Divergent thinking is a thought process of generating various solutions to a problem instead of picking just one. Convergent thinking is where you find a single solution to a given problem.
How do you cut a cake into 8 pieces using three knife strokes?
Think, think, think. Spoiler ahead.
Can’t figure out the answer yet? Alright, here is a hint. If you were looking for a solution using lines on paper, think in 3d. If I placed a real cake in front of you how’d you do it?
I’m guessing you figured it out now. Don’t worry if you didn’t. Here’s the answer.
You cut once horizontally(X-axis) and vertically(Y-axis) to divide the cake into 4 equal parts. Next, you cut it cylindrically(along the Z-axis), and eureka, there you have your 8 slices.
Now that you know the answer, you can sit back in your chair and relax, right?
What if I told you that the problem had another answer? To pique your interest further, this solution doesn’t require thinking in 3D either.
All of a sudden, you’re curious again. Here is the other solution:
You cut horizontally and vertically as you did earlier to get 4 equal parts. Next, you stack the 4 slices one over the other in a pile and cut right through. Boom. 8 pieces.
You’d have a messy cake and icing all over your fingers, but hey, you’d have an out of the box solution.
If you couldn’t spot either of the methods, don’t curse yourself. The point is to highlight that a problem can have more than one obvious solution.
(Thanks to Denver Andrade for sharing the question with me)
- What is convergent thinking?
- What is divergent thinking?
- Convergent and divergent thinking examples:
- How to stimulate divergent thinking techniques:
- Challenges of divergent thinking
What is convergent thinking?
Convergent thinking involves looking at the current scenario of a problem, considering facts, and finding one solution. You keep thinking till you arrive at one answer which you know will work.
If convergent thinking was represented as an image of the brain, this is how it would look like.
You start with various pieces of information and reach one solution.
What is divergent thinking?
Divergent thinking is the process of coming up with multiple ideas which can possibly solve the problem. You try various options and evaluate which of them yields the results you desire. In this process, you let your mind run wild, draw unexpected connections and experiment with multiple creative solutions which may or may not solve the problem.
If divergent thinking was represented as an image of the brain, this is how it would look like.
You start with the problem, use the information available, and arrive at different possible solutions.
You alter the data at hand, interpret it differently, and try alternate approaches, such as:
- Identifying various permutations and combinations
- Making indirect and second level connections
- Arriving at various solutions some of which are unusual, some of which are questioned, and some of which are even laughed at
Convergent and divergent thinking examples:
Here are various scenarios which highlight the differences between convergent and divergent thinking.
When a plan is presented:
A person with convergent thinking says, “OK I will follow the plan to the last dot and get every aspect right.” A divergent thinker will question the plan and suggest alternatives too.
When the furniture has to be rearranged:
A convergent thinker will start from the limitations and think of options considering the restrictions. A divergent thinker will think of the outcome first and then consider ways to implement the solutions.
When a team member is underperforming:
A leader with a convergent mindset will consider a poor performer lazy or uninterested and go the usual route of handing out a bad appraisal rating and initiating the performance improvement plan.
A leader with a divergent mindset will talk to the team member to understand the reasons for poor performance. He considers different solutions such as offering better incentives or changing roles before opting for the traditional answer.
When the business is failing:
A leader with convergent thinking looks at one option which can revive the business and puts his heart and soul on that path. A leader with divergent thinking comes up with different possible options to salvage the business. He tries them in parts and evaluates which one yields the best results.
How to stimulate divergent thinking techniques:
Doesn’t it look like divergent thinking is an attribute a person is born with? Good news – that’s not true. Though some people are naturally inclined to consider more than one solution, like most other skills you can learn to learn the art of divergent thinking. Look at it like sales skills. A few people have the knack of convincing people due to their personality, while the rest can learn the techniques. One way or the other, your inherent skills don’t limit you from thinking divergently.
Here are a few tips to achieve divergent thinking:
As per the dictionary definition, brainstorming is a method where a group comes up with different ideas to solve a problem or agree on a decision. When more than one person gathers in a room, each of them brings in his or her own personality, perspective, and rationale. As a group activity, you’ll amass different solutions because each of them thinks differently.
But does brainstorming apply to groups alone? Traditionally – yes, technically – no. You can brainstorm ideas alone by setting aside time to think. For example, if you have a problem at hand, give yourself 30 minutes to do nothing other than finding different solutions. You’ll surprise yourself.
Unfortunately, most people think only until they arrive at one answer. The moment they do, they stop thinking and proceed to execute the idea. Instead, let your mind run wild for a while and you’ll see the difference yourself.
2. Use mindmaps
Mindmaps are a thinking technique where you start with the core concept and branch out to various related areas. Such an approach helps you avoid conventional thinking and encourages your brain to think laterally than linearly.
Using mindmaps is no rocket science because all they require is common sense. When you use them, you’ll think from a new angle where one thing leads to another. Soon enough, you’ll have multiple pieces of information which you can use to gather alternate solutions to the problem.
Related article: A beginner’s guide to get started with mindmaps
Freewriting is another technique similar to mindmaps and brainstorming. In this method, you set aside a fixed time, say 20 min and get going with an idea. Once you begin, you note down any related area that comes to your mind whether it is a possible solution or a random statistic.
Don’t worry if the information is useful or whether the solution is implementable. Use the entire 20 minutes to pin your thoughts down without pausing to process any of them.
When the duration comes to an end, collate all your thoughts and look at them again. Evaluate what’s useful and viable and discard the rest. You’ll gain insights which you’d otherwise fail to notice.
