Dealing with Ambiguity: Flaring and Focusing for Creative Problem-Solving

Creativity requires divergent thinking and convergent thinking, two distinct modes that imply different behaviors — and space requirements.

When I hear coworkers say, “I’m flaring,” I know they are in experimental mode. They’re brainstorming and looking for a variety of alternatives. Someone who is flaring seeks a large number of inputs since the goal isn’t to find the single best idea as much as to look widely for possibilities no matter how far-fetched.

Conversely, if a colleague says, “I’m focusing,” she has already winnowed the set of possibilities to specific solutions and is looking for critical input. At this point, she doesn’t need more ideas but rather to assess the viability of the ones at hand. If I had held back concerns during the flaring stage, now would be the time to offer constructive criticism.

FLARING calls for divergent thinking whereby you look for the MOST solutions to a problem.

FOCUSING requires convergent thinking with the goal of finding ONE idea or a small subset of ideas that are worth further investment of time and resources to develop.

When you’re working by yourself, you still must determine whether you’re in an evaluative or a generative mode. I will help you distinguish the behaviors — and space requirements — to support the underlying work of each.

A Place for Flaring

Flaring requires stimulation. Brain science suggests that extra headspace encourages freer, more abstract thinking. That’s what researchers concluded when they put a group in a room with a ten-foot ceiling and another group in an adjacent room where the ceiling was lowered to eight feet. Participants in the high ceiling room were more likely to express themselves as feeling “free,” “creative,” “unlimited” and “unbound” than those in the lower-ceilinged room. Creativity flows when you have adequate mental and physical space. Think of such a space for flaring as a “design studio.”

It’s unlikely you can raise the ceiling, but you can trick your brain into the illusion of space and perspective. I sometimes walk in a windowed room and see the desk facing a wall. While this setup would be suitable for focusing, spaces that support flaring should have an outward focus. Orient your desk, if possible, to allow your eye to look outside the window. If your view is a brick wall, obviously the benefits diminish, but natural light and a view can open up your perspective and creativity.

If an outside view is not in the cards, you can lighten up any room easily and inexpensively by hanging a wall mirror to catch the light. If you have a window in the vicinity, try placing a mirror where it can catch and reflect the natural light. A series of small mirrors can bounce light from one area to the next. Mirrored ceilings give a room the illusion of height. Even in windowless rooms, mirrors behind light fixtures can bounce off extra light — and energy.

The best way to boost your creativity is to break up the fixed patterns your brain loves so much by exposing it to new information. When everything is exactly what you expect, your brain falls back into its usual pattern. By keeping the space dynamic, it can disrupt your thinking and allow you to connect ideas you didn’t see before.

That’s why I like surfaces that allow you to easily change what’s being displayed. Depending on the project, I will post information graphics, news articles, headlines, images and other items that provoke my thinking.

Much of our daily experience relies on the brain linking concepts that are unspoken and unseen. Your surroundings act like a universal teleprompter. Regularly changing what you see around your work area so you’re not staring at the same thing all the time allows your brain to connect ideas, actions and people in unexpected ways.

Design Tip:

One simple tool to stimulate your thinking is to create a mood board. You can begin by adding images online to a Pinterest page, but ultimately you should designate a specific physical place for flaring, where you can print out and add images to a bulletin board or a large foam core board (black works best, you can also use a tri-fold display board). Pick a wall space, where you can continuously add visuals to prompt new ideas and get re-inspired.

Mood boards can be used for any project or subject matter. If you’re a novelist, you might put together a mood board about the characters or location you’re writing about. I’ve seen mood boards with statistics, headlines from articles and inspiring images. The method is an easy and quick way to instantly transform your space into an area for flaring and inspiration.

Flaring is often associated with brainstorming or ideating–generating a large quantity and variety of ideas–from “low-hanging fruits” or delightful solutions to moonshots. But if brainstorming is about generating ideas without giving added weight to pecking order, then we must disrupt the natural seating arrangements.

