Find the best opportunities and solutions with divergent ideation
Premature convergence is the most common mistake I see startup leaders make. Premature convergence is where a team chooses a solution or even a problem to solve before considering all of their options. This usually leads to wasted effort on initiatives their customers or market don’t care about, and investment in solutions that don’t actually solve their chosen problems.
The principles of divergence and convergence can help leaders to understand and improve the problem-solving process.
- Divergence is the act of turning one idea into many. Divergent activities expand and diversify the number of ideas or concepts available to you.
- Convergence is the act of narrowing down many ideas into one or a few most viable or appropriate ideas. Convergent ideas help you to determine which of your ideas or concepts is most important or valuable.
When you solve problems, create products, and build startups, it’s crucial to employ both divergent and convergent strategies.
Divergence, convergence, and problems
Before you build a solution, you must choose a problem to solve. Many startups are born out of the desire to solve a very specific problem, often already experienced or at least witnessed by the startup founders. This means startups initially have high confidence in the first problem they solve.
After this, however, startups struggle to identify additional problems they should solve. Many reflexively move onto problems that sound exciting but aren’t crucial to their markets. These startups invest massive amounts of effort into low-value initiatives.
When looking for a problem to solve, startups should first employ divergent thinking. Don’t leap into the first or most exciting feeling problem. Ask yourself: how can I create a comprehensive list of the many problems we could solve? Go through this process before you commit to any specific problem.
Activities that can help with divergent problem identification include:
- Market research, both data analysis and customer/prospect interviews.
- Reviews of feedback submitted by existing customers.
- Reviewing the reasons for lost sales. What features were missing? What problems did prospects want you to solve for them?
After you’ve accumulated a long list of problems you can solve, switching to a mode of convergence is important. When looking for a problem to solve, convergent thinking is about gradually narrowing down your list of opportunities until just one (or as many as you know you can juggle) remains.
Activities that can help with convergent problem identification include:
- Quantification of a problem. Use data to estimate the prevalence and impact of each problem. Common problems with low impact are generally low value. Rare problems with a high impact also tend to be low value unless you target a customer niche that experiences that problem especially often. You should prioritise common problems with a high impact above all else.
- Estimate the cost of doing nothing. How much money is your average customer wasting by ignoring this problem? How much money are they failing to make?
Always consider your confidence in your assumptions when prioritising your work. When two problems seem similar in value, lean towards the problem you’re most confident in.
Divergence, convergence, and solutions
After you’ve selected a problem to solve, it’s time to find a solution. Many teams fail to meaningfully solve customer problems because they choose ineffective solutions. Most of the time, when a team chooses an ineffective solution, it’s because they went with the most exciting or even the first idea they came up with. They failed to employ divergent thinking.
When looking for a solution to a problem, divergent activities help you consider various potential solutions before you select a winner. Example activities include:
- Silent brainstorms. Teams often brainstorm ideas out loud and in groups. This approach means dominant voices call the shots. If you brainstorm silently and individually (or in small groups), you give each person and each idea time for consideration. Some of the best ideas come from the quietest people.
- Low-fidelity solution sketching. If you outline ideas in too much detail, each potential solution requires a significant investment to explore. This biases teams against solution divergence. Low-fidelity sketching, like wireframes or literal paper/whiteboard sketches, is cheap and easy to produce, encouraging you to explore many ideas.
When looking for a solution to a problem, convergent activities help you to select the best solution for implementation. To converge on the right solution, teams need:
- A common understanding of what makes a solution great and what makes a solution poor. For many teams, this means roughly quantifying the effort required for each solution. Confidence in the required technologies or tools is another factor.
- Always ask yourself: what is the minimum effort required to solve this problem for 80% of my customers/market?
- The best solutions can be easily broken down into discrete implementation stages, each delivering legitimate value to customers. You should consider other approaches when a solution feels too difficult to break down.
- Customer feedback gathered through wireframe/prototype demonstrations and other user experience testing.
By starting with a simple and fast-to-implement solution, you can quickly validate your assumptions around the problem and solution. Always be biased towards getting something into the market soon.
Premature and delayed convergence
Many teams fail to deliver meaningful outcomes because they converge on problems and solutions prematurely.
- If you prematurely converge on a problem, you may try to solve something that isn’t very important to your customers or market. You also neglect all of the other problems you could’ve solved instead.
- If you prematurely converge on a solution, you may develop a solution that is dramatically more complex or expensive to build than some of the pathways you failed to consider. You may also implement a solution that doesn’t even solve the problem you set out to solve.
Delayed convergence is equally as self-sabotaging.
- If you fail to converge on a problem, you may waste an extended period exploring ideas and fail to explore potential solutions. Many teams jump to a solution before fully converging on a problem. This premature convergence means different team members may have different ideas about the problem they’re trying to solve, which can harm the solution.
- Failure to converge on a solution can similarly delay value delivery. It can also result in wasted resources as teams trap themselves in an endless mode of prototyping and hedging their bets.
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