Related article: How to use time blocking and get things done
4. Note down ideas
Your brain functions from the time you’re born until your last breath. It’s always at work, even when you’re fast asleep snoring like a truck moving up a slope.
Has it happened to you that you had an interesting idea, but an hour later, you can no longer recall it even if you dug deep into your memory? It has happened to me countless times. Over the years, I learned the necessity to write important ideas immediately, because memory is unreliable.
If you don’t make a habit of writing down your important thoughts as soon as they occur, you’re certain to forget some of them.
There is no bigger lie we tell ourselves than “I don’t need to write it down, I’ll remember it”.
Noting down your thoughts is one way to encourage divergent thinking.Yes, divergent speaks about picking a problem to find a solution, but your brain comes up with powerful ideas at random. For example:
- A step to help you achieve your long term goal
- A business idea that you can implement
- A concept to write a book on
- A technique to improve an area of your expertise
These are instances of your brain’s divergent thinking ability. All you need to do is capture the ideas before you forget them forever.
Back in the day, successful people used to carry a small notepad and a pen on them at all times. Today, you don’t need to take that trouble. You can pull your phone out and type it then and there. Plain and simple.
5. Get enough sleep
Psychologists have measured the effect of sleep deprivation on divergent thinking. Though the research is only preliminary, it offered valuable insights.
J.A. Horne conducted an experiment where two groups of people were put through different sleep routines to check how it affected their thinking. The first group of 12 people were sleep deprived for 32 hours, whereas the second maintained their usual sleep routine. The subjects were later tested on a word fluency task and a difficult planning project. Though both sets of people were well-motivated, the sleep-deprived group performed worse than those who had enough rest.
Even without the research, you’d already know how the day after a poor night’s sleep feels like. It feels no different than the hangover after chugging a case of beer and downing a few tequilas before passing out.
When you’re short on sleep, let alone divergent thinking, you’d struggle to think straight in the first place. Therefore, if you want your brain to perform at its best, provide it a good night’s rest.
Related article: Tips to get good sleep
6. Bubble mapping
Bubble maps are similar to mind maps, but the size of the bubble is used to indicate how strongly one area contributes to the core idea. You can use colors for segregating concepts too.
The traditional purpose of bubble maps is to visualize the data you have, but you can tweak them as per your need. That’s divergent thinking in itself.
- If you want to earn a promotion, you can create a bubble map to indicate which factors contribute the most and begin with them.
- If you want to score higher marks on a test, you can map out the chapters that are most important and learn them first
- You can use bubble maps to plan any of your small/mid-term projects.
7. Encourage numbers
Numbers and statistics provide you insights that your gut cannot. Yet, somehow the world has a notion that successful people operate purely by instinct. Newsflash – they don’t.
Today, every successful business you know relies extensively on data. The more you rely on your gut feeling, the higher your chances of falling victim to confirmation bias.
Irrespective of what your goal is, you can find a way to measure it. “But I’m terrible with numbers. I hate them”, you argue. The good news is you don’t need to be a statistician to start using numbers and figures. Simple commonsense does the job. Use straightforward logic to begin and improvise.
- Do you want to change your job? Make a 3-month plan to achieve it. At the end of every week, evaluate if you’re still on track.
- Do you want to have 10 million dollars when you retire? Use compound interest and figure out how much do you have to save each month. The calculation is far easier than you think.
- Do you want to travel around the world for 6 months with a backpack? Estimate the expenses you’ll incur and how you can amass the money.
Pay attention to what your heart tells you as long as you don’t ignore what the numbers tell you.
Related article: How to use measurement to progress towards your goals
Challenges of divergent thinking
From the article so far, divergent thinking seems like a superpower to aim for but it comes with its own challenges. If you are a divergent thinker or aiming to be one, here are the problems you might encounter.
1. Too many ideas, but no implementation
Every time you come up with an idea, your brain receives a dopamine rush invoking a feeling of contentment and achievement which can become addictive. Unless your ideas lead to action, you’re only wasting time putting them together.
2. Indecision to implement any solution
If you make divergent thinking your primary focus, you will find yourself consumed by the process of generating ideas. When you have way too many ideas, you undergo decision paralysis on which one to pursue first. Your indecision to pick any of the solutions can prevent you from solving the problem you began with.
3. Ego of “my own solution”
When you’re practicing divergent thinking as a group, different people will come up with different ideas. As human beings, we all love our own ideas. In a team setting, such an attitude can hurt the outcome and the group dynamics, if the team members are keen to pursue their own idea.
Some might feel offended when their idea isn’t accepted while some others might show half-baked interest in implementing a different person’s idea.
Divergent thinking is like red wine. It works in your favor when you practice moderation and produces negative consequences when in excess.
If you’re a convergent thinker, you’ll benefit from learning a few techniques that widen your horizon and encourage your brain to think divergently. But make sure you don’t take it too far. Keep in mind that whichever form of thinking you choose, don’t ignore the purpose you began with – finding a solution to your problem.
Though having multiple ideas appears appealing, there is nothing wrong with coming up with one solution which works. In some cases, that is the right approach to follow.
Therefore, don’t make it a goal to become a divergent thinker. Aim to become a better problem solver by improving your critical thinking skills and make divergent thinking one of the many weapons in your arsenal that assist you in your quest.
JA;, H. (n.d.). Sleep loss and “divergent” thinking ability. Sleep. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3238256/.
Khatri, Puja & Dutta, Sumedha. (2018). Divergent Thinking- It’s Time to Change the Box!.
Abbasi K. (2011). A riot of divergent thinking. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 104(10), 391. https://doi.org/10.1258/jrsm.2011.11k038
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.