The other day at work I had a client say to me, "oh, I can tell you're a divergent thinker," when discussing strategy. I had to stop myself from getting into a deeper conversation about the topic because, in reality, we're all at times divergent thinkers and at others convergent thinkers. You might be more comfortable with one thought process over the other, but I promise you use both convergent and divergent thought.
Your thinking style, these different ways of navigating creative thinking or critical thinking, are not quite the same as a personality type.
While you can take a divergent thinking test, it's not the same as a personality test like the Enneagram or the MBTI which puts you into common behavioral categories. Unlike a personality type, you can hone your divergent thinking skills and choose to use them whenever you need to approach a problem in a different way.
What is The Difference Between Divergent and Convergent Thinking?
So what are divergent thinking and convergent thinking? And what's the difference?
The idea of divergent and convergent thinking came from JP Guilford in the 1960s. In his theory of intelligence, Guilford categorized the structure of the intellect into three dimensions, the operations dimension, the content dimension, and the product dimension. The six operations of the operations dimension included divergent production and convergent production.
In essence, divergent thinking is coming up with multiple ideas to solve a problem without focusing on the right answer.
Convergent thinking is coming up with a single solution, one correct answer to solve a problem. Generally, this is done by following a set of rules to form a single idea as a solution. What are some examples of divergent thinking?
Why is Divergent Thinking Important?
Divergent Thinking and Creativity
Guilford noticed that creative types were much more prone to divergent thinking so he began associating it with creative thinking. He wasn't wrong. If you have ever been a part of a brainstorming session, you have probably been a part of the divergent thinking process.
Brainstorming is a great divergent thinking example because, typically during a brainstorming session, a team attempts to find innovative solutions by throwing out as many ideas as possible without judgment. Each new idea is a potential solution to build off of.
Coming up with multiple solutions to a given problem creates creative problem-solving. The most important part of this creative process is that each creative idea is looked at without judgment. I wrote about suspending judgment in relation to improv and how it increases creativity and innovation through better communication. It's no different here.
Divergent thinking in ideation
In my line of work as a project manager for a digital marketing firm, when we do website design we use divergent thinking in the ideation portion of the design thinking process. If you don't know the design thinking process, it is as follows:
- Empathize - this involves researching the needs of your user so you can understand them and meet them.
- Define - This is the problem statement.
- Ideate - Come up with novel ideas, different ideas, and any possible solution to your user's problem, again without judgment.
- Prototype - use that innovative thinking to start creating solutions.
- Test - Think of this as innovation management. This is where you take all of that creativity and test it out, narrow it down, and find a solution.
The ideation step is similar to brainstorming. The goal is to come up with multiple ideas instead of a single solution. In this step, you are shooting for novelty over relevance. Novel ideas tend to make us think outside the box and can lead to lateral thinking which tends to be more creative than linear thinking.
Divergent and convergent questions
Coming up with novel ideas can be as simple as what kind of questions you ask. Divergent questions are open-ended and require you to synthesize an answer by piecing information together.
A convergent thinker will ask closed-ended questions, convergent questions. Convergent thought isn't interested in exploration, only the correct answer.
Striking a Balance Between Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Ideally, coming up with a creative idea uses a combination of divergent thought and convergent thought. Using rounds of divergent and convergent thinking to pare down ideas will help you arrive at the right answer to your problem.
Next time you need a new idea do this: get your team together for a brainstorming session. Come up with as many ideas as possible, and make sure everyone is involved. Diversity of thought is extremely important for creativity. Accept the ideas without judgment and come up with as many as possible.
Right now you are a divergent thinker.
Once you have a long list of ideas, now switch to being a convergent thinker. In this round, you narrow down the ideas, perhaps by combining them, weeding out ideas that won't work, or building upon them. Hopefully, you have a list of more specific ideas to work with. Repeat this process of brainstorming based on the ideas in front of you. Once you've built some more branches, pare it down again.
I'm confident that not only will you find this process more rewarding, but you'll also find it a lot more fun as well. This process of yes, anding your teammate's ideas will undoubtedly lead you to the best ones. Harvard University instructor, Anne Manning, touches on this idea here.
Regardless of your industry, if you're intentional about how you use divergent and convergent thinking, it will help with your professional development. It can help you better lead your team and give you a system for critical thinking, design thinking, and innovative thinking. No matter what you think your dominant thinking style is, you can develop your divergent thinking skills to better solve a given problem.