divergent and convergent thinking

When reading about creativity and creativity techniques like brainstorming, you will almost always hear about two important forms of thinking: Divergent Thinking and Convergent Thinking.

But what do these two terms mean, and how do they work together to form a creative idea?

  • Divergent thinking: The production of a large number of original ideas from a starting point (like a problem or challenge)
  • Convergent thinking: The selection of the most appropriate or valuable ideas to solve the problem or challenge

First coined by founder of the creativity research field JP Guilford in 1956 as two of his Structures of Intellect, and popularised following his research in the 1960s, divergent thinking is often used to assess how good an individual or group is in coming up with lots of ideas to a specific challenge.

You can visualise divergent thinking as a cascade of ideas, with each new thought possibly sparking new connections or possibilities from what came before it, allowing a single initial challenge trigger exponentially growing numbers of ideas from each other.

These ideas will change and evolve over time and throughout discussions, so it is common for ideas at the end to be completely different than the very first suggestion.

Hence, they diverge.

Divergent thinking is also the foundation of many methods of assessing and measuring creativity, which have been shown to have a high correlation with people’s creative potential on certain creative performance criteria especially if people can choose which test responses they think are most creative.

Divergent thinking can also be partially a conscious process, but often divergent thinking can continue to work in the subconscious during periods of incubation when you are not even aware of it.

During ideation sessions, it was even found that the simple act of telling people to “be creative” increased the quality of their divergent thinking output. So always remind your team to think creatively!

So many people think that in order to be creative, all you need to do is come up with lots of ideas (even bad ones). After all, most of the large number of ideas generated will be very rough, and require time to iterate and refine them later.

Unfortunately, these ideas are useless unless you execute on them as well.

This is where convergent thinking comes in.

If divergent thinking is all about producing quantity of ideas, then convergent thinking is about finding the quality.

It is how the brain assesses the ideas it has generated, to try and find the single best or most appropriate solution to take to the next stage.

While divergent thinking can be partially active in the subconscious, convergent thinking happens primarily in your working memory, which requires focus and effort to complete. After all, your brain is assessing and making choices.

This is why convergent thinking is often not as enjoyable as divergent thinking, sometimes even resulting in negative moods.

However, people can also experience flow if they are matching their creative challenge to their current skill level.

Think of a songwriter who is trying to write a new set of lyrics and wants to find a rhyme for hummingbird. Divergent thinking could result in options like stunning shirt / honey dirt / funny flirt / something blurred / I’ve been hurt. Then convergent thinking would compare these options against each other and the needs of the song to select the one to go with.

During convergent thinking, you do not just select from the list of ideas created during divergent thinking. You often spend this time iterating, refining those ideas, adjusting them until they really are good enough.

So the finished idea could look very different than what was originally generated during the divergent thinking phase.

Both are required for the final creative output.

In many cases, you can improve your creativity by getting into a habit of alternating between divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

In design thinking, this sequence of divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking is often called the “double diamond” approach, since each each sequence looks like a diamond.

This is how you can not only come up with your best ideas, but make sure you do something with them as well.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.