Engineering work demands creativity and innovation in order to solve complex, interdisciplinary problems. But creativity and innovation skills are not emphasized in many traditional engineering courses. So engineers enter the workforce with important analysis skills, but may struggle to “think outside the box” when it comes to creative problem-solving. Our research shows that mindfulness can help engineers strengthen their ability to generate new ideas, leading to new ways of thinking and better solutions.
The importance of divergent thinking
In the typical technical workplace, engineers are asked to design devices, systems, or processes, which can have conflicting goals and multiple potential solutions. In general, the process for approaching these tasks is called the engineering design process. The engineering team is given or identifies a problem, defines the scope of the problem, generates many ideas for solutions, evaluates the ideas, and proposes a solution. Throughout this process, engineers engage in convergent and divergent thinking.
Convergent thinking is linear, involving going through a list of steps to get to a single correct answer. In contrast, divergent thinking is exploring different directions from an initial problem statement to generate many possible ideas. In the design process, engineers use divergent thinking when generating ideas, so they can identify a wide range of potential solutions. They use convergent thinking when evaluating ideas to determine the optimal solution.
Both types of thinking are important to finding the best final solution, but divergent thinking is particularly important for developing innovative solutions. However, divergent thinking skills are largely ignored in engineering courses, which tend to focus on a linear progression of narrow, discipline-focused technical information. This leads engineering students to become experts at working individually and applying a series of formulas and rules to structured problems with a “right” answer.
It is no surprise then that engineers struggle with divergent thinking when they enter the workforce. Fortunately, there are many techniques to help enhance divergent thinking, like brainstorming and need-finding, which rely on a common set of attitudes. During brainstorming, for example, people are asked to defer judgment and to be curious. The Stanford d.school promotes navigating ambiguity by being present in the moment and suggests to relax and reach a mode of acceptance while prototyping.
These elements of presence and curiosity are part of a fundamental human capacity called mindfulness.
How mindfulness promotes divergent thinking
Mindfulness is defined as intentionally paying attention with openness, kindness, and curiosity. Although psychologists continue to explore the exact mechanisms by which mindfulness facilitates divergent thinking, there is convincing evidence demonstrating a causal link between being mindful and being able to engage in divergent thinking.
While previous research on mindfulness and divergent thinking has focused on general populations, our research sought to explore the relationship between mindfulness, divergent thinking, and innovation, specifically among engineering students and recent engineering graduates.
We performed two studies. In the first, we looked at the impact of a 15-minute mindfulness meditation on divergent thinking performance among 92 engineering students at Stanford University. Previous studies have shown that a single meditation can improve idea generation in general student populations.