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Divergent vs. convergent thinking: how to find the right balance

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

January 19, 2022

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that in recent years researchers have delved into the science behind personality types and how they work together. One of the most popular models is Myers-Briggs, which assigns people one of 16 personality types based on their preferences for introversion or extroversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving.

According to this model, two types have quite different approaches to solving problems: divergent vs. convergent thinkers. But do you know what these distinct thinking styles mean? Do they only make sense for people who have taken Myers-Briggs, or do they apply to everyone? And how do they relate to you and your style of working?

Divergent thinking vs. convergent thinking: what’s the difference?

Convergent thinking is the process of finding concrete and familiar solutions to problems. Divergent thinking is the creative process of generating original ideas and new possibilities.

It’s fairly easy to differentiate between the two. When given a straightforward problem, a convergent thinker would search for one effective solution. A divergent thinker, on the other hand, might come up with multiple solutions or simply say, ‘I don’t know.’ And although this may seem like an oversimplification of how we think, extensive testing has uncovered these same patterns repeatedly.

Take a look at the picture below. Based on what you see, would you say the man is happy or sad?

Man in black suit standing in front of white wall
Image Source

If you believe the man is probably happy because he’s smiling, that’s an example of convergent thinking. You looked at whatever information was available and came up with one logical, straightforward solution.

If you looked at this picture and thought, ‘It depends,’ that’s an example of divergent thinking. The man could be happy, or he could be smiling because people expect you to smile when taking a picture. The man is wearing professional clothing, so he might be projecting a positive attitude because he’s taking a business photo. There’s not enough information to know whether the man is happy. A divergent thinker is more likely to acknowledge the possibility that there are multiple answers or none at all.

Divergent vs. convergent thinking: which is best?

Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. People who think divergently add color to an organization and encourage creative solutions by looking at things differently. In contrast, convergent thinkers tend to look at the details methodically and consider appropriate action. When it comes to solving problems, the trick is to find a balance.

Convergent thinking increases performance speed. It helps to narrow problems down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Efficiency is especially important when you’re under pressure and deadlines are involved; it can prevent decision overload.

Divergent thinking increases flexibility in how you approach problems. Looking at a problem from many angles gets your mind working in full gear. It helps you consider all possible options (even if they seem completely unlikely). Divergence also encourages flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking. And because the thought process is less limited, it produces stronger creative concepts than convergent thinking would on its own.

Why you need both types of thinking

When you consider more scenarios and perspectives, you’re more likely to develop innovative concepts with greater differentiation. And in the business world, strong concepts can withstand common pitfalls that normally weaken an idea before development begins.

Divergence is important when we need to adapt and find new paths, but it slows down the process of finding a solution. One style isn’t better than the other, but each is better suited to certain situations. So ideally, when faced with a problem, you’d harness both at different times divergent thinking for creativity and convergent thinking for efficiency.

To summarize:

  • Divergence and convergence are essentially flexible and focused types of thinking.
  • Flexible thinking (divergence) is better suited for creative problem-solving, while focused thinking (convergence) is better suited for executing plans.
  • Divergent and convergent thinking should ideally both be used, but at different times.

The downsides of divergent thinking

Divergent thinking has a major drawback: it can lead to a lack of organization. While our brains are hardwired to make connections between ideas and explore multiple possibilities within the same thought process, this creative thinking requires a little more organization to be effective.

Many people who try solving a problem through divergent thinking find themselves overwhelmed by all the options on the table. They end up splitting their focus in too many directions, which leads them to fail when it comes to finding an answer.

Fortunately, convergent thinking can help us take what we learn from divergent thinking and turn loose ideas into structured, feasible plans. Convergent thinking is also called “critical” or “rational” thinking because we use facts and logic to decide what’s correct and incorrect.

When do you use each?

Different types of projects call for different forms of creative problem-solving skills. So, in most cases, you won’t use either thought process exclusively. Rather, it’s usually necessary to combine both convergent and divergent thinking at different points in the creative process.

