other user groups with similar success. With meaningful and directed curiosity, a user experience partner can uncover the authentic needs of your users and create designs that exceed their expectations.

Download Whitepaper  View SlideShare Presentation

 

How Might We… make a better world in just one weekend?

“It’s amazing what can happen in just three Earth rotations…”

This past weekend I was lucky enough to participate in the Twin Cities gathering of the Global Service Jam 2016, both as a coach and observer. A “service jam” brings together small, local groups to use design thinking techniques to brainstorm, research, and prototype completely new services inspired by a shared theme.

Friday kicked off with revealing the secret theme for this year’s Global Service Jam. “Jammers” were surprised to hear an audio clip of what sounded like someone (or something!) splashing into a pool of water. They then took out their Post-It notes and pens and started brainstorming things that the splash reminded them of; first individually and then as groups. Ideas were sorted into related themes and groups of two to four “Jammers” used the themes to create their preliminary “How Might We” questions.

Haven’t heard of a How Might We question? The term is used frequently in design thinking activities to describe a question that acts as a foundation for research and design inquiries. It describes the problem you are trying to solve, and is stated optimistically to reinforce the feeling that a good solution is possible. A How Might We (HMW) question is usually brief, allows for a variety of answers, and inspires ideation and creative thinking.

Here are three ways you can form great How Might We Questions:

  1. Refine the scope. It’s important to have a statement that sets helpful boundaries. Avoid questions that are so narrow that they shut down creativity (“How Might We build more community spaces for relaxation?”) or too broad (“How Might We redefine how people spend their free time?”). A right-size question leaves room to be surprised by your research findings and iterate solutions, but doesn’t feel overwhelming or unfocused. One team eventually settled on “How Might We remove barriers that keep people from finding peace and relaxation?” and after interviewing several users, decided to focus on one persona that seems to have the most barriers to relaxation: Millennials.
  2. Remove embedded biases and assumptions. By Saturday morning, another team had coalesced around the question, “How Might We raise awareness of individual water consumption so that people reduce their global footprint?” By writing down as many assumptions as they could think of, the team realized that they had started wading in to “solutioning” before even beginning their research. In order to identify the most effective ways to get people to reduce their global footprint, the team needed to be open to any number of solutions, not just the solution of “raising awareness.”  Another way to avoid type of assumption is to focus on the ultimate benefit or change you want to bring about. While it is natural to imagine the best way to get there, those perspectives should come later and be based on user research.
  3. Let the facts speak for themselves. On the other hand, do rely on available facts to inform the background of your user research. This same team also wondered if they had gone too far by assuming that individual water consumption has a negative environmental impact. They questioned whether they should do user research to determine causality. While asking users if they think their individual water consumption has an impact on the environment could be an interesting area to research, it’s not necessary to support this particular How Might We—this information has been proven through scientific research and is easily found online. The team decided to move forward, and their final prototype of the weekend outlined a campaign that began with awareness of consumption and then grew into a competition engaging communities, large corporations, and even governments.

I could not have been more impressed by Sunday’s team presentations. In just 48 hours the “Jammers” had become very comfortable with terms like “insights,” “personas,” and “failing fast.” Their prototypes were solidly based in research and they were able to articulate the needs they had uncovered and how they had iterated their solutions as they got more and more feedback. Not a bad way to spend a weekend. You can view all of the projects from the Twin Cities Service Jam and others around the world here.

Prototype from Global Service Jam

Prototype of a community to address the question “How Might We help millennials find more opportunities to relax?”

GSJ2016_1

Prototype of a five-part campaign to address the question “How Might We increase community members’ capacity to positively affect water consumption?”

 

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