How can a group of 20-something professional musician graduate students generate breakthrough solutions to the problems facing classical music today in order to insure the health and the vitality of the field?
This was the focus of my new class last semester at the Yale School of Music entitled Collaboration, Entrepreneurship and Innovation. My goal was to teach creative problem solving and harness the group’s collective creativity by breaking the class down into smaller collaborative groups in order to generate innovative solutions to the problems facing our field.
How did we do?
Let’s first clear up a few threshold issues.
What is creative problem solving?
There is a lot of mystery surrounding creativity. What exactly is creativity????
An in-born intuitive “je ne sais quoi” that is the exclusive province of artists and musicians?
Or something broader?
The research on creativity shows that creativity involves a skillset which can be taught and mastered and that there is a process for tackling problems for which there are no obvious answers in order to come up with new solutions.
In our class, we used two different creativity models:
Creative Problem Solving (CPS) Process which has been the subject of research, development and refinement since the 1950’s; (see, e.g., The International Center for Studies in Creativity at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and
Design Thinking, such as the process used at the d.school at Stanford Unversity.
What’s the difference between problem solving and creative problem solving?
We solve problems every day:
- How to organize your time most efficiently and productively and effectively;
- How to develop a network;
- How to resolve a conflict with a loved one or a collaborator.
One way is to use a linear process to come up with a quick solution:
- Do 5 things on my to-do list;
- Reach out to 3 new people this week;
- Schedule a time to talk with my friend.
What if your problem is more complicated? You have tried these solutions and they just don’t work. That is where creative problem solving comes in to come up with new and innovative solutions.
What are the two mindsets of creative problem solving?
Creative problem solving involves two distinct mindsets:
- A mindset that generates a lot of ideas (divergent thinking); and
- A mindset that selects that best idea (convergent thinking).
Think about how composers work. The composers in our class shared that they first come up with a lot of ideas and try things out for size. They let their imaginations run wild and they don’t initially worry about coming up with the “right” answer.
They then sort through their ideas and based upon their experience, intuition and training, they select the best ideas which they then develop through a process.
With creative problem solving, we do the same thing: We separate out problem solving into two distinct phases to generate a lot of ideas and then select the best ones.
Let’s take a closer look at these two mindsets and see how they contribute to generating better ideas.
The first mindset is divergent thining which is designed to stretch beyond the obvious answers in order to come up with new ideas. Divergent thinking involves 4 principles that became the guidelines that we used throughout the semester both in class and when our student collaborators met outside of class:
1. Defer Judgment:
The key to effective divergent thinking is to resist the temptation to judge an idea too early in the process. Otherwise, you run the risk of killing off good ideas!
2. Strive for Quantity:
Research shows that the best ideas emerge later in the process since we tend to start off with what we already know.
3. Seek Wild and Unusual Ideas:
Creativity requires novelty so it is important to go beyond the obvious and seek more novel and even crazy ideas!
4. Build on the Ideas of Others and Make Connections:
This encourages people to come forward and generate even more ideas.
In class, there was a lot of excitement in the divergent thinking phase. The students loved being given permission to think wildly and that injected a lot of “buzz” into our discussion.
Our discussions started off with the more vocal members of the class tossing out a few ideas. Gradually, other students refined and built upon these ideas. Even the quieter members of the class were encouraged to share their own views whereupon even more ideas came to the fore. My role was to keep the conversation alive, make sure that we respected the guidelines and push students to build on ideas and generate even more ideas.
And students reported the same dynamic in their collaborative groups.
After using divergent thinking to come up with long lists of ideas, we capitalized on the buzz of diverging and transitioned to the “editor” mindset of convergent thinking.
Our converging process involved:
- highlighting the ideas that seemed the most interesting, compelling and intriguing;
- grouping together related ideas into clusters;
- synthesizing the clusters into one coherent statement; and
- voting on the best statement.
Convergent thinking also involves a few key principles:
1. Be affirmative
Just as divergent thinking starts with deferring judgment, convergent thinking begins by encouraging members of the group to be positive as they evaluate ideas. This is particularly important in a group setting since criticizing ideas can shut down the process. Since the goal of converging is to come up with the best idea, the principle of being affirmative helps you to look at the list of ideas and critique them in a positive light.
2. Make sure to work towards your original goal by being deliberate and focused
3. Keep novelty alive
4. Improve on the ideas
In the spirit of creativity, our group was incredibly positive!
Divergent thinking also involved an interesting dynamic. We noticed that some people had a knack for zeroing in on the gems. Other students were great at making connections among the various ideas. My role here (the more natural one for me, by the way) was to push students to refine their ideas and make the connections among similar concepts.
How the Process Worked
It turns out that both mindsets were critical to moving the creative process along.
For example, in our class discussion on the many problems of classical music, our group cited issues like the aging audiences, the lack of visibility of classical music to younger audiences, the elite image of classical music and traditional venues for classical music that did not appeal to this generation. In our divergent thinking phase, we realized that what all of these problems had in common was the fact that our student’s peers don’t seem to be interested in classical music.
We framed the problem as follows:
How to increase the participation in classical music by our peers.
Students were excited about working on a novel solution to this problem since they felt that by coming up with some new ideas, we could make a lot of progress in strengthening the field. This, in fact, became the impetus for 3 of the 4 collaborative projects that the students worked on throughout the semester (more on that next time!).
In terms of how the process worked, there were a group of students who enjoyed the process of generating ideas. As one student remarked:
“Whenever we were stuck in a rut, thinking divergently suddenly gave us 10 or more ideas! “
For other students, divergent thinking was a challenge because they thought they “saw” the answer right away and were uncomfortable “wasting time” with the group brainstorming. These students naturally gravitated to convergent thinking. Yet, as one student commented,
“I feel most comfortable …limiting ideas right away in the interest of efficiency, and I often assume that the pressure of a limit will help everyone stay on task and come up with the best solution. However, in learning about the creativity process, I discovered that devoting time to divergent thinking actually makes the brainstorming process much more effective. Not only does it help everyone feel included when there are multiple parties involved, but it also employs many different types of thinking and results in the most diverse collection of potential
Ultimately, we learned two important lessons:
- Divergent thinking and convergent thinking are different and some people are better at one or the other.
- Reviewing the process with a group can harness the two different mindsets and come up with better ideas and better solutions.
With these principles in mind, our students were equipped to learn more about the creativity process and to tackle their group projects. Stay tuned for more!