Two guidelines for flaring: 1) defer judgment 2) generate a large quantity of ideas

A Place for Focusing

Let’s now turn to spaces for focusing. Think of it as your war room. Once you’ve amassed a bunch of ideas, you have to identify the few that are worth pursuing. This requires in-depth research, number crunching and the painful task of killing ideas that are not worth pursing. You have to get systematic, critical and ruthless when evaluating options.

In contrast to flaring, the vibe is on execution, not brainstorming or creative meandering. The war room mentality is one of thoroughness and critical thinking to drive projects to completion. How can your space support this work?

The answer is walls. Lots of them. Walls allow you to focus and contain your thinking to the problem at hand. Remember the studies that show high ceilings encourage creative thinking? The same research suggests that a person in a room with low ceilings can better concentrate on specifics. Similarly, walls close the mind to distractions, they aid memory and concentration. Not only that, that, a room with barriers helps the brain process and track lots of moving parts.

Another option is to create a de facto wall. Is there a freestanding bookshelf to define your space and create a barrier between you and others? Potted plants can have the same effect on the floor next to your desk or on your desk by giving you a natural shield.

Design Tip:

Don’t worry if you don’t have room for a war room. You can make one out of limited space with these three items: 1) rolling whiteboards, which can be used as partitions to make a mini room; 2) stackable chairs or foam cubes for seating; 3) rolling tables or desks.

One way to help you with this is by taking advantage of spatial memory. Knowing where the information is increases your ability to remember what content is. That’s why keeping track of your progress visually can help you track and organize your work.

Remember the oversized thermometer in the background of televised pledge drives with the red line rising with each new donation? The image allowed viewers at home to follow the influx of donations, an activity that occurs off camera through phone calls or online. We are visual animals. As a reminder of goal to be met, the thermometer creates a visual challenge that acts as an offer for viewers to help solve the problem — namely raising money for the cause.

We, humans, love to see and track progress. How can you create the same sense of progress in your setting? Even a small space can be used for showing off your progress. Tacking a post-it note on your computer with yesterday’s sales figures or setting your screen saver to reflect your progress are small-space ways to remind yourself of what you’ve accomplished towards your goal.

Showcase progress of your work. Set aside some time weekly or quarterly to capture, visualize, and show your work in a way that can speak for itself.

Design Tip:

Kanban boards are a visual tool to display workflow. A basic Kanban board can be made from a white board and sticky notes to show progress. Divide a board into columns that represent stages of the work. With squares representing key goals, events or activities, you can move them from left to right to record their movement and to coordinate their efforts with others.

Flaring and Focusing in the Same Space.

Most of us do both flaring and focusing work in the same space, i.e. your desk. Because you usually go through flaring and focusing stages multiple times throughout a project, your space should support you in these creative but opposing moments. The key is to establish ways to reset your space and brain.

If you must engage in flaring and focusing in short order, separate the activities by doing each activity separately and at least taking a pause in between the sessions. Before switching from one meeting type to another, reset the space and the mindset. Give yourself a short break. Stand up, move around and clear your mind before the next phase.

An artifact from the Stanford d.school that has gained iconic status is a gong to bring a class back to “order” after an energetic session. Similarly, you can incorporate the same technique in your space with the addition of a gong — there are mini desk versions — that will signal the end of one mode and the beginning of another. The sound is both powerful and calming and resonates throughout the space without being shrill.

Change Your Orientation.

To reset yourself at your desk, try turning your desk to suit the mode you’re in. Turn it to face outwards if you’re in flaring mode and towards the wall when you’re in focusing mode. The same thing can be done with L-shaped desks with room on two sides to work. If your desk is immoveable, move your chair from one side of the desk to the other to change your orientation.

If All Else Fails.

Resetting can be as simple as displaying signs with either “flaring” or “focusing” imprinted on them as a visual reminder of the current mode for the team. At your desk, display one or the other sign depending on whether you are avoiding distraction or welcome collaboration.

Be Intentional.

Flaring and focusing are distinct and critical states in designing thinking. Regardless of whether in a large room with multiple participants or alone at your desk, understanding which mode you’re in and how the environment can support you will give you greater clarity about how to achieve your goal.

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