Convergent thinking involves narrowing down options until you find a single answer. For instance, when brainstorming new projects, it’s good to start with many ideas and consider different possibilities. Convergent thinking would help you apply criteria and sort through ideas to find the most workable solutions.

To find balance in your creative problem-solving efforts, start with divergent thinking before you move into convergent thinking. Working in this order gives you a better sense of what’s possible and keeps the creative juices flowing before you impose focus and structure.

Bringing divergent and convergent thinking together

While they each have their pros and cons, sometimes, one style will work better than the other, depending on you’re particular project. However, if you can leverage both types of thinking at once, your opportunities for creative problem-solving will only grow exponentially.

Here’s how:

  1. First, start with divergent thinking. Look at all of your potential choices and brainstorm as many ideas as possible. Try to look at the problem or concept from multiple angles. For instance, if you’re brainstorming product or feature ideas, try to adopt the perspectives of different target users.
  2. Then, switch to convergent thinking. Think about the pros and cons of each option, analyzing them in-depth. Try to develop a consistent method of comparing your options. This will help you decide which ideas have better potential than others.

Once you’ve done this for all possible choices, you’ll have a clear winner! You could also start with your best idea and examine it thoroughly to see where it leads you. If it’s not the perfect solution, continue along until you get there or are left with no other options.

How to be a more divergent thinker

Divergent thinking is a valuable skill, and it’s worthwhile to foster this mentality amongst your team. Here’s how to channel your inner creative genius.

1. Change the way you look at things

There’s a little trick you can use to get into divergent thinking, and it starts with the environment around you. By removing things that could influence your interpretation of an object, you’ll be able to see it in a new light.

Try this for yourself. Think of something simple like a chair. By taking away all the details and focusing only on the object out of context, you will engage your mind in divergent thinking mode. With nothing else to trigger thoughts or memories other than pure perception, your brain will immediately search for possibilities about how this chair looks, works, and what else it could do.

For example, when you look at that chair in your mind’s eye, think about how it could be used. It can be used in an office as a seat in front of the desk or between tables during a dinner party. But that’s not all! You can use it in unconventional ways, like hanging it on the wall and using it to display favorite books, photos, paintings, and even potted plants. You can also use two chairs to create an instant bench or coffee table. The possibilities are endless!

When you employ divergent thinking, you can explore more outcomes and look at a familiar concept with fresh eyes. That’s why artists, designers, and architects — pretty much everyone who has to solve a problem creatively — favor divergent thinking.

2. Give brainstorming a try

Give brainstorming a try to flex your creative muscles and generate a larger list of potential solutions.

Convergent thinking represents a deliberate attempt to find the single best solution within clearly defined boundaries. Scientists, bookkeepers, and mathematicians often favor this type of thinking. In many fields, it’s necessary to follow structured systems and logical conclusions that can be recreated and theoretically proven.

But what if the problem is more nuanced, or there are many solutions?

Resist the habit of defining the boundaries as “right” or “wrong.” Instead, approach a problem with a “what if” mentality, and play out multiple scenarios in your mind. Then, you can turn continuous brainstorming into a process for driving innovation.

Divergent thinking rewards quantity over quality, generating dozens of ideas that may differ from each other. The best solution may not be obvious right away, but with enough divergent thinking, you’ll have more options to choose from. And that’s when convergent thinking comes in: the filtering process.

When you balance divergent vs. convergent thinking, you remove the limits on your creativity while using discernment to make meaningful progress. People who are imaginative and innovative typically use these two types of thinking symbiotically. They follow one mode of thinking as far as possible and naturally switch to the other to regulate their progress.

3. Give yourself more time

Speed can be very helpful in divergent thinking, but if ideas are thrown out at the speed of light, they may lack depth and variety. So, where possible, give yourself time.

If you’re working within a deadline, there are some techniques to help you use your time more efficiently.

