Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Divergent and Convergent ThinkingHow can we become more creative? Let’s start by thinking about our thinking.

Most organizations want to become more agile. Leaders talk about the need for innovation and entrepreneurial activity. Meanwhile employees bemoan the difficulties of getting things changed, of getting new ideas approved and implemented. How can we overcome these roadblocks?

Let’s start by considering how we think at work and in particular by contrasting two styles of thinking – divergent and convergent. When we use divergent thinking we can imagine any possibility, head off in any direction and deliberately diverge from the conventional.  Criticism and judgment are temporarily suspended while we explore possibilities. When we use convergent thinking we are trying to narrow down options to one or more preferred choices. We use analysis, criticism, logic, argument and reasoning to arrive at a selection. We eliminate less attractive possibilities in order to choose a way forward.

The two styles of thinking are very powerful when used sequentially but much less so when they are mixed. An effective brainstorm or ideation meeting consists of two phases. In the first phase we use divergent thinking to go beyond reason and to generate many ideas; no criticism is allowed. We build on the ideas of others and run with outrageous notions just to see where they lead. In the second phase we use convergent thinking to evaluate the ideas against agreed criteria in order to select the best options to action. This combination works well. But if we allow convergent thinking to mix with divergent thinking then new ideas will often be strangled at birth. It is easy to find fault with partly formed notions so they are quickly eliminated and only safe options remain.

Which kind of thinking is used more often at your place of work? I suspect that nearly all your meetings are dominated by convergent thinking. People naturally tend to be analytical and judgmental. The challenge is how to foster and allow divergent thinking. If you float an outlandish idea in a meeting there is a good chance that you will be ridiculed for your efforts.

The answer is to structure the meeting in such a way that for a period divergent thinking is not just allowed, it is compulsory. You could start by defining the topic and the general business constraints that apply. Then the meeting leader sets a period of say 15 minutes during which only divergent thinking is allowed. You might just ask people to contribute ideas or you might use a formal brainstorm method such as similes, scamper or pass the parcel. The key thing is to stop convergent thinking and to force divergent thinking – this can be done as a type of business game with penalties for early criticism of ideas. I have been in meetings where we used water pistols to squirt people who found fault with ideas during the divergent phase. Once we have a healthy selection of creative ideas we can use a structured form of convergent thinking. We can constructively assess the proposals against our decision criteria to select and review the most promising. Then we turn the best ideas into action points.

Observe the thinking style that is used in your next meeting. If we start by acknowledging that we are using convergent thinking too soon and too often then we can put in place actions to enforce some divergent thinking in order to boost our creativity and business agility.

image credit: two heads image from bigstock

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Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, both published by Kogan-Page.

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