How that hyperactive kid in class blew me away.

Today, I had the pleasure of being a part of career day at my local elementary school, talking with five different classes about what I do. Discussing market research is an interesting activity among 4th graders who neither understand nor value this seemingly dry topic.

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Ms. Hansen’s fourth-grade class, including the timeless bunny ears.

So the first question I asked was, “who thinks market research sounds boring?” To which (likely the brave) half of the class raised their hands. So my goal was to illuminate the art and science of research to the degree that the students felt informed — and perhaps excited — about research and entrepreneurship.

So approaching this challenge, I endeavored to put research in the context of their lives. We talked about how a cupcake business could fail if you only baked chocolate cupcakes. I explained how we use the scientific when buying a dining room table, which we exchanged for the *right* dining room table in the end. And we discussed topical curiosity-led inquiry by using Jurassic Park as an example.

The last of which killed, by the way. Jurassic Park is so relevant right now in the elementary school set.

But one key element of research we discussed — the importance of listening — resulted in a surprising and delightful insight. Using an example related to when these classes often break up into pairs, I said, “Imagine your teacher gives your class an assignment, and your partner says, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ How would you respond?”

The importance of “why”

Some of the classmates that spoke up mentioned that they would tell the student it was obligatory, that the teacher said they have to do it, that it wasn’t fair for only one student to do the work. One student said she’d say, “well, then I’m not doing it either,” and just sit there.

I mentioned that another response would be to dig into the problem a little bit, to listen to the student, engaging curiosity to find a solution.

The students could simply ask, “why?”

This question is foundational in the research we conduct. Going beyond the “what” into the “why” is a critical move that companies need to make to shift beyond products into human-centered solutions.

So I continued on the path of the stubborn classmate that didn’t want to do the project. I noted that in this case, if you asked this student “why,” you’d find out that they injured their hand and couldn’t comfortably write. To which I asked, “if that’s their response, what could you do?”

Predictably, most students gave the answer I expected: they could do the writing for their classmate.

However, there were several students I encountered who thought differently. These were the ones that were bouncing around in their seats or rolling on the floor. They had trouble sitting still. These were the students who the teachers were constantly reminding to settle down, removing them from their chairs to sit beside them at the back of the class.

These were the hyperactive, disruptive students that seemed to be the biggest challenge for these teachers.

And they also had the most creative responses.

Creative answers from Kinetic, Active Kids

One student said, “you could give him an automatic writing pencil.” Another student said, “you could get him to write with his other hand.” Yet another said, “you could cut off the hand.”

Now that last one is morbid of course — very 4th-grade-Fortnite player-esque — but it is also far removed from what I expected answers to be. I imagine they would have continued to give unexpected answers if I’d given them task and time. This kind of “divergent thinking,” a phrase coined by J. P. Guilford, is defined as “a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions” which “typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, ‘non-linear’ manner.”

Non-linear is totally and completely the situation I faced in those classrooms.

In contrast, the students who sat still and obeyed the teacher gave rote answers — that were, of course, the most accurate. J. P. Guilford also coined the phrase “convergent thinking” to describe the approach opposite to divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is defined as “the ability to give the ‘correct’ answer to standard questions that do not require significant creativity.”

Divergent + Convergent = actionable intelligence

Digging into research a little, you’ll find that divergent thinkers aren’t always the easiest people to work with. They are messy. They have rapid-fire ideas that are sometimes off the wall. They are spontaneous. It is sometimes difficult to corral them into one idea alone.

And they work best with convergent thinkers, who take those great ideas and narrow them down to the best possible approach. The two thinkers have different approaches, goals, and processes, and together, they’re able to come up with the best possible creative and actionable ideas.

I spoke about Creative Destruction in a previous Medium post, “The only think constant. (hint: it’s not the kilo). Basically, the tenant of creative destruction is that corporations are either reenvisioning and re-engineering their operations and products, or they are moving towards becoming one of the 250 Fortune 500 companies that are replaced over the next decade.

Divergent thinking — building a broad swath of potential solutions to a problem — and Creative Destruction are close cousins. They work well together, but many institutions don’t know how to foster this kind of alternative thinking within their organizations. And without this kind of innovative thinking, corporate innovations can’t happen, and corporate success and sustainability begin to move out of reach for many companies.

That said, the Divergent Thinker may indeed be the most powerful tool in our pursuit of disrupting markets. However, schools like the one I visited today, and companies like the ones with whom I talk daily, still aren’t quite sure what to do with them. They get how to drive creative thinking and convergent thinking, but hyperactive, gifted, divergent thinkers still stick out in classrooms and are difficult to cultivate.

Hearing a different drummer

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

The hyperactive children in our school classrooms today may indeed be the disruptive innovators of tomorrow. But convergent thinkers are the ones that are narrowing options to the most salient, and bringing them to life operationally.

So how do we foster the creativity of divergent, hyperactive thinkers while also protecting the rest of the classroom students from the disruption that will get convergent thinkers off course?

How can we build a culture around encouraging divergent though in school and in the workplace?

Is this a priority for your organization? How are you handling it?

Founder of zeet insights, an Austin-based market & design research firm; design thinker, diversity advocate, tech geek, proud mom.

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