  • Timeboxing: give yourself a window to focus on the task, and try not to exceed the limit. If you exceed the limit, keep it to 10 minutes or less.
  • Take breaks: get up and stretch every so often. That way, your thoughts can flow more easily. If you’re stuck, walk away for a bit and come back with fresh eyes. Remember, a break may eat into your time, but not taking one could burn you out and hamper creativity. Plus, your brain tends to be more creative while relaxed, so a quick nap might be better for the cause than sitting at a desk.
  • Give yourself space: work in an environment with nothing to distract you — no TV, music, or people talking nearby (unless necessary). It might be helpful to use white noise apps.

4. Take risks and be curious

Risks don’t always pay off, but they always teach us something. So, don’t hold back on trying new things, even if it seems like they won’t work out. You never know until you try!

On the other hand, don’t leave everything to chance. Decide beforehand what’s worth exploring based on whether it’s relevant to the problem. Also, consider the likelihood that the solution will work. If there are 10 options and only eight have a good chance of working, prioritize how you tackle them.

Top tip: Be curious! Look for opportunities around you every day, and get into the habit of brainstorming. You never know what opportunity might be right around the corner. If you’re an ‘idea person,’ don’t get stuck in a rut by dismissing others and only considering your ideas. If you can step back and assess other suggestions with genuine curiosity, you’ll come away with better insights.

5. Use collaboration tools

Collaboration tools such as project management software, chat apps, and diagramming tools won’t magically make you a divergent thinker. However, they will make it much easier to communicate and collaborate with other people online. Not all brainstorming sessions happen in person.

Reaching out to others for help and feedback will also be more convenient. Share work and save time by letting the software do the heavy lifting regarding organization and time management.

Become more of a divergent thinker with these handy tips

When you don’t know what to do, make something up!

There are no right or wrong answers, so don’t be afraid to go for it. You might end up with an idea that’s way better than the one you originally planned to pursue. And if nothing else, you’re now getting some experience taking action instead of just planning all day.

Spend time asking questions

The world is full of facts, but great ideas come from asking good questions — not memorizing facts and regurgitating them back at people. So, instead of spending too much time absorbing information on a topic, stop and take a moment to think deeply. Ask questions that open up the conversation, and don’t be afraid to explore the unknown.

Connect everything you know

The more connections you can draw between different facts or ideas, the better your chance of coming up with something creative. Just because one idea is true and logical, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other perspectives that are just as accurate and valid.

And if two ideas are related, what other conclusions can you draw about them? Can you think of any less obvious associations? Try taking what appears to be an unrelated concept and thinking about how it could relate to your original idea. (A spider diagram or mind map can help here).

Play games

If deep thinking isn’t working, try fooling around for a bit! Find a mindless game or puzzle online and enjoy flexing your brain on an unrelated task. Or, gather your colleagues for some team-building games. This is a great way to mentally disconnect from your work and focus on having fun. Do this for 10 minutes, and then go back to the drawing board.

Let yourself daydream

Everyone has ideas that come up while sitting around doing nothing. Yet, not everyone recognizes them as valuable creative-thinking material. The trick here is to train yourself to recognize these fleeting thoughts before they slip away. When you think of something special, immediately write it down. You might be surprised at how often you’ll strike gold this way!

Take breaks

Sometimes, the best thing you can do to solve a problem is to get away from it altogether. If frustration levels are high, permit yourself to think about something else. Then, when you’re ready, you can come back with a new perspective or solution. But even if you don’t, the mental break will help relieve stress so you can return fresh and re-energized.

Talk about it

Finally, if nothing seems to be working after all your other attempts at creativity, then it’s time to call in reinforcements. Recruit another team member — preferably someone whose creative style differs from yours — and discuss the problems together.

This is an excellent way to find additional solutions you may have missed entirely! It doesn’t have to be a big meeting. A DM via your team chat app may be all you need to spark inspiration and get your creative juices flowing.

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