Thinking Divergently: What It Is and How to Implement It
Updated 26 July 2023
Divergent thinking is a thought process or method that generates creative ideas by exploring potential solutions to address a challenge. This way of thinking can help increase creativity and innovation in problem-solving. Understanding how this thinking strategy works can also help you successfully implement it at work. In this article, we define divergent thinking, discuss how to implement it in your life and outline how it differs from convergent thinking.
What is thinking divergently?
Thinking divergently is an unstructured, free-form way of problem-solving in which participants produce many innovative ideas or solutions to a pressing problem. It typically occurs in a non-linear manner, where you can generate many ideas in a cognitive way, explore as many possible solutions in a short period and draw unexpected solutions. Divergent thinkers possess qualities such as curiosity, independence and risk-taking. Divergent thinkers can:
think of ideas most people might not
work collaboratively with others on unique challenges
produce many ideas quickly and spontaneously
implement better solutions
use feedback to improve methodologies and ideas
find multiple ways to solve a problem
develop and improve their ideas
How to implement a divergent thought process
Divergent thinking examines a problem through creative thinking. Using this thinking process, you can try to solve a question or challenge by asking, 'What if I tried it this way?' instead of settling for a basic yes or no answer. It explores different possibilities by looking at various aspects of a situation. Here are ways you can use this thought process at work:
1. Hosting deliberation sessions
This technique builds upon ideas. One idea generates another, which then causes another, and this goes on until a list of random thoughts compiles in a creative, unstructured manner. If you're deliberating ideas in a group atmosphere, allow everyone to think more freely without pursuing a practical solution. Gather ideas that have the slightest relevance to the problem. Record all thoughts without criticising any. This can lead to thinking outside the normal realm of business applications and potentially create unique, viable solutions to problems.
2. Learning how to think and meditate
Explore the ways you can learn and then create new patterns. Make those ideas more theoretical by determining how you can connect them to your life experiences and what you've learnt from experiments you conducted in the past. Think about these ideas after finishing and add more ways you can improve them.
Related: Creative Skills in the Workplace
3. Practising free writing
Free writing is writing about one topic without stopping for a certain period. The purpose of this is to take a case and then come up with several thoughts about it within a short time. Focus on one topic and write about everything that comes to mind related to the topic. Don't worry about punctuation or grammar to allow a free flow of ideas. You can correct, organise and revise your content later.
4. Keeping a daily journal of ideas
Any time you have an idea, consider writing it in an idea journal to promote creative thinking and the exploration of different points of view. Using a journal enables you to record the spontaneous ideas that you get during unusual times and places. Assign one member of the analysis team to pen down those ideas. Later on, you can use the journal as a sourcebook of thoughts and you can host a session where you share these ideas.
5. Creating a subject- or mind-mapping visual
Subject mapping is a type of planning method that organises a group of ideas visually, so you can identify their relationships. It's a standard for the representation and interchange of knowledge, emphasising the accessibility of information. Making ideas more visual can also help other people easily understand your concepts. A subject map represents ideas using the following:
Topics: These represent any concept from people, events, countries and organisations to individual files or software modules.
Associations: These represent the relationships between the topics using a graphical representation of ideas.
Occurrences: These represent information resources relevant to a particular topic.
6. Completing group activities
Working with others lets you share your ideas and analyse problems from different perspectives. Complete activities that require the input and collaboration of everyone in your group, such as 30 ideas in five or 10 minutes. The more people who participate, the more ideas you can draw from. In a group situation, you can attempt tasks that an individual can't accomplish, combining a variety of skills and expertise to tackle more complex and large-scale problems. There are many benefits from analysing, discussing and exploring your ideas and questions and gaining feedback from your team members.
Role-playing allows you to assume a person's role or act out a situation. This engages you in real-life situations or problematic scenarios and helps you find solutions uniquely. You can role-play some ideas with your team members to test the efficacy of those ideas and enhance interactions as a team.
8. Using collaboration tools
Collaboration is among the core concepts in divergent thinking. One way to practise collaboration is by using collaboration tools like documentation, communication and project management tools to encourage frequent communication and support the exchange of ideas between team members. These tools can help enhance communication and simplify managing more extensive and complex projects.
9. Asking What if questions
What if questions open new views on a current challenge. They allow you to look at an existing problem from a different angle. For example, What if we swapped X and Y? asks about what might happen if you try different methods and then listen to each team member's response.
10. Using work management software
Work management is an approach to organising routine tasks, projects and processes to provide clarity to your team, so they can reach their goals faster. This software allows you to share ideas and feedback and collaborate with others on projects. Keeping your projects online allows your team to work together regardless of whether they work remotely or in the office.
Divergent thinking vs convergent thinking
Divergent and convergent thinking are opposite thought processes. Divergent thinking concentrates on generating many alternative responses, including original, unusual or unexpected ideas. In contrast, convergent thinking involves finding only the single correct answer, conventional to a well-defined problem. It examines many facts or opinions for their logical validity or it may follow a set of rules.
Convergent and divergent thinkers often work well together because one person produces creative ideas, and the other gives them structure and context. Despite the contrasting nature of these thought processes, teams often use them together to achieve better results. They gather ideas and then use convergent thinking to choose the best idea or organise those ideas into a specific outcome. Below are key differences between divergent thinking and convergent thinking:
Priority: Divergent thinking prioritises the number of ideas, while convergent thinking prioritises the quality of ideas.
Number of solutions: Divergent thinking finds possible solutions to a problem, while convergent thinking finds one that works.
Features: Divergent thinking is nonlinear, open and spontaneous, while convergent thinking is accurate and critical.
Structure: Divergent thinking involves spontaneous analysis, while convergent thinking involves structured and organised ideas.
Purpose: Divergent thinking finds new solutions to problems that may already contain accepted solutions, while convergent thinking uses accepted methods and existing information to solve a problem.
Precision: Divergent thinking isn't always able to pinpoint the correct answer, while convergent thinking finds precisely what the circumstances demand in various situations.
Requirements: Divergent thinking requires significant creativity and imagination, while thinking convergently requires logic.
Brain usage: Divergent thoughts mainly use the creative right side of the brain, while convergent views primarily use the rational left side of the brain.
Criticism: Divergent thoughts don't involve criticism or judgement, while convergent views use analysis to choose a solution.
Period: Divergent thinking produces ideas over a short period, while convergent thinking might take as much time as required to reach a result.
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