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Divergent and Convergent Thinking in Creative Environments

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Phil Charron Executive Vice President October 26, 2011

Divergent and convergent thinking are two complementary methods to explore ideas, work towards goals, and address challenges. In the design world—where we’re constantly employing design thinking in our work—both approaches are necessary and lead to unique solutions for challenges that require exploration and creativity.

Divergent and convergent thinking are both methods of thinking that are so deeply integrated into what we do, we often don’t stop to think about the theories behind them. We often rail against tired concepts in our industry like “think outside the box,” yet we still try to capture what that phrase meant before it became a cliché. It’s good to go back to the basics once in a while.

What is Divergent Thinking?

Divergent thinking is taking a challenge and attempting to identify all the possible drivers of that challenge, then listing all of the ways those drivers can be addressed.

Divergent thinking typically happens in open, free-flowing, spontaneous environments where multiple creative ideas can be shared and considered. Typically, this means that everyone involved in this type of thinking will look for unexpected combinations and connections between remote associations. Divergent thinking sparks creativity specifically because of its spontaneous, non-linear nature.

When setting up a divergent thinking exercise, participants need to know that all ideas are valid. It’s also important to ensure that all participants can contribute equally—not just the most vocal. I often recommend using methods such as the first few steps of nominal group technique to ensure all voices are heard.

In practice, divergent thinking is often associated with brainstorming or free writing—but it’s more than that. You need to do a small amount of analysis so that you don’t put too many tools in your Swiss army knife, but you shouldn’t hamstring yourself with too many constraints, either.

Divergent Thinking Examples

Designers practice divergent thinking in a few ways. We use divergent thinking in the initial stages of ideation on a project or task—when we have a challenge to solve and we need to brainstorm or iterate on creative solutions. We’ll also employ divergent thinking in the process of thinking through, at a high level, how to help make a client’s website, app, or digital tool more competitive or innovative in the market. Divergent thinking can also be used after you have synthesized research data during discovery or validation phases of your work.

One great example of divergent thinking in action is in the early days of Twitter. Twitter took a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach to their application. They created an online service without a clear practical application or market, launched it to see how people would use it, then refined it. This doesn’t mean that launching something and then figuring out what the market is for it is a bullet-proof strategy. In Twitter’s case, it worked. In most cases, it doesn’t. You just don’t hear about the failures.

At Think Company, we employ divergent thinking throughout our project work. In the initial stages of a project, the team will use divergent techniques to explore concepts with stakeholders and potential target audience members. In the midst of a project, our software engineers may use the same techniques to tackle technology challenges with designers. When projects wrap up, retrospectives always start with open-ended, exploratory sessions on what worked, what could be improved, and what worked so well that we need to operationalize it for future projects.

What is Convergent Thinking?

Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is known as the practice of selecting the optimal solution from a finite set of ideas collected from different sources in order to solve a discrete challenge quickly and efficiently.

Convergent thinking is best practiced at times when you need an answer and you believe you have access to the data and information you need to guide a decision or solution. Convergent thinking typically calls for speed, accuracy, and knowledge on a subject, so it’s best used when the team has access to experts and relevant data. The team will analyze and bring that information together into an educated decision.

Convergent Thinking Examples

There are many examples of convergent thinking that demonstrate the necessity of this technique, including in our own industry. We’re often asked questions by clients that have one, clear answer—and we know that because our team has spent years accumulating design and technology knowledge on specific types of problems, goals, and decisions. Also, as an evidence-based company, gathering user and customer feedback often helps point us to very clear design solutions.

Consider, also, that scene in Apollo 13 where the astronauts are trying to generate enough power to get the capsule back to Earth. The chief orders his team to make the capsule simulator “cold and dark,” and create “the exact same conditions they’ve got”—right down to the readings on all of the instrument panels. One of his engineers says “I need a flashlight,” and the response is, “That’s not what they have up there. Don’t give me anything they don’t have on board.” The challenge is discrete and the solutions are limited to the constraints of a hard reality.

At Think Company, convergent design exercises often occur after we have collected evidence on the subject at hand. In the wake of technology discovery, design validation, or usability studies, our experts are able to process the data collected along with concepts developed during divergent exercises, to select the most effective path forward.

Is Divergent Thinking Better Than Convergent Thinking?

The quick answer is that neither divergent thinking nor convergent thinking is better than the other. Both methods of thinking are important and necessary for creative work, and for work that requires building solutions for complex problems.

The challenge in the context of design thinking comes in framing the problems correctly if you want a specific result. Frame it one way, and you may be leading the group to spend two months brainstorming when all you needed was a hammer four weeks ago. Frame it the other way, and you could end up with a team chasing every problem with the same old hammer while your competition invented the screwdriver.

Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking

Here’s an example of the same problem framed for divergent and convergent thinking:

Divergent Example

I live four miles from work. My car gets 30 MPG. I want to use less fuel in my commute for financial and conservation reasons. Money is no object. What options do I have to reduce my fuel consumption?

Convergent Example

I live four miles from work. My car gets 30 MPG. I want to use less fuel in my commute for financial and conservation reasons. Money is no object. Find the three best replacement vehicles for my car.

The Difference

The problem is the same, but the questions change slightly. The convergent example asks for a vehicle, whereas the divergent example doesn’t rule out options like moving closer to work, telecommuting, walking, carpooling, or taking public transportation.

Both examples will produce valuable results. The convergent example may be driven by other issues. Perhaps my current car was totaled and I only have a weekend to solve the problem. The divergent example may take more time to investigate, but you may discover an option that is completely different from what the user has asked you to do. As designers, we need to use both methods of thinking to best serve our clients.

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Embracing Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Since we have a clear idea of how each method of thinking works, part of our job is to determine which one best suits clients and project goals during the many phases of our work. We have learned to embrace these thinking styles in a number of ways, including:

  • Collaborative Think sessions with clients focused on design thinking, ideation, and brainstorming
  • Technology discovery work to identify internal experts and gather knowledge on platforms and process
  • Regular sprint reviews and other project rituals to review, synthesize, and ideate around research findings
  • Ongoing internal collaboration with different departments to bring in subject matter experts
  • Design validation and usability studies to collect evidence for convergent exercises
  • Retrospectives focused on continuous improvement and knowledge sharing
  • Ideation challenges for teams to keep creative work fun and innovative

Finally, the most important element of embracing divergent and convergent thinking techniques is getting support from leadership during divergent and convergent thinking exercises. Stakeholder buy-in is easier to accomplish when you are clear about the purpose and goals of an exercise. Giving an organizational leader a heads up that tomorrow’s exercise will be about generating ideas, and that her participation and support is critical to a successful session, can make or break the exercise.

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